Growing up we pretty much always spent Christmas in the UK – I’m a huge fan of Christmas here, plus I like to save my trips to Greece to Easter and summer (sun tanning and seafood being motivating factors…).
But we did spend a few snowy Christmas’s there when I was younger. As with many European countries, the Christmas season begins on 6 December when St Nicolas is celebrated, and ends on 6 January with the Epiphany (‘Theophania’). Going there some customs were familiar – Christmas trees, tinsel, weird tinny versions of Christmas songs dubbed in Greek – but there are a few things unique to Greek Christmas.
As well as painting small paper boats and leaving them by the door (a nod to Greece’s seafaring history), Christmas is the time of year when the Kallikantzari come out at night. These are mischievous sprites that cause havoc for the 12 days of Christmas. If you want to make sure you don’t lose anything, have an argument with your mother-in-law or break the lid to your new le creuset pot, you need to do the following:
- Put a colander or a sieve on your doorstop. The Kallikantzari are unable to count above two, so they spend the night counting each hole
- Leave a fire burning all night
- Mark your door with a black cross
- Burn some incense
The myth of the Kallikantzari isn’t unique to Greece, there are variations of it in the whole region, in particular in Anatolia where the story becomes a much darker tale about death, memory and lost loved ones. To protect ourselves, we would normally go down the burning incense route (always myrrh and frankincense).
For Christmas each year we always have a turkey and everything that comes with it – brussel sprouts and chestnuts, braised red cabbage, bread sauce, Christmas pudding…This year I’m on cooking duty and I’m religiously following Felicity Cloake’s advice and cannot wait to try out her turkey recipe using muslin cloth to get the skin all crispy. Then we have the usual mince pies, endless chocolate and overflowing bowls of slightly rotting clementines (we’re only really in it for the chocolate).
But for me, the season doesn’t begin until my mum has made ‘kourabiedes’ and ‘melomakarona’. Kourabiedes are ball-shaped almond biscuits similar to shortbread, covered in a dusting of icing sugar. They have basically the same biscuit in Iran called Qurabiya, another example of how so much of the recipes and traditions of Northern Greece are shared in the Balkans and the Middle East. But today I’m going to go through the melomakarona recipe…
Melomakarona are somewhere between a biscuit and a cake, soaked in honey, with hints of cinnamon, and stuffed and sprinkled with walnuts – classic Greek sweet flavours. This recipe is my great aunt Sophia’s who had a bawdy laugh and a couple of gold teeth and was a wonderful cook, making legendary spinach pies and dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) as well as these biscuits.
Makes around 30 biscuits – this is a lot as they’re quite big! Leaves you with enough to share out as gifts/eat until you’re sick.
for the dough:
2kg wheat flour
2tsp baking powder
1tsp baking soda
250g caster sugar
400ml olive oil
150ml fresh orange juice
Zest of one orange
for the syrup:
500g caster sugar
100g chopped walnuts
1tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Brush a couple of baking pans with olive oil.
Sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda into a bowl, twice.
In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, olive oil, orange juice, orange zest and brandy.
Combine the wet and dry ingredients.
Shape the dough into balls the size of a golf ball, lay them on the greased baking trays and press down lightly. It’s good to do this with a fork as the grooves will collect pools of honey…
Bake for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the syrup by putting the ingredients in a pan and simmering gently for five minutes.
Once the cookies are baked, place them in a bowl while they’re still warm and pour the syrup all over them. Set the bowl aside for 15 minutes.
Remove the cookies and lay them out on a tray.
Sprink with more walnuts and more cinnamon.
As well as traditional rituals we also have a few we’ve made up, such as the annual curry on Boxing Day to the ever-essential too many drinks on Christmas Eve. Whichever way you choose to consume your 7000+ calories (apparently our average intake in the UK...), I hope it’s a merry and restful day for you.