When we do book signings we are often fortunate to have people bring us gifts of food from their own kitchen. At a recent stop in Washington, DC, we met Elvira Garnett and her son, John. They shared a delicious Greek cookie with us and we, in turn, convinced them to share the recipe with you.
John is earning a doctorate in International Food History and is the owner of a sweet food cart called Wandering Zorba. (check out their website for more great recipes by clicking here)
John shares a little bit about the history of this traditional Greek dessert:
-A Bite of History-
Butter. The essence of kourabiedes lies in using high quality butter, so that they melt in your mouth and make an irresistible duo with a hot cup of coffee. Kavala, a town in Northern Greece, is famous for making the best kourabiedes in Greece. Their secret lies within the use of butter made from buffalo which are an important product of the region. On the other hand, many traditional regions of Greece such as Veroia argue that the only way to make proper kourabiedes is to use goat butter. Goat butter gives the kourabiedes their irresistible light and rich flavor, while sheep or cow butter lives them a little heavier.
Light and delectable, buttery, and piled high with powdered sugar, kourabiedes are a staple of the holiday season in Greece. During Christmas, many kourabiedes are dressed with a single, dark clove in the middle which is supposed to represent the spices, frankincense and myrrh, that the Magi brought to baby Jesus on his birth.
Kourabiedes were introduced to the Greeks during Ottoman rule, but they evolved independently and now taste very differently from the Kurabiye from which they came, though no Greek will admit to their Ottoman origins. During Ottoman rule, kourabiedes were cut into crescent shapes as an act of deference to their colonizers, but this practice lost favor following Greek independence in the early 19th century. Byzantium, which would become the Roman Empire’s Constantinople and present-day Istanbul, had a crescent as its symbol during Greek rule based upon the Greek goddess Artemis. Ironically, the Ottomans adopted the crescent when they conquered the city in 1453, and its origins were obscured over time. Another legend has it that it was not the Ottoman crescent from which the Greeks shaped their sweets; the lack of cutting equipment and molds led Greeks to cut their cookies using the edge of cups for drinking water which gave the cookies a natural curve. The story of kourabiedes is not about origins. The hybrid nature of it illustrates the ways that culture transcends borders we erect around nations and empires. Culture is constantly shared, adopted, cannibalized, and adapted to local regions, but it is never “authentic.” What we think of as globalization today is a process that has been ongoing for centuries, and food is a wonderful way to tease out history.
In the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Greeks began to use a slang term for soldiers calling them “kourabies.” At first glance, kourabiedes look solid and pristine, but they crumble the minute you take a bite. “Kourabies” were soldiers that looked strong and promising but crumbled the minute they were in battle and showed weak will. This slang carried over to World War II as well. The Greeks named Mussolini’s Italian soldiers “kourabiedes” because they were weak-willed and crumbled easily in battle.
The connection with kourabiedes and danger didn’t end when the hostilities of World War II ended. Well-seasoned Greek bakers often make kourabiedes only in bite-sized portions because novice eaters often mistakenly breathe in or out as they take a bite of larger kourabiedes. The light and airy powdered sugar can easily be inhaled and a cloud of dust induces cough. Unlike the “kourabiedes” in World War II though, most people courageously adjust and continue to eat these historical sweets.
1 cup of butter (goat’s milk recommended)
¼ cup powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 egg yolk
½ teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 2 teaspoons of lemon juice. Or many traditional recipes use 1 shot of brady or Metaxa instead of lemon juice.
3 -4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup slivered almonds
2-3 cups confectionery sugar for the topping
- Bake almonds at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes until aromatic. Or sauté until slightly browned. Set aside.
- Beat the butter for ten minutes until nice and frothy.
- Add powdered sugar and beat for 2-3 minutes more.
- Add the egg yolk, baking soda, and lemon juice or Metaxa/brandy. Beat eat until well incorporated.
- Add flour gradually to the mix, one cup at a time until you have a nice soft batter. Make sure the batter is soft to the touch as this is the most important step.
- Add almonds to the batter and incorporate gently.
- Use a 1 ¼ inch – 1 ½ inch diameter cookie scoop to make the cookies. Place cookies on a parchment-covered pan – an inch apart.
- Bake in a 350 F. degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until bottom of the cookies are light brown.
- Sprinkle confectionery sugar of serving or storage dish. As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, place them on the newly sprinkled pan.
- Sprinkle the cookies with the remaining confectionery sugar to which you have added ½ teaspoon of vanilla.
Recipe makes 40-60 pieces depending on the size of your scoop. Time in the kitchen about 1 hour to 1.5 hours.
Good luck eating just one!