Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas, accomplished (melomakarona)

I fell in love with melomakarona when I was in Greece. They are bite sized Christmas, infused with citrus and cloves, spiked with a wee bit of brandy, soaked in honey, rolled in walnuts. I purchased them from every bakery that had them, taste tested them rigorously, vowed I would make them every year.


The first attempt, it did not go so well. There are difficulties when working with Greek recipes. Many of them seem to assume that you grew up with a yia-yia who taught you how to bake properly and the recipes are more memory aids than explicit instructions - how frustrating is it when the recipe simply says "add flour as needed"?

Then there is the olive oil issue. Olive oil desserts are popular in Greece, and they're delicious. Good olive oil is light and sharp and it plays well in baked goods. Try using the olive oil we have readily available here and you will quickly regret it - the flavors are muddled and overly strong.

So that first batch of cookies was dense (I kept adding flour) and redolent with the scent of cheap olive oil. I shelved my baking aspirations and bought the cookies for a couple years.

shaped melomakarona
{shaped melomakarona}

But this year, if I managed nothing else, I was determined to make melomakarona. I was prepared to fail and learn, if necessary. I researched several recipes and read all the notes I could find. I decided to go light on the flour and use walnut oil rather than olive oil (you could also use standard vegetable oil, but I had walnut oil leftover from another project and I highly recommend it). We didn't have normal brandy so I winged it with a bit of slivovitz (multicultural cookies, you guys!).

melomakarona success
{melomakarona success}

They are perfect. I am over the moon. And I'm putting my notes and directions here, in all their tedious long winded glory, because I want to be able to replicate this year after year.


Melomakarona (makes about 4 dozen, recipe pulled from several sources + my own memories and preferences, but mostly from here)

For the cookies: 
1 cup walnut oil (highly recommended, although regular vegetable oil will be fine - only use olive oil if you have a really good source)
1/2 cup granulated sugar

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
Grated zest of 1 orange (and I also used zest from 1/2 lemon)
1/4 cup brandy

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

For the syrup:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup honey
1/2 cup water

Dash of cinnamon (or a cinnamon stick, if you have one lying around, which I never do)
A few strips each of lemon and orange zest (just use a sharp paring knife and try to get as little white as possible)

For the finishing touch: 
1 1/2 cups very finely chopped walnuts, practically ground (you can finely chop them, like I did, but next time I'll be getting out the food processor because it took forever!)

:: Preheat your oven to 325F.

:: In a large bowl (I used a mixer, but you don't really need to), start to beat the oil and sugar.

:: Meanwhile, whisk (or sift) the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and cloves together in a bowl and set aside.

:: Combine the orange juice, orange zest, brandy and baking soda. It will foam a bit! Add this mixture to the oil and sugar and mix until well combined.

:: Add the chopped walnuts, followed by the flour mixture. Mix until your dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and easily forms into a ball (this doesn't take very long, actually).

:: Have a couple of baking sheets handy, either oiled or lined with parchment paper or Silpat. Form the cookies by breaking off pieces of dough the size of an unshelled walnut and roll them between your palms to create small mounded oblongs. Place about an inch apart on the baking sheets and bake until the bottoms are lightly browned (about 20 minutes, but start checking at 15).

:: While the cookies bake, make your syrup. Combine the sugar, honey and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the zest and cinnamon and simmer for about 10 minutes before turning off the heat.

:: As the cookies come out of the oven, submerge them in the syrup in small batches for a few minutes on each side. Remove them with a slotted spoon and allow them to drain briefly on a cooling rack before dipping them in the ground walnuts.

Notes (in case I've forgotten this by next year) -

Most recipes describe the dough as "stiff", but I think that's a bit misleading. The dough should be cohesive, pulling away from the sides of the bowl, readily willing to be shaped, not at all sticky. But it is still very soft and pliable. It will look greasy - don't panic! The baked cookies are not greasy in the least.

The dough should be formed into balls that are "the size of an unshelled walnut" (this comes from multiple recipes sources, so I guess it's standard). I have trouble estimating size, so I used a cookie scoop and then cut each scoop in half before rolling. They are a little bit smaller than bakery melomakarona, but not by much. The cookies will swell in the oven, so don't make them too large.

You should bake the cookies until the bottoms are pale golden brown. Mine were just about spot on at 18 minutes in the 325 oven.

You can experiment with the soaking time, but I found that 3 minutes for each side was just about perfect. This is assuming your syrup and cookies are still warm, if not piping hot. As they cool, you'll need more soaking time. If they are boiling hot, you can get away with 2 minutes on each side. You want the cookies nicely soaked but not to the point of mushy-ness. There should still be a good texture.

PUT A PIECE OF WAX PAPER UNDER THE COOLING RACK. Cleaning up the honey-sugar-walnut mixture from our counters wasn't that fun.


  1. My family fell in love with these cookies on a Christmas trip to Greece a few years ago (I think we ate them almost every night for a week). We've been searching for a bakery that sells them, but maybe I will try to make them myself.

  2. 1) these look fantastic, particularly on your wedding china.
    2) i'm so happy you were able to figure out the recipe! we felt the same way when we figured out how to make garlicky chips and cheese in the manner of our beloved kebab van from oxford.
    3) i'm so making these for my second (er, third) family christmas on the 27th. thanks for hooking us up with the recipe!

  3. Cookie looks great and so does the plate it's on... may I ask what china set it is from?

  4. WOW, what an accomplishment!! AND what a complex cookie. I have never tried these delicious-looking and sounding little things, but now it is on my list of "must seek out and try" items. :)

    Thanks for sharing all your hard work. There is nothing like indulging in food that has a story.

    xo Jen

  5. @ Erin - It can be tough to track them down stateside! I found my only source by chance, but you basically want to look for an area with a large Greek orthodox church and then hope that someone had opened a deli/shop nearby. Sometimes it works out! Or you can make them, of course.

    @ lauren - As a bonus these technically qualify as vegan (unless you have a vegan that doesn't do honey or granulated sugar, which I know can be grey areas). I always forget that there are lots of Greek desserts that can be made vegan easily, because strict orthodox go vegan for the entire lent season (which makes the whole fish on Fridays thing seem very non-committal). But I think you're back on cheese and such, correct? I still recommend the cookies, vegan leanings or no.

    @ the other Martha - it's our wedding china! Wedgwood by Vera Wang and the pattern is called gilded weave. I will use it any chance I get.

    @ Jen - They are a bit complex, but so worth it. At least to me. I'll admit I have a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in these cookies. But D has also had a hard time resisting them, so I think the appeal is universal!

  6. Okay. Is it bad that I went and made these already? In my defense, the recipe you linked to last post looked so good that I stocked up on walnuts and oranges with intent to make a batch sometime this week. Then you posted an improved recipe and... yeah.

    People, these are AMAZING. There are 45 of them on my counter, and there's no way any of them are making it all the way to the 25th. Thank you, Rachel!

  7. @ sixorangecarrots - You just made my day! I wasn't sure anyone would be able to actually wade through the instructions. And they aren't that hard, right? Just lots of instructions.

    Enjoy! And I think I might be making a second batch as well. They seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate.

  8. Those look delicious! My best friend is Greek and we take a cooking class with her mom which is fun but sometimes frustrating when the directions are "add ____ to taste" or when ingredients are measured by how they look in the pan or bowl. I'm glad you figured these ones out!

  9. What a great accomplishment, all your hard work was well worth it, they look delicious!!


  10. Rachel, some of my favourite recipes from Brasil remain beyond me because of the feel-o-meter/eye-o-meter (to roughly translate my mother) of certain ingredients. How am I supposed to know how much water/eggs/tapioca flour is enough? It's frustrating, especially when I start to crave certain things and have no way of making them here. *sigh*

    Your cookies look fantastic, though. I'm glad you figured out some tricks. Trial & error may be the only way to go. :)

  11. These are fantastic. Be prepared to make a second batch once you try them! So delicious.

  12. @ Jennifer - Right? I love Greek cooking classes, but they always just make me feel even more sad that I'm not Greek, and sort of like I'll never catch up!

    @ Kristy - Yes, trial and error is the only solution for cultural/familial recipes! And a willingness to not be overly daunted by a few major flops. Says the person who gave up for three whole years after a bad batch of cookies.

    @ Heather - So glad you like them too!

  13. Rachel,hi!
    My name is Marina.I live and work in Italy but i'm greek,my family is in Crete.I arrived last week for the holidays and yesterday afternoon i made 2 dozens melomakarouna with my aunt and my mum,it's family tradition.Grandma was there too but she'is too old to 'work'.Immagine my surprise when i saw your recipe.You did great and i agree with you that their appeal is universal!
    I wish you a very merry Christmas full with love and joy!

    p.s.I love your blog and i thought that your wedding was lovely!

  14. Thank you for sharing this recipe, I can't wait to make it! I used to eat these every Christmas in Cyprus and they are my favorite. I've never been very successful trying to make them myself, the recipe never seems to be quite right. Hopefully you have distilled all the yia-yia wisdom here :)

    You are right on about Greek recipes - I have a Cypriot cookbook full of maddeningly vague instructions. But it also has charming asides like "take the soft-boiled egg and cut it with a knife very resolutely into half, lengthways. You must feel no pity for the egg at the moment otherwise the outcome will be fatal!"

  15. @ Marnia - Thank you! Merry Christmas to you too! I'm envious of your family tradition!

    @ rafael - They're my favorite too! Hopefully these are relatively similar to yours. Mine taste most like the melomakarona from Athens area, so they might be a little different from the Cyprus version. It's amazing how much the desserts can vary across regions! Good luck!

    I love your description of that cookbook - so funny!

  16. I made these For Christmas eve dinner. They asked me to bring more for Christmas day lunch. Great recipe! Thank you :)

  17. Update: They were perfect! Efharisto poli :)

  18. @ rafael - yay! So glad you enjoyed them.

  19. I am probably one of the few Greeks who don't gorge on them at Christmas time, I've never actually made them myself, but now I feel tempted (lucky for me I get to skip the walnut oil [which sounds like a decent substitute] and use the real thing). Oh ... and Happy New Year!

  20. I usually hate holiday recipes, but these sound delightful! I've never tried them, but I'm going to try your recipe. Thanks for all the details!

  21. Hi! Such a great blog you have here and I'm so glad I stumbled past it on my search for a good recipe for Melomakarona. Your recipe is by far the most attractive one I've come across and I shall make them now during the weekend. I am a Norwegian living in Crete and I am writing a food and baking blog with recipes in Norwegian and English (www.kakemilla.blogspot.com) Altough these are not my favourite cookies I have a son and husband who adore them so this year I'm on a mission. (And seeing this recipe I have a sneaky feeling these might be a new favourite for myself too....) (I make a mean Baklava and Kourabiedes though...) Anyhow, I'll get to it now and I'll be sure to drop you a line how it went! :) Warm regards from Camilla (Kakemilla)


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