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 blanketing 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 part 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 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 vegetable shortening and olive oil – no butter. This is typical for our parents cooking; although they do use butter occasionally, they often substitute it for other forms of fat. Because of this, you may find that our parents kourabiethes are not as “buttery” as others you have tasted (obviously), but we think that they are equally delicious.
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. These smaller pieces can burn easily, therefore, it is quite important to keep the heat on medium-low, and to stir the almonds constantly. As soon as you can smell the toasted almonds, remove them from the frying pan and transfer to a bowl to cool.
The dough for the kourabiethes will be pretty soft, but should be easy to handle. 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.
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
- 315 grams (12 ounces or 350 ml) melted vegetable shortening
- 1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) coarsely chopped almonds
- 1 1/2 cups (375 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 1/3 cups (830 ml) 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.
- In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and vanilla. Set aside.
- Place the chopped up 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 a bowl 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, beat together the melted vegetable shortening, olive oil and powdered sugar. Mix well until combined and there are no lumps of sugar visible. 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.
- Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Begin shaping your kourabiethes. If you will be shaping them as crescents, keep in mind that the cookies will puff up during cooking, so your crescents should be relatively thin (about an inch in diameter). 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.
- Leave about 2 inches between each cookie and bake in the middle rack of your oven for approximately 12 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!