It’s not Christmas in Greece until the pastry shops start piling mounds of melomakarona and kourabiedes. And it cleaves Greek society into two clans: those who prefer the crunchy intensity of melomakarona and those who swear by the ethereal, melt in the mouth, buttery bite of a kourabie.
More traditional than Santa Claus or the Christmas tree, two scrumptious biscuits are indispensable additions to the Greek holiday table. Platters piled high with nutty brown melomakarona and snow white kourabiedes form part of the festive fare of virtually every Greek household, ready to be offered to any guest who happens by, invited or not. Or nibbled by family members at any time of day.
You might also find honey-sprinkled diples (sheets or coils of feather-light fried pastry), silver-wrapped marrons glacés, and mountains of clementines for color, but melomakarona and kourabiedes are the main attractions, the yang and yin of Christmas delicacies. Not surprisingly, they also have fans, similar to football teams. My husband prefers the crunchy intensity of melomakarona, while I find them too sweet and can become ecstatic over an ethereal, melt in the mouth, buttery bite of a kourabie.
Kourabiedes, which are essentially shortbread, may consist of nothing more than butter, flour, and sugar. The version we are most likely to find on the Christmas table is enriched with the addition of crushed almonds, brandy, and eggs, and covered with a thick dusting of confectioner’s sugar. But some recipes call for crushed walnuts, cinnamon or vanilla, orange blossom or rose water, and even olive oil instead of butter (which would make them acceptable to observant Orthodox who fast before Christmas). Every recipe agrees however that the cookies, whether round, flat, crescents, leaf-shaped, or bracelets, should be baked until they are barely coloured. Whiteness is essential, even if a slight ‘tan’ can be concealed by the powdered sugar, which usually ends up powdering your chin, nose and clothes. The white is considered symbolic of good fortune and happiness.
But what about the name? A little research brings up a tangle of sometimes conflicting information, for this sweet is found all over the Middle East and the Balkans and thought to originate from Tabriz, Iran. Some sources say that Gurabiah (also Ghraybeh or Ghorayebah), as they are called in Arabic, comes from the word “gharib”, which means “to miss or yearn for”, or even “to swoon,” so that they are often heart-shaped and referred to as “Lovers’ shortbread.” Others say that the Turkish “kurabiye” comes from two words meaning “dry” and “biscuit.” Both sound valid.
One thing all versions have in common is that they are offered as favours during weddings and christenings and served at holidays, whether the end of Ramadan or Christmas. They may be flavoured with cardamom, as was the fashion in Jewish communities in Iraq, pistachios as in Gaziantep, where almost every sweet contains the green nut, or even covered with gold leaf for the delectation of the Ottoman sultan’s court (and some very wealthy Turkish families even today). But they always have a festive connotation.
Below you will find a receipe for this amazing sweet coming from one of the most famous Greek chefs Akis Petretziki:
This is a delicious, melt in your mouth, traditional Greek sweet called “Kourabiedes”. Sweet and crumbly, with crunchy toasted almonds and they look so Christmassy!!
- Remove the butter from the refrigerator about 2-3 hours before using, so that it can soften at room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 180* C (350*F) Fan.
- In the mixer using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for 5-6 minutes on high speed until it turns white. Add the icing sugar and vanilla. Continue beating for another 5-7 minutes. As soon as the sugar is added, the volume of the butter may lessen but it will rise again. It will be ready when it looks like whipped cream.
- Remove the mixing bowl and add the flour in batches. Gently fold in with a spatula and add then add the almonds.
- The mixture should be soft but not that soft that it will stick to your hands.
- Mold into balls the size of walnuts (25 g). Place them in rows, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Make a small indentation on top of every little ball of dough with your finger. This way it will it can hold on to more icing sugar.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, until they turn light golden.
- Remove from oven. Carefully move them from the baking sheet and place them on to a wire rack to cool. They are very soft and crumbly when hot.
- When cool, spray them with some rose water.
- Put some icing sugar in a sieve and dust.
*In the nutritional chart you will find on the right handside, we have calculated 100 g of icing sugar (from the 300 g with which the Greek Almond Snow Balls have been dusted) as an average quantity that stays at the top of the cookie when consumed.