Learn how to make Melomakarona, my favorite Christmas cookie of all time.
Melomakarona are one of the most beloved Greek desserts. Families traditionally serve these honey walnut cookies at Christmastime. It’s a festive cookie—boasting spices like cinnamon and cloves—tender and crumbly, and moist from its final swim in a spiced honey syrup. The syrup is similar to the one you would drizzle over baklava. Melomakarona is the plural of melomakarono, but that is irrelevant because you’d never eat just one. Every Greek family has their own version of this cookie, and I’m excited to share mine with you.
The origins of melamakorna date back to ancient Greece. According to Dimitris Stathakopoulos as quoted in The Greek Reporter, “The term makaronia correspondingly comes from the ancient Greek word “makaria,” which used to be a piece of bread in the shape of the modern-day melomakarono, which was offered to people who attended a funeral… Later, the makaria recipe was changed, adding honey (“meli”). Therefore the name changed as well to melomakarono.”
Recipe roots in Crete
This recipe comes from my yiayia (grandmother) and namesake Chrysanthe Xenos. She was born in 1898 in a small village outside of Chania, Crete when it was transitioning out of 250 years of Ottoman occupation to an autonomous state, before the island unified with mainland Greece. When she would make them in her village, she would have only used olive oil as the fat. This is traditional for these cookies because the 40-day period preceding Christmas is a time for fasting (no meat or dairy, among other things) in the orthodox church. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1921, more ingredients like butter and shortening were readily available for her to use, so she modified the recipe. I don’t know how or why she decided to use oil, butter, and shortening, in this recipe but I love the outcome!
A special family history
Her melomakarona were famous in her Waukegan, Illinois community. My father used to help her shape them into their signature oval shape, dip them in the honey syrup, and top them with the walnuts. Since they didn’t have a food processor back then, he used to chop all the walnuts with a kitchen knife and then use a rolling pin to further break down the chopped nuts until they were the perfect size to top the cookies. I never had the opportunity to bake these with my yiayia, since we weren’t normally together at Christmas, but now making them for my family every year always makes me think of her.
This is a pretty straight forward recipe. It’s one of my most popular cooking classes, both in-person and virtually. But, you want to make sure to not add too much flour. You’re going for a soft dough. When it cleanly pulls away from the side of your mixing bowl, you should stop adding additional flour. This recipe also abides by the cardinal Greek rule of hot and cold. When you’re adding a syrup to a pastry or cake, make sure that one is hot and the other cold. In this recipe, your cookies need to be hot, so cool your syrup to room temperature or below. This way your cookies have the best chance of soaking up all that goodness.