I never thought I would hear myself, the consummate New Yorker, say this: The Greeks did it first! In this case, the “first” isn’t some scientific or philosophical or social eureka moment; it’s the very mundane but healthy tradition of baking with olive oil, even for holidays like Christmas, when, elsewhere in Western cuisine, butter burrows into every sugary bite.
I recall a promotional dinner about 20 years ago in New York, organized by the late Arlene Wanderman, who worked as the marketing and PR entity for the International Olive Oil Council in the U.S., at which chef Christian Delouvrier created a chocolate mousse with olive oil. At the time, it seemed revolutionary. Looking back, after having spent the better part of those intervening two decades researching the cuisine of my Greek ancestors, I realized how common and customary in Greece is the practice of using olive oil in sweets. It’s second nature to village cooks, especially those in the Peloponnese, Crete and Mytillene (Lesvos), the three main olive-oil-producing regions.
Greek Christmas sweets, from holiday breads to shortbread cookies, are rife with the ingredients symbolic of prosperity and hope for the coming year: walnuts, blanched (and whole) almonds, and dried fruits communicate wishes for an affluent New Year, while snowy-white powdered sugar is the hope-conveying cover on numerous holiday cookies. Honey, traditionally expensive, is drizzled with abandon over mountains of dough fritters (fried, of course, in olive oil).
It’s not that Greek sweets aren’t ever made with butter. Of course they are, and, in fact, a special type of pastry butter, which is essentially already clarified, flies off the supermarket shelves during the holidays. Sheep’s and goat’s milk butter add their unique flavor to baklava and kourambiedes, the delicate shortbread cookies that are synonymous with Christmas.
But the sweets that call for olive oil are plentiful enough to be a genre in their own right. For example, other de rigueur Christmas cookies, melomakarona, are almost always made with olive oil, not butter, regardless of the region they’re from. In Neapoli, a port town in the southern Peloponnese prefecture of Laconia that was the birthplace of generations of galley cooks, the classic Christmas melomakarona aren’t only made with an olive oil dough, they are fried in olive oil as opposed to oven-baked. In the Peloponnese town of Levidi, a lovely, perfectly preserved architectural gem high in the mountains of Arcadia, kourambiedes, which are essentially butter cookies, are always made instead with olive oileven at Christmas. In the Peloponnese and elsewhere, diples, strips of egg-rich dough shaped into serrated coils, strips, bows, and curls are traditionally fried in olive oil before being doused with ground walnuts, cinnamon and honey.
Some holiday sweets, like samousathes, the sesame-and-nut-filled spiced biscuits common, again, in the Peloponnese, call for a combination of olive oil and butter. Before going into the oven they are brushed with a combination of butter and olive oil, then, while hot, dipped in honey syrup. In the Peloponnese, even baklava, the nut-and-phyllo layered Greek classic that is typical of the holiday table, falls into the butter-olive oil combo category. One of my favorite versions comes from Neapoli, where it is layered with raisins and sesame seeds, each gossamer sheet of phyllo brushed with a mixture of melted butter and the robust, local extra virgin olive oil.
Most of the Christmas bread recipes I have ever seen in Greece also call for olive oil. These are usually sweet breads, filled with the same slew of symbolic ingredients mentioned above and decorated with sculpted dough motifs of prosperity and good fortune: birds, snakes, grapevines, crosses, flowers and more.
Olive oil in Greek holiday sweets lends a healthy spin to an otherwise over-the-top two weeks of gustatory indulgences. The nuts, dried fruits, citrus, honey and spices that perfume Greek holiday sweets also bring with them a cornucopia of nutritional value. Using olive oil in pastry means that despite the high caloric content of most sweets, there is little if any saturated fat. When using olive oil instead of butter, the rule of thumb is that you need 25 percent less fat, so a recipe for, say, Greek kourambiedes that calls for one cup of butter to 2½ cups of flour would need three-quarters of a cup of olive oil for the same amount of flour. The flavor? Sweets with olive oil are definitely denser and less crisp than those made with butter, but in the Greek pastry kitchen the profuse use of citrus in so many sweets offsets that.
So, the moral of this Christmas tale is: Kales Yiortes with Ygeia and Hara. Translation: Happy, but especially Healthy holidays.
Syrup-Drenched Christmas Nut-and-Spice Cookies With Olive Oil
(Melomakarona me Elaiolado)
From “The Glorious Foods of Greece,” William Morrow, 2001
Makes 4 to 5 dozen melomakarona
For the syrup:
For the cookies:
- Make the syrup: Bring the sugar, honey and water to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Add the cinnamon and lemon zest and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes. Let cool completely.
- For the cookies: Sift together 3 cups of the flour, the baking powder, cinnamon, and cloves in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the olive oil with the sugar until creamy. Stir the baking soda into the citrus juice and add to the oil-and-sugar mixture. Add the brandy, walnuts and grated zest, and continue mixing vigorously until combined. Slowly add the flour to the mixture, beating vigorously with a wooden spoon until a stiff dough forms.
- Preheat the oven to 325 F. Lightly oil 2 large baking sheets. One at a time, break off pieces of dough the size of an unshelled walnut and shape into small, oblong mounds. Place 1 inch apart on the baking sheets and bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and submerge in the cooled syrup to soak for a few minutes. Drain on racks.
Christmas Olive Oil Shortbread Cookies
Kourambiedes me Elaiolado
From “The Glorious Foods of Greece,” William Morrow, 2001
Makes about 72 kourambiedes
- Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl using an electric mixer set at high speed, whip the oil with the sugar until smooth and creamy. Add the ouzo then lemon juice and baking soda and mix well. Add the nuts, zest and cinnamon, and mix vigorously with a wooden spoon to combine. Add 3 cups of flour, a little at a time, mixing by hand until a dough begins to form. Keep adding and kneading in the flour in half-cup increments until the dough is tight, firm and smooth. This will take about 10 minutes.
- Take a little piece of dough about the size of an unshelled walnut and shape it into a mounded oblong. Place on cookie sheet. Continue until all the dough is used, setting the kourambiedes about an inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake for about 10 to 12 minutes or until a very light golden. Cool on wire racks then place on a platter and sift 3-4 cups of confectioner’s sugar over them. Store in tins.
Zester Daily contributor Diane Kochilas, the food columnist and restaurant critic for Greece’s largest newspaper, Ta Nea, is also a culinary teacher, restaurant consultant and award-winning cookbook author.
Photos, from top:
Kourambiedes me Elaiolado (spice cookies made with olive oil)
Melomakarona me Elaiolado (Christmas shortbread cookies made with olive oil)
Credit: Vassilis Stenos