Category Archives: christmas

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”.

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“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.

Come, let us have some tea and continue to talk about happy things.

December 6, 2015

I love that quote.  Author Chaim Potok said that.  And I have to agree. What is more fun and happy than afternoon tea?

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My mom and I have this tradition where we go to the Drake Hotel in Chicago every year and have tea at the Palm Court.  It’s an opportunity to have some mother/daughter time and talk about Christmas lists, when to bake our holiday cookies and what to serve for Christmas, all while being served a beautiful tea service with little finger sandwiches and sweet treats and lots and lots of tea.

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Tea is an experience.  A process with very specific rules.  Therapeutic tea I call it.  Your tea pot arrives with the tea of your choice.  Then they pour hot water over the leaves and you sit there waiting like a lady for your tea to infuse.  You just sit.  And wait.  No one to rush you.  Nothing to do, but chat and enjoy the other person(s) you are with.

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Then you pour it slowly in your cup, using the little tea strainer of course.  See that up there?  Use the tea strainer!  I implore you.  Don’t ask how I know this.  Just trust me on this one.

Our favorite tea is the Orange Dulce.  It’s naturally sweet with citrus flavors that I could drink all afternoon.  And I do.  If you look away for one second, you will miss the perfectly dressed wait staff scurrying around with silver carafes full of hot water to magically fill your little tea pot, over and over and over again.  And then again.  Did I mention I end up drinking a lot of tea on this day?

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The best part about tea at the Drake is the little pots of jam and clotted cream that they serve to have with your scones (they even have gluten free scones and finger sandwiches, yeah!).  But what exactly is clotted cream?  Sounds like cream gone bad right?  But it’s not, it’s this divine, sweet, creamy spreadable yumminess that makes any plain bread instantly better.

Do you drink your tea with milk?  I don’t.  Should I?  Tell me.

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My favorite time of year to go to the Palm Court is during the holidays.  They change up the fountain with white, sparkly twigs, okay branches (the thing is giant), decorated with pretty ornaments.  It kind of looks like the water from the fountain froze in mid-air.  The little cherubs are still there, riding these water-spewing fish.  I am a little disturbed by them, I’m not going to lie.  First of all there are four of them and they all seem to look really happy with this evil stranglehold on the fish…never mind.  Forget I said anything.

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That’s my mom enjoying her tea and finger sandwiches.  The finger sandwiches are dah-rling.  There are itty bitty lobster rolls, mini spinach and cheese quiches, and small chicken sandwiches with a swiss cheese and strawberry jam topping.  Also, tiny smoked salmon sandwich and of course, what is high tea with out wee little cucumber and dill cream cheese sammies?  Look!  No crust.  That’s fancy.  🙂

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And yes everything is small, and dainty, and cute.  I almost don’t want to eat them.  Look at my gluten free chocolate cupcake?  Isn’t it darling?  Okay, maybe only I get excited about miniature chocolate cupcakes.  Yeah, didn’t think so.  You want that cupcake don’t you?  The Drake also has managed to serve the softest, best gluten free chocolate chip cookie as well.  I don’t know how they did it, but it’s super delicate.

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Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors. – Alice Walker

I also, appreciate the Christmas carolers that walk around the Palm Court serenading everyone. How cute is that?  And let’s not forget the harpist.  Come on!  A fountain?  A harp?  Carolers?  Miniscule sandwiches?  Who am I?  I am having so much fun.

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Go, have tea at the Drake.  It’s a fun tradition.  Have a tea at home and make a cucumber sandwich, but make them small and speak with an English accent, that’s fun too.  What traditions do you keep?

-Kallie