Traditional Greek Christmas Desserts

Welcome to the magical world of Christmas sweets. In our country, traditional has always been very generous wtih food and dessert, and during Christmas especially, tablecloths are filled with stains of honey, syrup and powdered sugar. This is how we pay back the existence of a baker in the home.

So, let’s begin: Kourabiedes, melomakarona, vasilopita, baklavas. Each one with its own flavor, with its own proportions of butter and syrup, olive oil and spices and crunchy phyllo dough, walnuts and almonds. Here’s your plate, let’s go try one of each!

What is the story of Kourabies? Who has the time to wonder when we are so quickly intoxicated by the aroma of butter as we approach the platter or when we get lost in the cloud of powered sugar that surrounds our favorite treat. Its softness may help us seap into it and forget our worries. Whatever the case may be, there is one indisputable fact, the traditionally Greek one: Kourabies is a Christmas, fragrant and buttery velvety treat.

Kourabies has a long story. Etymologically it comes from the East, it traveled until the Middle Ages where it was established as a cookie. Ancient Greeks baked cookies twice, so as to give the sweets the texture, form and crunchiness of the cookie. The kourabie even reached the Venetians in Asia and returned and today, is the traditional Greek and favorite Christmas kourabies.
With almonds, covered with chocolate or grated almonds, whole almonds or half and full of powered sugar that creates a cloud of happiness.

Our next plate is full of melomakarona. Here, honey and sugar have combined to form the perfect union, one that lasts for years and one that has even beaten the darkness. Why do we say that? Because the Ancient Greeks offered a «makaria,» which was a small baked good in the shape of what today is known as melomakarono, after funerals. «Makaronia» was an evening prayer for the deceased. Later, makaria dove into honey syrup and became “honey” (meli) + makaria = melomakarona. Today, we eat it because we enjoy it, because it is delicious and a full dessert and because as opposed to mourn, we celebrate birth.

The unique aspect of melomakaraono is that it is created mainly with olive oil. Of course sugar and honey the delicacy a syrup that intensifies its unique flavor, and cinnamon, cloves, as well as, some orange zest and of course grated walnut elevate it even more. Some palettes prefer fewer walnuts and less syrup, more of a cookie feel and less glazed, it is an issue and perhaps even, a challenge that each neighborhood or home baker must tackle for themselves each year. Gramma may apologetically say, “The syrup got away from me,” but we know that that’s what we really want anyway.

«I won the New Year’s coin!» Every New Year’s our anticipation grows as those who will fend for the New Year’s coin look deep into each other’s eyes, clench their jaws and do not say a word. It is the behavior of those who desire and hope that year to come will be their lucky year and that the coin will provide proof of just that. Santa Claus smiles and emphasizes that the purpose of the vasilopita is to commemorate soulfulness, justice and magnanimity – these are the values that the fluffy, buttery vasilopita represents.

Legend has it that Santa Claus (Saint Basil in Greece) was a Bishop in Caesarea of Cappadocia and during his time as Bishop, enemies surrounded the city and in order to stop the siege and the city’s destruction, they demanded all of the residents’ gold. The locals, loved Santa Clause for trying to prevent a bad situation, collected the valuables and went to deliver them in a chest. At that moment though, Saint Mercurius appeared, fending off the enemies and avoiding catastrophe. Santa Claus wanted to return the valuables to their rightful owners but without knowing whom each item belonged to decided to place each of them into small rolls of bread and distribute them to the residents’ families. Since then, this cake, vasilopita, symbolizes justice and magnanimity, love and optimism. All of this translates into…good fortune!

This year we bake our own vasilopita, we throw the coin in the batter and as it bakes, we joyfully welcome the New Year, decorating it with almonds, cloves, powered sugar and sweet optimism.
Perhaps your dessert of choice is baklava. Well, bite-sized baklava, with its butter so fresh, fragrant and real, wafting in the air, the syrup seeping into every crevice of the crunchy phyllo dough. In the olden day, baklavas was made with batter – we will prefer phyllo dough, alternating with walnuts, almonds and honey. Each layer one stop closer to paradise. Baklava, whether cut into bite-sized cubes, triangular or square pieces, in a pan or a box, always smells of butter. Buttery baklava hold the reigns of enjoyment in our minds.

On our Christmas table, or on other accessible and often viewed sections of our living room, we set out platters with Christmas sweets. These treats are offerings for visiting friends and families, for dinners that we may be hosting or just because.

So happy and sweet holidays to all!

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