Isli – Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts

Introducing isli, the Greek cookie you need to get to know! These cookies originated in Asia Minor and have been around for a very long time. They are traditional Christmas cookies that are stuffed with crushed walnuts and then soaked in a honey syrup; what a gift they are! The cookie dough is made with a combination of flour and semolina, which gives these cookies a slightly crumbly texture. Orange and cinnamon flavour is infused throughout – in the cookie dough itself, in the walnut filling and in the syrup that the cookies get soaked in.

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

Isli are wonderful Greek cookies which are made for Christmas or after the New Year for the Theophany and the Feast Day of St. John. They are not as popular as some of the better known Greek Christmas cookies which include kourabiethes and melomakarona. Of course, we can’t forget koulourakia! It is time to change that! This is why I am so excited to share with you my recipe for isli, one of my new favourite Greek Christmas cookies. Isli are spiced, stuffed with a crushed walnut mixture, and soaked in syrup. They are truly a great cookie!

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

What are isli

The name isli, which means “worked” (ış = work in Turkish), refers to the fact that this is a sweet that involves a lot of work. Before you get turned off from trying this recipe, let me explain! Traditionally, isli were made by embroidering the dough with a very short three-pronged tweezer made by blacksmiths specifically for this purpose. It was not uncommon for housewives from Smyrna (an ancient Greek city which is now known as Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey) to receive these special tweezers as a gift. No special tweezer, no problem. Talented bakers could also use a needle or regular tweezers to decorate their isli.

Making isli the traditional way is a labour of love and patience. Cookies need to be tended to, one by one, and the beautiful results are a source of pride. I can picture housewives and homemakers, their experienced hands moving quickly as they performed this culinary artform. First, stretching out pieces of dough and then wrapping it around a spiced nut mixture, keeping it secure, almost like a secret. Then, they deftly decorate the tops with their signature style before baking the cookies and transforming their homes into richly fragrant spaces. The final touch, a syrup bath, and the sweet, sticky syrup makes its way through and along the engravings marking the cookies. How special!

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

Why this recipe works

Isli can be a work of art. I say can be because although the art of making isli is beautiful and something you can apsire to, you don’t have to. You can do as I did and make isli that taste wonderful but look just okay. No shame here! Maybe one day I will take the time to create cookies that are almost too beautiful to eat, but today I simply make designs on my cookies with the tines of a fork. Simple, quick and effective, and still connected to the past.

My isli recipe is full of flavour. I have made sure to add spices and orange zest to all of the cookie components, from the dough, to the filling, to the syrup. That way, every bit is as delicious as it could be.

The combination of all-purpose flour and semolina is perfect in its proportions. The cookies have a bit of a crumbly texture, but are not so crumbly that they fall apart easily. This is really important especially because the cookies will get softer as they soak in the syrup.

I love that you can make the isli as syrup soaked, or not, as you like. If you want sweeter and stickier cookies, simply let them sit in the syrup for a longer time.

Key ingredients

Don’t be afraid of the long list of ingredients. I have separated everything out into sections, and you will realize that many of the ingredients are on repeat – for example, orange zest is everywhere, as is sugar and cinnamon. So really, the list of ingredients isn’t that long! Also, these are basic things that you likely already have in your kitchen, and if you don’t, they are easy to find.

For the syrup

Honey – Purchase your honey carefully; many cheaper brands also contain sugar or other sweeteners. I like to purchase my honey from local honey producers. I also love honey straight from Greece.

Sugar – To help cut the cost I also use some white granulated sugar in my syrup.

Orange juice – Freshly squeezed orange juice is best. You will need fresh oranges for this recipe because you will use the orange peel and zest, so simply squeeze those!

Water – Making a simple syrup is a combination of water and sugar, so of course we do need water in this syrup too!

Orange peel – I like to either use a round orange slice or a ribbon of the orange peel when boiling my syrup for added orange flavour.

Cinnamon stick – With a cinnamon stick you get the great taste of cinnamon without the discoloring effect of using ground cinnamon.

For the filling

Walnuts – I purchase walnut halves and then crush them using a food processor.

Breadcrumbs – Plain breadcrumbs hold onto the spices added to the filling mixture, to easily disperse the flavour.

Orange zest – Finely grate the outer orange layer of the orange skin. It is full of aromatic oils and flavour.

Sugar – A bit of sugar for some sweetness and texture.

Cinnamon – Ground cinnamon is added for the flavour.

Nutmeg – A beautiful spice used in baking, especially during the holidays!

Salt – Don’t forget the salt! A bit of salt in your sweet recipes helps elevate the flavours of your dessert.

Olive oil – I use Greek olive oil here. The flavour just can’t be beat, and it keeps these cookies dairy-free (and perfect for Orthodox fasting periods).

Orange juice – More freshly squeezed orange juice is used in the dough.

Sugar – Even though the cookies will be soaked in a sweet syrup, you do need some sugar in the dough; they are cookies after all!

Baking powder – Used as a leavening agent.

Baking soda – Used as a leavening agent.

Flour – I use all purpose (or regular / plain) flour in most of my baking, including this recipe.

Fine semolina – The semolina is what gives the isli cookie their subtle crunch.

Orange zest – More zest makes sure that the orange flavour is present in all parts of the cookie.

Cinnamon – Ground cinnamon is added here too, making these cookies so delicious.

How to make isli

Preparation

  • Preheat oven to 375
  • Line your baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

Instructions for the syrup

Combine all of the ingredients in a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and boil for 7 – 10 minutes until sugar is dissolved and syrup is slightly thickened. Set aside to cool.

Instructions for the filling

Combine all of the ingredients together in a bowl and mix together with a fork or small whisk until well combined.

Step 1
In the bowl of your stand mixer combine the olive oil, orange juice, sugar and orange zest and mix well using the paddle attachment of your mixer for 3 – 5 minutes at medium speed.

Step 2
Meanwhile, in a medium size bowl whisk together your dry ingredients until well combined. With the mixer speed set to low, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined.

Instructions for shaping and baking the isli

Step 1
Take approximately 1 tablespoon of dough (I use a mini ice cream scooper) and flatten it in the palm of your hand. Use your fingers to press it out into a thin circle, at least the size of your palm.

Step 2
Place one teaspoon of filling in the center of your dough and fold the dough over it so that the filling is completely covered. You may need to pinch the dough together to keep the filling from falling out. You can try to shape your isli into the traditional triangular shapes, or leave them as rounds. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. Use a fork to make indentations all over the top surface of the isli.

Step 3
Bake in middle rack of your oven for 20 – 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

Step 4
Once removed from the oven, and still hot, transfer them to the pot with the syrup where they should soak for about 1 minute (or longer if you desire).

Baking tips and helpful hints

How to shape your isli

Traditionally isli are shaped into small triangles, almost like Christmas trees. Success at achieving this shape will come with experience, and maybe some beginner’s luck! The most important part is to carefully enclose the filling so that it does not fall out after the cookies have baked.

To shape isli I take about one tablespoons worth of dough and roll it into ball in my hand. Then I use my fingers to press it out into a circle in the palm of my left hand (because I am right-handed). When I have a thin circle which is the size of my palm, I place a teaspoon of filling into the center. Then I carefully bring in the edges of my circle of dough and pinch or press the edges together to seal up the filling. Once that is done, I shape the cookie, with my hands, into a triangular shape – or as close to that as possible. Alternatively, you can also just leave your cookies round. Once done, place them on the baking tray, seam side down.

The trick to soaking cookies in syrup

When you are soaking any cookies or cakes in syrup the rule is that one has to be hot, and the other at room temperature.  So, if your cookies have just come out of the oven, soak them in room temperature syrup.  If you make your cookies the day before and are now ready to soak them in syrup, heat the syrup up and dip in the room temperature cookies.

How to store

Isli can be kept at room temperature in a covered container for up to a week, at least. Usually if I am going to keep them longer than a week I store them in the refrigerator. Also, you can freeze isli prior to soaking them in the syrup. To prepare them from frozen, allow to thaw and then dip the cold or room temperature cookies into hot syrup.

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.
Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between orange zest, orange rind and orange peel?

In this recipe you will notice that I have used orange zest. Orange zest is the outermost part of the peel – the orange part with only a bit of white (or ideally not at all). The orange zest is full of aromatic oils and gives a strong orange flavour to baked goods and other recipes. The orange rind is the outer orange layer and some of the white underneath layer as well. The orange peel is everything from the outer skin, to the flesh of the orange.

What is the best way to crush walnuts?

I like to use a mini food processor, but you can also use a large knife and chop away. If you are using an electric appliance, like a food processor or blender, be sure that you don’t over do it. You can go from finely crushed walnuts to nut butter pretty quickly.

What is semolina?

Semolina is a type of flour that is made of durum wheat. You can find it either coarsely or finely ground. During the process of milling durum wheat, the most nutritious parts are actually ground into semolina which is a pale golden or yellow colour.

How to serve isli

I love to serve isli with a traditional Greek beverage such as a cup of mountain tea or chamomile tea. They are also wonderful with a demitasse of Greek coffee or even milk and coffee, one of my favourite treats when I was a young girl.

Amygdalota (Αμυγδαλωτά) Gluten-free cookies that are crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside.

Double chocolate tahini cookies Incredible flavour with these cookies made with almond flour, cocoa powder and chocolate chips.

Melomakarona The traditional and classic Greek cookie; spiced and soaked in a honey and sugar syrup.

Amygdalota
Double chocolate tahini cookies
Melomakarona Greek cookies. These deliciously spiced, honey soaked, walnut topped Greek cookies just melt in your mouth.

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Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.
Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.
Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts.

Isli - Greek Christmas cookies stuffed with walnuts

Isli are dairy and egg free Greek Christmas cookies that are filled with a walnut mixture and soaked in syrup.
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: Greek
Diet: Low Lactose
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Servings: 42 cookies
Calories: 149kcal
Author: Billie Bitzas

Ingredients

For the syrup

  • cup sugar
  • ¾ cup honey
  • ½ cup orange juice
  • cups water
  • 1 orange slice
  • 1 cinnamon stick

For the filling

  • 200 grams crushed walnuts
  • 1 tbsp breadcrumbs
  • ¾ tbsp orange zest
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt

For the cookies

  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • cup sugar
  • 1 tsp grated orange zest
  • cups flour
  • ½ cup fine semolina
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp salt

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 375 °F
  • Line your baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

For the syrup

  • Combine all of the ingredients in a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and boil for 7 - 10 minutes until sugar is dissolved and syrup is slightly thickened. Set aside to cool
    1½ cup sugar, ¾ cup honey, ½ cup orange juice, 1½ cups water, 1 orange slice, 1 cinnamon stick

For the filling

  • Combine all of the ingredients together in a bowl and mix together with a fork or small whisk until well combined.
    200 grams crushed walnuts, 1 tbsp breadcrumbs, ¾ tbsp orange zest, 2 tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp salt

For the cookies

  • In the bowl of your stand mixer combine the olive oil, orange juice, sugar and orange zest and mix well using the paddle attachment of your mixer for 3 - 5 minutes at medium speed.
    1 cup olive oil, 1 cup orange juice, ⅓ cup sugar, 1 tsp grated orange zest
  • Meanwhile, in a medium size bowl whisk together your dry ingredients until well combined. With the mixer speed set to low, add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. See texture here.
    3½ cups flour, ½ cup fine semolina, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp salt

To shape isli

  • Take approximately 1 tablespoon of dough (I use a mini ice cream scooper) and flatten it in the palm of your hand. Use your fingers to press it out into a thin circle, at least the size of your palm.
  • Place one teaspoon of filling in the center of your dough and fold the dough over it so that the filling is completely covered. You may need to pinch the dough together to keep the filling from falling out. You can try to shape your isli into the traditional triangular shapes, or leave them as rounds. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between cookies. Use a fork to make indentations all over the top surface of the isli. Watch video here.
  • Bake in middle rack of your oven for 20 - 25 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Once removed from the oven, and still hot, transfer them to the pot with the syrup where they should soak for about 1 minute (or longer if you desire).
  • Store isli at room temperature in a covered container for up to a week. Any longer and they can be kept in the refrigerator.

Notes

When you are soaking any cookies or cakes in syrup the rule is that one has to be hot, and the other at room temperature.  So, if your cookies have just come out of the oven, soak them in room temperature syrup.  If you make your cookies the day before and are now ready to soak them in syrup, heat the syrup up and dip in the room temperature cookies.

Nutrition

Calories: 149kcal | Carbohydrates: 27g | Protein: 2g | Fat: 4g | Saturated Fat: 0.5g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g | Monounsaturated Fat: 1g | Sodium: 67mg | Potassium: 59mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 16g | Vitamin A: 21IU | Vitamin C: 5mg | Calcium: 17mg | Iron: 1mg

Thanks for sharing!

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