Who doesn’t dream about a white Christmas? We certainly do! Thankfully, living in Canada means that most years, our dream comes true. It is rare that December 25th rolls around without a blanket of beautiful, white, fluffy snow covering everything! If you have never made snow angels on Christmas morning, we really hope that you get to one day! Our parents grew up in Greece however, a country not known for frosty winters and snow storms. So, in their villages, the whitest and fluffiest thing they could hope for at Christmas time, were kourabiethes.
There are several ways that Greek households get ready for the Christmas holidays. When we were young
er, our family would put up our artificial Christmas tree, (which we used for probably 15 years before finally putting it to rest), and adorn it with a mishmash of ornaments. There was no colour coordination or overall theme to our lopsided tree; we used Christmas ornaments that didn’t match, gold and silver tinsel, and Christmas balls wrapped in satin thread (remember those!). And of course, there were the decorations which we made at school…and Christmas cards. Who else’s parents put the Christmas cards you received in the mail, into the tree? Charlie Brown had nothing on our Christmas tree! It was a beauty!
Of course, the tree was only one of our Christmas traditions. We were constantly told to eat all our supper in order to ensure that Saint Nicholas (Άγιος Βασίλης) would bring us a nice present. We usually got a new outfit to wear to church and for holiday visiting. And, of course, there was the Christmas baking. December began with a frenzy in the kitchen as our parents would bake a seemingly endless supply of holiday treats. While our friends at school were getting excited for gingerbread and shortbread, we were anticipating freshly baked koulourakia, melomakarona and kourabiethes (while at the same time wondering what the heck gingerbread was).
Kourabiethes are a delicious Greek cookie. Flavoured with almonds and coated in icing sugar, these cookies have a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. Perfect! We think they are best served with a nice glass of milk, or cup of coffee, and a big napkin…all that icing sugar makes a mess! Finally, when you take a bite of your cookie, before taking your next bite, press the bitten part into the icing sugar which is on the plate. And when your cookie is done, lick your finger, and then use it to press into any icing sugar which is left, and lick your finger again! This might sound like horrible table manners (it is), but if you ask us…it’s worth it!
There are many variations of kourabiethes out there; most of which are made with butter. You will notice that in this recipe, there is butter, but also vegetable shortening and olive oil. This trifecta of fats may seem unnecessary, but trust us…it produces a near perfect cookie.
The almonds are a key element to kourabiethes. Our parents use whole, unpeeled almonds which they coarsely chop. They also toast the almonds in a frying pan set over medium-low heat. You must do this very carefully; because you are coarsely chopping the almonds by hand you will have some very small pieces and also some of the almond will be practically ground up. In order to prevent these smaller pieces from burning, sift your chopped up almonds in a sieve, catching all of the tiny almond bits in a bowl. Set these aside and only toast the larger almond pieces that did not pass through the sieve. As soon as you can smell the toasted almonds, remove them from the frying pan and transfer to a bowl to cool. When adding the almonds to the batter, be sure to include even the ground up bits in your bowl.
The dough for the kourabiethes will be pretty soft, but should be easy to handle. They will also be oily, while handling. Remember that the kourabiethes will puff up as they bake, so it is a very good idea to cook a few to ensure that the way that you shape your cookies gives you the end result you are looking for. In particular, if you are going to make crescent shaped kourabiethes (our favourite), you should use a relatively thin roll of dough as it will almost double in size as it cooks. We have found that the easiest way to create the crescent shape, is to knead the dough in your hand and then roll it into a ball. Then, using your hands turn your ball into a long shape, the length of about 2 1/2 to 3 inches, (we use the width of the palm of our hand as a guide), and complete the shape in the baking pan, molding it into shape.
You will find that if you allow your dough to sit a bit before shaping your cookies, it will tend to become crumbly. This is normal and due to the fact that the fats are separating out of the dough. You will need to knead your dough well in order to reincorporate all of the butter, oil and shortening. You know you are done when it is easy to shape your cookies. You will have to do the same thing if you allow your dough to sit in the refrigerator for a little while before baking your kourabiethes. We have found the best way to reduce the amount they spread while baking, is to refrigerate the dough, after making it, for 2-3 hours. Furthermore, after shaping the cookies, place the pan in the fridge for 10 minutes, before baking. This is an important step.
Keeping the dough in the fridge in between baking, is also a good idea.
The recommended cooking time is 12 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle rack of your oven, however we know that not all ovens are created equal. Check your cookies at the 10 minute mark; your kourabiethes are done when they are slightly golden brown on top, and golden brown on the bottom. They will be soft when they come out of the oven. This is fine, they will firm up as they cool.
Our parents like to spritz the top of the hot cookies with some rose water. They use a pastry brush to do this, and sprinkle the rose water on the kourabiethes (they do not brush it on). If you don’t have rose water, or don’t like the flavour, you can use some additional ouzo.
When your cookies are completely cool, it is time to coat them with icing sugar. Don’t be shy here; part of what makes kourabiethes the special treat that they are is the mound of icing sugar that lays on top of them. Delicious! Also, don’t forget to line the bottom of the platter (or container) that you will be storing them on with icing sugar. This way, the cookie gets completely covered.
Our parents would often serve kourabiethes in cupcake liners. Our parents have never made cupcakes or muffins, and we were stunned when we learned the intended purpose of these paper liners; we thought they were made for kourabiethes and melomakarona!
Mia Kouppa: Kourabiethes
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) melted vegetable shortening
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
- 1 cup (250 ml) melted butter
- 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) coarsely chopped almonds
- 1 2/3 cups (410 ml) icing sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 1/3 cup (80 ml) ouzo
- 2 teaspoons (8 ml) baking soda
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) powdered vanilla
- 3 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoons (15 ml) rose water for sprinkling on top of cookies
- icing sugar for coating cookies (approximately 1 1/2 cups or 375 ml)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, using middle rack.
- In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and vanilla. Set aside.
- Place the chopped up almonds in a sieve and shake it over a large bowl. Catch the small almond bits in the bowl and then place the larger pieces of almonds in a frying pan and roast them over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Remove the almonds from the heat, and transfer them immediately to the bowl with the small almond pieces to cool once they are toasted; you will know that they are toasted when you can smell the toasted almonds.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle, beat together the melted vegetable shortening, olive oil, melted butter and powdered sugar. Mix well until combined and there are no lumps of sugar visible, about 2-3 minutes. Add the egg yolks and ouzo and mix until combined.
- With the speed of the mixer turned on low, slowly incorporate the flour / baking soda / vanilla mixture. Mix until just well combined. Use a rubber spatula to clean the edges of your bowl, to make sure that all ingredients get incorporated. Add the almonds to the cookie dough and mix until evenly distributed.
- At this point we refrigerate the dough for 2-3 hours, before shaping. This will prevent them from spreading too much while baking.
- Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Begin shaping your kourabiethes. Keep in mind, that the dough is oily. If you will be shaping them as crescents, use one tablespoon of dough, per crescent. Remember, the cookies will puff up during cooking, so your crescents should be relatively thin (about an inch in diameter). We found that the best way to shape them is by rolling the dough in our hands, ending up with a 3 inch long piece of dough, (about the width of your palm) and creating the crescent in the baking pan.. you can help mold its shape in the pan. If you are going to be shaping them in rounds, using a mini ice-cream scooper is a great option. Roll the dough in your hands and complete the shape. Once you have filled up a baking tray, place in the fridge for 10 minutes before baking… then remove from the fridge, and right into the oven. This is a very important step.. It helps further reduce the amount they spread, while baking.
- Leave about 2 inches between each cookie and bake in the middle rack of your oven for approximately 12-14 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven and using a pastry brush, sprinkle some rose water on the cookies. You can also use ouzo if you prefer. Allow the cookies to cool on the baking tray for about two minutes and then transfer them carefully to a cooling rack.
- When your cookies are completely cool, line a serving tray or container with icing sugar and set your cookies on it. Then, liberally sift icing sugar over the cookies so that they are completely covered. Enjoy.