It seems that this year is ending, much as it started. We are in Athens again; mainly the weather has been more than kind to us with balmy days and mainly blue skies – and, of course, with that almost cobalt colour that you only seem to get in the Aegean. There has been some rain and also some grey days – but to walk through Plaka, dodging the rain showers, has a charm all of its own.
It would be disingenuous not to mention that the bigger picture here has not changed very much either in the last twelve months. The ‘Crisis’, as the recession is generally called in Greece, is now in, at least, its fourth year and most people have been rattled by the changes in living standards. On top of all of that, this Christmas, there is the added uncertainty of parliamentary elections on the horizon in 2015. Overheard conversations everywhere are littered with names of politicians and the acronyms of the different parties. As usual here, politics is a high-octane occupation – and opinions are exchanged openly – sometimes aggressively – and always with passion. But somehow, and it speaks volumes for the Greek character, that, despite all this, the cafés and tavérnes are still mainly busy, there are people out present shopping and the streets, shops and houses are all decorated, ready for Christmas.
Although some Christmas traditions seem to be similar all over Europe – the Greeks adopted the Germanic Christmas tree, very much as we did in Britain and turkey is commonly eaten for Christmas dinner here. However, the sweets that are traditionally made at this time of year are very definitely Greek.
In every pastry shop or bakery and in every home there plates piled high with wonderful snowy mounds of kourabiédes – almond and rosewater flavoured biscuits dusted with heaps of icing sugar- and also golden melomakárona – this time honey-drenched biscuits flavoured with spices and walnuts.
I love both, but personally I adore making melomakárona. The smell when they are baking fills the kitchen with all the aromas of Christmas – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Later, dunking the cooked biscuits in glorious warm honeyed syrup makes them glisten like baubles.
I have a little confession to make – the purists will be horrified I know – but one Christmas, about 20 years ago, halfway through making the mixture for my melmakárona, I realised I had run out of ground cloves. After a panicky rummage through my spice collection, I came across a jar of Five Spice Powder. On a wing and a prayer, I added a teaspoon of this Chinese spice mix – and the melomakárona were wonderful ! So, as I am a little superstitious, since then I always add Five Spice.
If you want to stick with the more traditional spices, that’s fine of course. I’ll be sticking to my secret ingredient!
500ml corn oil or sunflower oil
160ml orange juice
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200gm castor sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
(or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 tsp five spice powder)
Grated rind of 1 orange
900gm plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
400gm castor sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
250gm finely chopped walnuts
Heat the oven to 170 degrees.
Sift the flour and the baking powder into a large mixing bowl and set aside.
In another bowl put the oil, brandy and sugar and mix together. Dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the orange juice and add to the oil, brandy, sugar mixture. Mix well together with a balloon whisk or a mixer. Add this mixture to the flour and mix again this time with a wooden spoon. You will have a fairly soft dough and it is good not to over work it.
Take small amounts of the dough (about the size of a walnut) and, with your hands, make them into egg shapes. Some people like to bury a piece of walnut into the middle of each biscuit too, which is a nice touch.
Place on buttered baking trays – don’t overcrowd them. Before you put them in the oven, gently press each melomakárono with the back of a fork to make a light pattern.
Bake at 170 degrees for about 20 minutes.
When they are done, put the biscuits on racks and allow to cool.
Now you need to make the syrup.
In a medium sized pan, dissolve the sugar in the water, then add the honey and the lemon zest. Allow to simmer for about 5 minutes, skimming off any froth that comes to the surface.
Keep the syrup on a low heat and gently dunk each melomakárono in the syrup for about 30 seconds on each side.
Put the dunked biscuits on a plate and sprinkle with the chopped walnuts.