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.
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!).
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.