Saturday, 30 March 2013

Day 13: Vegan Almond or Nut Cookies Shaped Like Pears - March 30, 2013

Everybody likes cookies.  They are easy to eat, small enough to enjoy with a coffee or tea, and just sweet enough to satisfy a craving.  And, many times, one is enough.  Well, we thought it would be nice to have a homemade treat on hand, since we are expecting company over the next few days.  When someone visits, it is important to have something to offer, food or drink.  So, we chose to make a few cookies for our guests.  Typically, these cookies are called Pine Nut Cookies, but traditionally  they were made from marzipan (almond paste).  And, although these are not originally Greek, adaptations of the original marzipan cookies have comfortably made their way to a common sight in many Greek bakeries and homes.

Marzipan is rather expensive, and can be bought in tubes, cans, or in various pre-made shapes.  We could also make our own by grinding the almonds with some sugar to make the paste.  If you don't really like the flavor of marzipan, there should be alternatives.  And, there are, especially with these cookies.

We could use pine nuts or walnuts and end up with similarly delicious treats, just different flavours.  Today, we chose to be a little more traditional and use almonds.  But, our variation to the recipe is that we used toasted, sliced almonds.  That, we thought, would bring another dimension to the flavour of these pear-shaped treats.

Why pear shaped?  Well, first, it is very easy to just pinch an end and make the stem part.  But, pears are representative of how ancient the Greek civilisation is.  According to the author of the excellent cookbook, The Olive and the Caper, "Pears originated where Greeks did, on the west of the Urals above the Black Sea.  The remains of wild pear are found in Mycenaean sites."   So, with the pear being so intertwined with Greek food for so long, and nuts having been used forever in Greek culinary treats, putting the two together seemed like a good fit.  These were easy and quick to make, and they look so cute!

For this recipe, you will need:

1 1/2 cups nuts (8 ounces)
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 Tablespoons flour (all-purpose)
2 Tablespoons Triple Sec (or other orange-based liqueur)
32 whole cloves
2 Tablespoons confectioners' sugar (icing or powdered sugar)

Remember, we used toasted almond slices that we had on hand, but you can use almonds of any kind, walnuts, pine nuts, or pistachios (shelled) to make these cookies.  This recipe yields about 32 cookies (for today's blog entry, we used half the recipe for the pictures below).

First, preheat the oven to 375° F (190° C).  While the cookies are in the oven, we had to lower the temperature to 350° F (175° C), but the higher temperature was important at the start of the baking.  Then, start the cookie dough.  In a food processor, combine the nuts and sugar and grind to a fine powder.  You will see the oil start to separate out of  the nuts, and then the sugar will absorb the oil and you will watch the nut mixture turn pasty.  When that starts to happen, add the flour and the liqueur.   Just pour them into the food processor and use the pulse function to get the ingredients together.  Now, continue to process this until the dough holds together by itself.

Take the dough out of the food processor and make a log from it.  Roll it into a log or cylinder that is uniform, since this will be divided into equal pieces to make the cookies.  Let the log rest for a moment to make sure that it holds its shape and does not fall apart.  You can see that we left our nuts a little more coarse than fine.  We agreed that we like a little texture and a little bite to a cookie, and would prefer that it is not creamy.  So, we did not puree the nuts as well as the directions in the cookbook suggested.  So, when you look at our dough, it does look like it is falling apart, but it is just so coarse that it took a little more pinching together than if it had been more finely ground.

Now, cut the log into 32 equal pieces.  As mentioned, we made half the recipe, so you will not see 32 in the pictures below.  There were different ways to cut the log into equal pieces -- use a knife and cut, just as you would refrigerator cookies.  Or, use your fingers and pinch equal amounts off the log and lay the pinched portions aside as you go.  Whichever way is easy for you, do that.  You could even use a scale to weigh each piece.  We chose to pinch our pieces so they felt like they would be the right size.  Sometimes, we know how big we want the bite to be, and we may not have 16 pieces, but the pears seemed like the right size for us.   So, pinch or cut the pieces and lay them aside.

Now comes the fun part.  Using the palms of your hands, and your fingers, roll the chunks of dough into ball shapes and place them on a cookie sheet.  Just to mention that we always line our cookie sheets with either parchment paper or with the reusable silicone mats.  Because these cookies are very oily when they are raw, we thought parchment would be the best choice today.  After you have rolled each chunk into a ball, use your index finger and thumb and pinch one end of the ball.  Pinch with these two fingers and turn the ball in your hand to keep all the edges rounded.  This was the hardest thing to photograph!  But, you pinch and turn, pinch and turn, and then lay the pear shaped cookies on the cookie sheet.

Now, add the stems to the pears.  Using the whole cloves, poke a clove right into the pointed side of the cookie to give the appearance of a stem coming out of a fruit.  Do this for each cookie.  When we sat back and looked at the whole tray of cookies, we thought it was so cute, and the cloves really do have the right shape!

Bake the cookies in the oven for 5 minutes at 375° F  (190° C), then, turn down the temperature to 325° F (165° C) and continue to bake until the cookies are lightly golden on top -- about 15 minutes total.  They will have the same golden colour as a toasted nut -- whatever nut you are using.  Keep that in mind when baking.

Let the cookies rest for only a moment, and then, using a sifter, sprinkle the powdered sugar (icing sugar, confectioners' sugar) all over the cookies.  It's the same process as making kourambiedes (see last year's blog entry by clicking here).  You want to sprinkle the powdered sugar on the warm cookies so the sugar melts a little bit and makes a bit of a glaze or a coating on the cookies.  You can add more powdered sugar later if you want white cookies, but for now, sift enough on there to cover the entire top of the cookie.

Then, the cookies are ready to serve.  You can add more powdered sugar, or you can leave them as they are.  Some were warmer than the others, and the sugar melted more on those cookies.  But, we know for sure that they looked beautiful!   We thought that we had baked our batch a little too long, and they were maybe a little dark for what we wanted.  But, then, we realised that we had started with some toasted almonds, so our dough was already darker from the start!

We can keep these cookies in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.  It is such a simple recipe and not too time consuming to bake.  Really, the whole process, start to finish, took us about 30 minutes.  We think that most people can find 30 minutes in a day to make some cookies.  And, if we wanted to make different shapes, we probably could.  We could just leave the cookies as balls, put a clove in the top of the ball and call them apple shaped!  Or, we could make slices from our original log and omit the cloves, and just have cookies.  We don't think the shape of the cookie matters as much as how delightful it tasted.  Perfect for company, perfect for Great Lent!

"A tree is known by its fruit, a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love."

St. Basil the Great

Friday, 29 March 2013

DAY 12: Melomakarona or Finikia - Vegan Greek Honey Walnut Cookies - March 29, 2013

When looking at these cookies, we always have a discussion about their proper name.  For one of us, we learned the term as "melomakarona" (μελομακάρονα).  The other one of us always knew them as finikia (φοινίκια).  What is the proper term?  Well, according to Wikipedia, finikia are similar cookies, but are dry cookies, whereas melomakarona are dipped in a honey syrup and are moist.  That means that today we made melomakarona (μελομακάρονα).  This is a lovely Lenten cookie that takes a bit of time to make, but rewards us with such a flavourful, delightful treat that the time spent is absolutely worth it!

Many of the ladies at church make melomakarona, and are very proud of their cookies.  Often, they are seen around Christmas, but we knew that they were completely vegan and appropriate for Great Lent.  Although there are other recipes that may include butter or eggs, we searched high and low to find the ones that did not have any animal products.  In talking to the ladies at church, we learned that everyone has a secret ingredient when it comes to the flavouring.  Some of the women would not tell us their secret ingredients, which is why it is still a secret, so we had to read through cookbooks to find the right recipe.  We have never before made melomakarona just by ourselves but have been part of the process with different relatives, or with the ladies at church.  Even then, it is usually to just shape or taste the melomakarona.  Today, we took the big step in making melomakarona all by ourselves. And, it was fun!  We think they turned out very well, but we will have to take them to church and get the real opinions about if we did it well (husband, who is very biased, commented that this batch of melomakarona are delicious - "...they have a rich honey, Cinnamon flavour with excellent layers of textures. These really taste very natural and have none of the chemical flavours, particularly that of corn syrup, that I have tasted in many melomakarona in the past!")

As we said, it will take a bit of time to make these cookies.  Even with having the ingredients on hand, it seemed like it took an hour to make the dough and get the cookies to the oven; and then, it took another hour to dunk them in the syrup, top them with nuts, and get them to a serving dish.  So, when you go to make the melomakarona, please allot an adequate amount of time to do it all.

For this recipe, you will need:

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 large orange, grated peel and juiced
2/3 cup oil
6 Tablespoons granulated sugar
4 Tablespoons brandy or bourbon
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
3 1/2 cups Self-Rising flour
1 cup walnuts, shelled and chopped

For the syrup, you will need:

1 cup honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup water

Make the cookies first, and, while they are baking in the oven, make the syrup.  The timing for both is really good and you can multitask this way!

For the cookies, get everything ready before mixing the dough.  Start by grating the skin of the orange.  Make sure not to include the white pith because it is bitter.  We chose the medium grate on our hand-held grater.  And, to make sure that we used every shred of aromatic orange skin, we used a small garlic brush to remove the gratings from the grater.  We had to make sure that none of the bristles fell into the food, though, and that was difficult since the brush is so small.

Once the orange peel is grated, juice that orange and set it aside.  Add the baking soda to the orange juice, and allow it to sit aside.  You will see the coolest chemical reaction, as the orange juice bubbles and foams and triples in quantity when the baking soda is added.

Now, mix the cookie dough by beating together the oil and sugar.  You can use an electric mixer, a hand held mixer, immersion blender, or your hands.  You want to mix the oil and sugar together to make a somewhat thick mixture.  Add the brandy (we used the wonderful Greek brandy Metaxa), 1/2 of the cinnamon, and then, the orange juice mixture.

Make sure all these ingredients are well combined before adding the flour.  Mix by hand to add the flour.  (We used a spatula to fold in the flour so we could feel if it was getting too much flour or not enough.  We know of some women who stick their hands directly in the bowl to mix the flour.)

Just add the flour and mix it in to the liquid ingredients.  With self rising flour, you may notice that the dough is a little lighter.  It is self-rising because it is flour with an already added leavening agent -- usually baking powder.  Since the two ingredients are evenly distributed, the self-rising flour does its job of leavening a product without you having to worry.  Add the self-rising flour and mix well.


Once the dough pulls together, add the grated orange rind and knead the dough for about 5 minutes.  This will assure that the rind is evenly mixed in to the dough.    Knead the dough for three minutes, and then, you can start shaping the cookies.

In order to make uniformly sized cookies, there are several ways to approach this.  You could pinch the desired amount of dough, and set it aside.  You could use  a scoop or spoon and get the cookies to be the same size.  You could roll a log and slice even slices to have uniform cookies.  We chose to use a Tablespoon measure to make our melomakarona.  They came out a nice size -- not too big, about 2 bites per cookie.  Once you have the lumps of cookie dough, shape the dough into oblong balls, by rolling it around in  your hands.  Once you get an oblong ball, lay it on a cookie sheet to bake.

Once you have all the cookies rolled into the oblong shape, use a dinner fork (or dessert fork, or some fork) to press the grooves into the top of the cookies.  Dip the fork in warm water, then press on top of each cookie, being careful to keep the fork flat on the cookie, not digging in the tips of the fork's tines.

Then, bake the cookies for 20-25 mintues at 350° F (175° C)  until the cookies are solid, golden brown, and slide off the paper without sticking (that's also how you know the bottom is baked.)

Once you get the cookies in the oven, make the syrup.  You need hot syrup with cold cookies.  This will not work with hot cookies and cold syrup!  The syrup must be hot!

Make the syrup by combining the honey, the sugar, and the water in a saucepan, and heating it.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously.  Skim off any foam that arises from the surface.  Then, lower the heat to a medium-low until the syrup thickens.  You don't want it too thick because you will have to dip your cookies in it.  The hot syrup should end up being the thickness of warm honey.  Keep the syrup on medium low heat until you are ready to dip the cookies.

When the cookies are baked, using a spatula immediately transfer the hot cookies to a cooling rack.  This will allow air to circulate under the cookies as well as on top of the cookies.  Let the cookies cool completely before moving on to the next step!

Now, get your next step set up and your work area ready.  Line up the cookies near the syrup, so you don't make a mess all over the kitchen.  We put our cooling rack on top of a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, to catch any drips from the cookies.  You will also want a slotted spoon or two to move the cookies form the pot to the cooling rack.  Remember, the syrup is hot, so it will be more difficult to use your fingers!

We also got our walnuts ready by crushing them.  You can crush the nuts with your fingers if you want really big chunks of nuts, or you can put them in a zipper-seal bag and use your rolling pin to crush the nuts.  We like the variety of coarseness that we get from the zipper-seal bag method.  We have larger chunks and smaller granules which really adds an attractive element to the cookies.  Once you have the nuts ready and the dipping station set, then you can move to the next step.  Having these things in place before you start will make this process smooth and efficient.

Now, one at a time, put the cookies into the pot of syrup.  We found that when we put the cookies in the right way, we had to spoon the syrup over the top of the cookie, and then flip the cookie in the pot; but it ended up that the bottom of the cookie was saturated, and the top was rather dry.  So, we learned that we need to put the cookies in the pot of syrup face down -- so the top of each cookie is submerged in the syrup, and the bottom of the cookie faces up.  Leave the cookies in the syrup to cook for 2-3 minutes.  It sounds like a long time, but the cookies are so airy and light, they need the time to absorb the syrup fullly and become slightly saturated on the inside.

Using a spoon, slotted or otherwise, transfer the soaked cookies to the cooling rack, and allow them to sit for a moment -- until they are cool enough to touch  but still very sticky.  First, sprinkle the melomakarona with cinnamon, then move the cookies to the plate with the walnuts.  Roll the top of the cookie in the nuts to make sure to coat the entire top of the cookie.  Then, return the cookies back to the cooling rack to allow them to drip dry.

If you added all the cinnamon in the dough, sprinkle some more cinnamon on top of the cookies.  You can be a bit generous.  Several of the ladies at church mix together a cinnamon-sugar combination to sprinkle on the cookies after they add the walnuts.  Let the cookies sit until they are completely cool and not sticky.  Serve the cookies at room temperature.  These will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, or they stay at room temperature in an air-tight container for up to 7 days.  In our house, these don't last that long because they are such a yummy Lenten treat!

"Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted, be afflicted in mind."

St. Isaac the Syrian