Mmmm Stands For Melomakarona

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on December 22, 2013

IMG_9280For me, the official holiday baking season starts right after Thanksgiving, and by mid December it is in full swing. It is during this time of the year when those who are not usually inclined to bake from scratch become inspired to try their hand at making a few cakes and cookies—especially after tasting all of the delicious morsels shared by others at many of the pre-holiday celebrations that are happening this time of the year.
For those of you that follow my blog, you know that I grew up in a Greek family who also enjoyed Middle Eastern influences in our daily meals. Many of these foods that seemed so foreign to others when I was growing up are now commonplace with many of my friends and is mostly due to the explosion of the food scene. All of these unique and delicious foods and desserts gain more and more followers daily because of their intoxicating smells and flavors.

Besides the large platters of kourabiethes, most Greek families also make another very traditional Christmas cookie called melomakarona. This is one of my all time favorite cookie for many reasons, but mostly because it is so delicate and fragrant with a slight underlying crunch from the addition of a little semolina.

The dough is comprised of flour, semolina, sugar, orange juice (plus zest) and oil, then gently tossed together until it forms a uniform mass. Because one of the ingredients is oil and not butter, this cookie is also enjoyed during the Lenten season.

Most people bake cookies with butter and you may be wondering what oil (even olive oil) would be doing in a cookie item, but it really came about for practical reasons.

Butter is very expensive in Greece, and is usually reserved for those items that can only be made with butter—so many bakers use olive oil in their baked goods which is plentiful and much less expensive.

The first press of olive oil is called extra virgin, and is a lovely dark green color with a wonderful acidity and fruitiness. This type of oil is always reserved for salads, dressings and dips, where the inherent characteristics of the fruit itself, is imparted in the essence of the oil. The other grades of olive oil include virgin, refined and pomace.  

When using olive oil in desserts, you will be utilizing the refined version of the oil. This type of oil is golden in color and resembles other vegetable oils, especially corn oil. It achieves this lighter color as it moves through a series of filters that remove much of the traditional flavor and acidity that is enjoyed in extra virgin olive oil. This product is very well suited to baking and even sautéing of food because of its higher smoke point.

I came across a great video that shows the proper technique in how to put together the melomakarona, and for the sake of consistency, I translated the recipe that they shared in the video so that you could follow along. My family uses a very similar recipe, so I know that you will have great results with this one– there was really no reason to reinvent the wheel. Although the video is in Greek, you do get the gist of what they are doing and you can click here and see the video in its entirety.

Basically, all of the wet ingredients are whisked together and then the dry ingredients are added and gently tossed into the dough. Once the dough comes together, don’t continue mixing it or the oil will begin seeping out of the dough before it’s baked. The traditional version of this cookie has a quarter of a walnut baked into the center, but I really don’t like to do this because the cookie is so delicate, and ends up falling apart when you take a bite. I simply reserve the nuts for the end and toss them all over the cookies. I like to use a 2 ounce cookie scoop to pre-portion everything first so that they bake evenly, and then I come back and roll them in the traditional egg shape. Once rolled, many people roll the top of the cookie over a cross hatch design like this…

Shape Melomakarona into an egg shape

If you don’t have a similar shape like the one shown, you can add some indentations to the top with a knife. Those that use this step say that it helps the syrup soak into the cookie much easier. This cookie requires the help of 2 or 3 people, so make sure you have extra hands to help the operation run smoothly.  These may seem like a bit of work but let me tell you that they are truly worth the effort…

Melomakarona syrup
500 grams (about 2 ½ cups) water
800 grams (about 1 ¾ cups) granulated sugar
150 grams (about ½ cup) honey (added last)
4 whole cloves
3 sticks cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (I added)
1 whole orange, cut in half

Add the water, sugar, cloves, cinnamon sticks and orange to a large pot and bring to a boil. As soon as it is at a boil add the honey and remove immediately from the heat. Make this about 3 hours before you are ready to make the cookies and allow it to cook at room temperature, then set aside.

Melomakarona dough (makes 3-4 dozen cookies)
First mixture:

400 grams (about 1¾ cups) fresh orange juice
400 grams (about 1 ½ cups) sunflower oil
180 (about ½ cup) grams refined olive oil
50 grams ( about ¼ cup) fine granulated sugar or powdered sugar
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
zest of 2 oranges

Second mixture:
1 Kilo all purpose flour (2.2 pounds)
200 grams (about 1 cup) fine semolina
1 teaspoon baking soda

Topping:
2 cups walnuts
1 tablespoon finely ground bread crumbs
¼ cup fine granulated sugar (this and the bread crumbs are added to absorb the oil from the walnuts during grinding)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

NOTE: Add all of the topping ingredients to the bowl of your food processor and grind together to a fine crumb for coating the cookies, then set aside. In the video he mentions that you can use all sunflower oil if you prefer. He also uses a walnut essence, but I have never used anything like this in any of my recipes and is something specifically available in Greece.  

When ready to make the dough, grind the topping mixture together and set aside in a bowl to add to the finished cookies as they are removed from the syrup. Next, add all of the ingredients for the first mixture together in a bowl and whisk well so that everything is well incorporated. You add the spices to the wet mixture so that you do not have to overwork the dough to make sure that the spices are well dispersed. This little trick makes it very easy to have uniformly flavored cookies.  In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, semolina and baking soda. He did not do this, but it is an important step. Gently toss the ingredients until the dough just comes together.

I use a scoop to pre-portion everything so that they all cook uniformly, and then form them into the traditional shape. If you want to take the extra step and add the indentations into the tops of the cookies, then go ahead and do that at this time before baking. I have found this not to be necessary if the dough is made correctly, and is mostly decorative than anything else. Bake the cookies in a 350°F oven for approximately 25-30 minutes.

Pre-portion the melomakaron using a scoop to ensure you have the same size

Melomakarona

Remove the cookies from the oven and then throw them right into the room temperature syrup. This is where having extra hands will really help the process. Only place one tray of cookies in the oven at a time. Once they are removed from the oven, add them to the syrup and one person can let them soak and then remove them to the platter.

Hot Melomakaron right from the oven into the room temperature syrup

The other person can add the next tray of dough to the oven to bake and then begin rolling the next tray. This little assembly line will really help the process. In the video, he suggests adding the cookies to the syrup, hearing the sizzle and counting to 5, then removing them to the platter. I usually leave them in for a minute or so. As soon as you place the cookies onto the platter, top them with the nut mixtures while the syrup is still visible on the outside of the cookie. This will help to the nut mixture adhering to the cookie and not remaining on the platter.

Remove melomakarona from the syrup and top with nut mixture

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