Approximate Baking Theory and a Recipe for Greek Christmas Cookies

December 20, 2015

Ah, Christmas time.  The memories.  When I was little, I would make kourambiethes with my mom.  They are a powdery, snowy-looking Greek Christmas cookie, and it was my job to assist her in adding the appropriate amount of flour into the batter at her cue.  It was my responsibility and no one else’s.  I was, the flour girl.  Pause for effect.

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Without fail, the Saturday before Christmas, early morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table watching her whip butter and sugar together until it was fluffy.  She of course giving me a sweet taste before she added vanilla and brandy for flavor.  After that it was my turn, I would add heaping spoonfuls full of flour into the batter as she mixed by hand until she found that the dough was perfect for shaping into moons, stars and crescents.  She would tell me to add a lot, then a little.  And then just a little bit more…that’s it, just right.

Just right?  How did she know it was just right?  We never measured anything!!!  So, let’s talk about that for a minute shall we?  The topic of “measurements” in Greek cooking.  And I use the term “measurement” loosely.  I call it “Approximate Baking Theory”.


“Oh there’s a coffee cup and spoon, just use that to measure.” -Mom

She would grab some random coffee mug from her cupboard and use it to “measure” ingredients.  She would take a coffee spoon and “measure” spices, or the baking power and baking soda. And then she would tell me to just take big spoonfuls of flour and just add it to the bowl until she said so and just like that, (pause for effect) magic.  The dough would form and pull away from the bowl and it would just roll up perfectly in her hands.  But how?  How?

If you looked at my mom’s recipe notebook, her recipes are basically handwritten lists of ingredients.  I don’t believe for one minute her coffee mugs and coffee spoons ever really “measured” anything.  They were simply vessels used to transport ingredients into the mixing bowl.  “Oh, I need a little cinnamon, I’ll use this small spoon.”  or “Oh, I need some sugar, I’ll use this mug.”  The actual amounts of each ingredient exists only in her head or what “looked about right”.  So imagine the comedy of errors that followed when I demanded, “Mom, you need to measure that and make me a recipe.”  Sweet Jesus.  Everything was in ratios of that stupid coffee cup.  God help me if I lose the coffee cup.  That brown and white coffee cup!!!  She later confessed to me that her grandmother didn’t even use a coffee cup, she used a plate.  A plate!!!  Well, a coffee cup seemed like progress now.

Image 4And so, since I believe baking to be a true “science” and requires precision, and anyone who knows me, knows I like precision, I filled that coffee cup with water and measured it.  Yes I did.

And then I insisted she use measuring spoons for the cinnamon, clove, baking powder and baking soda.  An hour long conversation about rounded teaspoons vs. level teaspoons followed.  I can’t.  Don’t ask.

Let’s just say that after much philosophical discussion, getting lost in translation, I managed to transcribe a recipe that existed only in her head onto paper.  I cracked the code.  I solved the riddle.  The secrets of generations of Greek women have been laid wide out into the open.  I have my mother’s recipe in true recipe form.

I always think back to those innocent days when I make these cookies and smile.  And then I pour some coffee into that stupid coffee mug and grab a real measuring cup and go to town.  So let’s make these cookies!  Woot!

Kourambiethes – makes approximately 60 cookies

3 sticks of unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp whiskey or brandy
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
“approximately” 4 cups of flour (see notes below)

Pre-heat oven to 375 F.

Let the butter come to room temperature before whipping in a stand mixer.  Whip the butter for about 5 minutes at medium speed then add the sugar and beat for and additional 10-15 minutes until light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla, brandy, egg yolks, egg white, baking powder and soda until mixed through.
Begin adding the flour slowly…

A note about the the flour.  You may be wondering, why there isn’t an exact amount of flour.  I want to tell you, that it can vary because of air temperature and humidity in your kitchen, but I would be lying.  In general, this recipe takes approximately 4 cups of flour, give or take a 1/4 cup or more.  How can this be?  Well,  blame “the approximate baking theory”.

However, if you add the flour in the manner I describe next, I promise, you too will be an expert baker of approximate measures.  Do not be afraid.

Begin by adding the first 2.5 cups of flour and mix.  Now it’s time to get your hands dirty.  Take the mixing bowl off the stand mixer and start adding more flour about 1/2 at a time and blend by hand until you obtain the desired consistency.

What is the desired consistency you may be wondering?  Well, you want to add enough flour so that the mixture begins to “pull away” cleanly from the sides of the bowl, but not so much that when you roll out a cookie it cracks.  If you get cracks before you baked them, you have added too much flour, so add slowly.  You want a nice smooth cookie.  Otherwise, while the cookies are baking, they will crack some more as they spread and rise, and this is a very tender, crumbly butter cookie.

But I will let you in on a secret, come closer.  All cracks can be hidden by the powdered sugar topping..wink wink, no one will know.  Shhhh, you didn’t just read that.

I like to roll my cookies out into full moons with a dimple in center to hold more powdered sugar (and also because I am incredibly lazy…otherwise you can get creative and shape them into crescent moons and stars.)

The cookies bake about 12-15 minutes depending on strength of your oven at about 360-375 F. (Again, the approximate baking theory applies). You don’t really want color on top of the cookie, but a nice light brown on the bottom, which will be an indicator that they are cooked perfectly.

Roll the cookies in powdered sugar, or if you like more precision like me, use a sifter and cover them that way 😉

Good luck and enjoy!

– Kallie

P.S. I like to make my kourambiethes gluten free.  I like to use the Jeanne’s flour mix recipe from The Art of Gluten Free Baking.  Works out great.  Anyone who is gluten free should check out Jeanne’s delicious website.

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