with Calanda (1871), Nikiforos Lytras
Nikoforos Lytras was a 19th century painter from the island of Tinos, Greece–an island whose rich artistic history has also produced the famous artists Nikoloas Gyzis, painter (1842-1901), and sculptor Yannoulis Chalepas (1851-1938). Lytras studied at the Athens School of Arts, where he painted mostly historical paintings, and after studying in Munich and returning to Greece, evolved into painting daily scenes of life. He spent his life teaching painting at the Athens School of Arts. His Calanda painting above—meaning "carols" in Greek—is a national treasure of Greece, depicting a scene that could have been inspired in any traditional Greek village, but that I like to think was set in Tinos. A women leans upon her doorframe to listen to five children caroling under a full moon, as a sixth watches forlornly from behind a wall.
The singing of carols by children is a long-standing tradition in Greece. On the eve of Christmas, New Years and the Epiphany, children begin from sunrise by knocking on doors and asking a house's occupants, "na ta poume?" meaning, "Shall we say them?" When residents agree, the children sing carols, and are then rewarded with a small gift. In older times the children were given sweets, dried fruits and nuts, today they are often given money—however some people still choose to serve them sweets, such as the cookie in this recipe called "melomakarouna."
Melomakarona (honey walnut cookies) are delicious cookies traditionally made in Greece for Christmas. They are comforting and aromatic, flavored with cinnamon, orange peel, and cloves. This recipe will make about 40 small cookies. I warn you, it is very difficult to eat only a couple.
For the syrup:
- 1 cup water
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1-2 cinnamon sticks
- 1-2 whole cloves, or 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- Half of an organic orange (you'll be cooking with the peel)
For the dough's wet mixture:
- 3/4 cup orange juice
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- zested peel from two oranges (use organic)
For the dry mixture:
- 3 1/3 cup flour
- 1 1/4 cup semolina flour, fine
For the topping:
- 1 cup walnuts, crushed
A note before you begin:
Make the syrup at least 3-4 hours before you make the cookies so that it can cool completely. For these cookies to absorb the syrup properly, they must be submerged in cold syrup the instant they come out of the oven.
If you will make use of leftover syrup (on pancakes or french toast), you can double the syrup portion of the recipe to make it easier to dunk the cookies in the syrup at the end. If you're not likely to use leftover syrup, only make the amount listed above. It will still work out; you can always drizzle the syrup on top of the hot cookies and they will absorb the syrup well.
How to make the syrup:
1) In a small to medium saucepan, combine all the syrup ingredients except for the honey.
2) On medium heat, bring the syrup to a boil, stirring occasionally.
3) As soon as it begins to boils, remove the saucepan from heat and add the honey.
4) Allow the mixture to cool completely (3-4 hours).
How to make the cookies:
5) Pre-heat the oven to 375° F.
6) Combine all the ingredients for the wet mixture of the cookies into a large bowl and combine with a whisk.
7) Combine the two flours for the dry mixture in a medium bowl and stir to combine.
8) Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture.
9) Using your hands, very gently combine the wet and dry ingredients. Do this for no longer than 10 or 15 seconds; as long as the wet and dry ingredients are mostly mixed, you can stop. The dough doesn't need to be one solid mass like other cookie recipes you may be accustomed to. The crumbly pieces will stick together when you form each actual cookie. It will seem dry, but this is because you will soak the cookies in syrup after they cook.
10) With your hands, press together a cookie's amount of dough (a heaping soup spoon). Press the dough in your palm just enough to make it stay together and make it oblong. If it is too dry to hold a shape, you can drizzle a little olive oil onto your dough. To shape the cookies, form a ball then flatten it in your palms, and squeeze the edges with your fingers to make it oblong. You want cookies about 1.5 inches by 2 inches, and half an inch tall.
11) Bake at 375° F for 20-25 minutes until they form a golden color.
12) Remove the cookies from the oven and immediately dip them in your saucepan. You will have to do this in rounds as they won't all fit at once. Allow the cookies to soak for about ten seconds before removing them to a plate.
13) Arrange the cookies on a plate with a rimmed edge to catch the syrup. You can stack the cookies like a pyramid; the lower ones will be sweeter from sitting in more syrup.
14) Drizzle the leftover syrup on top of the cookies (if you doubled the syrup recipe you should have about 2 cups leftover; make sure you don't pour the extra syrup onto the cookies). Pour only a little syrup if you don't want the cookies very sweet, and a lot if you do.
15) Sprinkle with the walnuts, and enjoy! These are good immediately, and they also keep well for a few days.