Christmas in Greece is not as religiously oriented as Easter, but it includes a two-week holiday, with children away from school, exchanging of presents between loved ones, sweets and various dishes of supreme taste enhancing the festive mood, and the decoration of Christmas trees, and carols (Kalanda) bring a note of happiness to the streets which this year are especially bleak for many because of the economic crisis.
The best part is anxiously expected Christmas table where Greeks gather with friends and family to enjoy traditional recipes passed on from generation to generation. The basic Christmas menu differs from region to region across the country with local delicacies being praised from Christmas Eve to Christmas day. The festive table is full of different dishes and tastes with melomakarona and kourambiethes being the center of attention. The feast begins on Christmas Eve with starters including feta, tzatziki, avgolemono soup, roasted pork and potatoes, sometimes a stuffed turkey with raisins and rice, while tsipouro and retsina flow plenty to cheer up the spirits even more.
This is a short featured post presenting some of the most well-known Greek recipes for Christmas time that can be easily prepared at home and guarantee a full meal for the holiday.
1. Avgolemono (Egg-Lemon Chicken Soup)
This is a must starter to be found in all Greek homes not only during Christmas but throughout the year. The egg-lemon chicken broth is typically cooked with rice or orzo pasta and its consistency can vary from near-stew to near-broth depending on each one’s personal taste. The soup is usually made with whole eggs; sometimes with just yolks. The whites may be beaten into a foam separately before mixing with the yolks and lemon juice, or whole eggs may be beaten with the lemon juice.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Yield: 6 – 8 Servings
- 1 whole chicken, about 3 1/2 lbs. with excess fat trimmed and breast skin removed
- 12 cups water
- 2 carrots cut in half
- 2 celery stalks, cut in half
- 1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
- 2 bay leaves
- 5 whole black peppercorns
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup orzo pasta, or rice
- 3 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon zest
- Juice of two lemons, strained
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Add first eight ingredients to a large stockpot. Bring the water to a rapid boil, lower heat to medium low and simmer partially covered for approximately an hour to an hour and a half.
Remove the chicken and vegetables to a bowl and carefully strain the broth through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Return the strained broth to the stockpot and bring to a boil.
Add the orzo pasta and cook, uncovered for approximately 10 – 12 minutes until tender.
While the pasta is cooking, prepare the egg-lemon mixture. Using a whisk beat the eggs until nice and frothy. Add the lemon zest and the lemon juice in a steady stream while continuing to whisk.
When the pasta has finished cooking, turn off the heat. Ladle about two cups of broth into a bowl or large measuring cup. Slowly add the hot broth to the egg-lemon mixture while continuing to whisk. This will temper the eggs and prevent them from curdling once they are added to the hot broth.
Stir the egg-lemon mixture into the pot and heat over very low heat for approximately 5 -10 minutes until heated through. Be careful not to boil the soup once the eggs have been added.
Adjust your seasoning for salt and pepper and add more as desired.
Traditionally, this soup is served without the chicken meat or vegetables. You can add them back or serve on the side as you prefer.
2. Pork, Fennel and Leek ragout (hirino me prasa)
After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is anxiously looked forward. Pigs, lambs and boars are slaughtered and cooked in so many ways that only one is presented here combining fennel and leek in a pork ragout that is simplistic yet profound in taste.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours
Yield: 8 servings
- 4 1/2 pounds of pork shoulder, cut into 3-inch chunks
- 1 1/3 cups of olive oil
- 2 1/2 pounds of fresh leeks, cleaned, sliced into 4-5 inch pieces, halved lengthwise
- 1 bunch of wild celery or cutting celery (or 5 stalks of celery with leaves), chopped
- 1 bunch of fresh fennel, chopped
- 2 1/4 pounds of potatoes, peeled, halved
- 1 pound of ripe tomatoes, quartered*
- 2/3 cups of lightly concentrated tomato juice*
- 3 1/2 cups of water
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- juice of 1 lemon
- * or substitute 16 ounces of canned tomato purée + 2/3 cups of water
Note: This recipe calls for fast-release of pressure.
Heat oil in the pressure cooker over medium heat, add meat, stir to coat well with oil, and cover (don’t seal). Allow to brown, stirring occasionally (about 8-10 minutes). Add 2 3/4 cups of cold water, bring to a boil, cover, and seal. When pressure is reached, lower the heat and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and pressure down using fast-release.
Put quartered tomatoes in blender bowl (multi-function blade) for seven seconds on setting 2.
When safe, open the pressure cooker, and add fennel, celery, and leeks, packing down if needed, and return to medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally as the leeks soften and reduce in size (this is important because the pressure cooker should not be overfilled when locked). Stir in tomatoes, tomato sauce, and 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a boil. Close and seal the pot. When pressure is reached, reduce heat and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, pressure down with fast-release, and open the pot carefully.
Add potatoes, return to medium heat, stir well, and bring to a boil. Cover and seal. When the pressure is reached, reduce heat and cook for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and pressure down using fast-release. Open, stir in the lemon juice, place the top on the pot (don’t seal), and let sit for 20 minutes before serving.
Note on reducing the recipe: To cut the recipe in half, reduce all ingredients by half except the olive oil, which should be reduced to 1 cup.
And now it’s time for the desserts … or simply the sweets that you can snack on anytime until January 6.
Melomakarona are stongly connected to Christmas and winter time in Greece. So if you’re visiting the country, you will find different melomakarona variations to try, but if you stay home for the season try to bake them and you will love the result.
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
- FOR THE COOKIE DOUGH
- 1 1/2 cups of olive oil
- 1/2 cup of sugar
- juice of 1 orange
- 4 tablespoons of brandy
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1/2 cup of Vermouth
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of ground cloves
- 6 cups of all-purpose flour
- FOR THE FILLING
- 1 cup of white sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves
- FOR THE SYRUP
- 2 cups of honey
- 2 cups of sugar
- 2 cups of water
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- FOR TOPPING
- 1/2 cup of sesame seeds
- Dissolve the baking soda in the brandy.
- Combine the ground cinnamon and cloves in a bowl and mix well for the dough.
- Combine the ground cinnamon and cloves in a bowl and mix well for the filling.
In a mixing bowl, beat together the oil and sugar for about 5 minutes. Add orange juice, brandy with baking soda, baking powder, combined ground cinnamon and cloves, and Vermouth. Continue beating and add two-thirds of the flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, beating on low speed until well blended. Change to dough hooks, or use hands when needed.
Add remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time, kneading with hands at the end. Dough is ready when it no longer sticks to the hands, about 5 minutes of kneading (the dough will be oily).
Combine all filling ingredients in a bowl.
Use a handful of dough to make each cookie, forming into a log shape. Flatten it out, place a small teaspoonful of filling in the center and close the cookie, sealing the filling inside, in a long oval shape (see photo). Continue until all dough and filling is used.
Preheat oven to 355°F (180°C).
Place cookies well spaced on a lightly greased or nonstick cookie sheet (or on baking parchment paper). Bake at 355°F (180°C) for 30-35 minutes until nicely browned.
Make the Syrup: The cooled cookies will be dipped in hot syrup, so don’t start the syrup until the cookies are cooled. Combine all syrup ingredients in wide pot (like a deep frying pan) and boil gently for about 15 minutes. Remove the stick of cinnamon. Leave the syrup on the stove over the lowest heat possible during dipping.
Put in cookies (as many as will fit on the bottom in one layer) into the hot syrup and use a spatula if needed to hold them down for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Once the cookies have been soaked, remove them with a slotted spoon, letting excess syrup drip, place on a large serving plate in layers, sprinkling each layer with sesame seeds before adding another layer on top.
Melomakarona are not refrigerated. Cover them well with plastic wrap or store in tins so they don’t dry out, and they’ll last for several days – if they aren’t eaten by then.
Yield: about 3 dozen Melomakarona Cookies with Sesame Centers.
4. Kourabiedes (Kourabiethes)
These squared celebration cookies will get your dress a bit messy with all this icing sugar on them but will not disappoint you to the least with their full taste of almonds and cinnamon.
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
- 1 teaspoon of baking soda
- 1/3 cup of brandy (or orange juice)
- 3 egg whites
- 1 egg yolk
- 3 cups of unsalted butter (about 6 1/4 sticks), softened
- 1 1/3 cups + 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of cinnamon
- 1 1/2 pounds of unsalted toasted almonds, chopped in large pieces
- 12 1/2 cups (approximately) of all-purpose flour (about 3 1/2 pounds)
- 2 or more pounds of confectioner’s sugar for topping
Dissolve the baking soda in the brandy. Beat the eggs whites and yolk together. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter, oil, and 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar until white and light. Beat in eggs, brandy with baking soda, cinnamon, and chopped almonds. Stir in flour and use hands to combine. Knead for 20 minutes. The dough will be fairly dry and dense.
Preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).
Take a fistful of dough and squeeze 8 times to soften. Shape into balls and flatten slightly to a height of about 1/2 inch and 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. The dough can also be patted to a height of 1/2 inch and cut with a cookie cutter.
Place on ungreased cookie sheets and bake at 350°F (175°C) for 20 minutes or until a pale golden color. The cookies may split slightly on top.
Allow cookies to cool completely before topping with confectioner’s sugar.
Sprinkle one or more serving platters with confectioner’s sugar. Place one layer of cookies on the platter (carefully, using a spatula) and dust with sugar. (Place sugar in a strainer and tap or shake over the cookies.) Place another layer on top of the first, and sprinkle with the sugar, continuing to no more than three layers on each plate or platter. Be generous with the confectioner’s sugar!
Yield: 60-80 cookies
Variation: To avoid using alcohol, use orange juice instead of brandy.
To store: Kourabiethes will keep for several months if stored in airtight containers. Make sure there’s a dusting of powdered sugar on the bottom of the container, then layer cookies as above, each layer with a covering of sugar. Wait one day after baking to cover with an airtight lid.
5. Loukoumades (Loukoumathes)
A desert highly appreciated by adults and children no matter the covering are loukoumathes or Greek honey puffs made of fried dough that are bathed in sweet syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts, icing sugar, chocolate or honey.
Prep Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: About 40 pieces
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 pkg. (1/4 oz) dry yeast
- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1/2 tsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. whiskey or brandy
- 1-1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 1/2 cup lukewarm water
- 2 cups canola or corn oil
For the syrup:
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1-cup water
- 1/2 cup honey
Dissolve the yeast in the 1/2 cup lukewarm water and set aside.
In a medium to large mixing bowl, add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar, and salt. Mix well to combine.
Add the dissolved yeast, whiskey, and 1-1/2 cups water to the dry ingredients. Using an electric hand mixer, mix the batter for 3 minutes on medium high speed making sure that there are no lumps in the batter. Cover the batter with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place for about two hours to rise.
Prepare the syrup while the batter is rising. Add the sugar, cinnamon stick, water and honey to a saucepan. Boil for 5 minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved. Keep warm.
When the batter is about double in size, heat the 2 cups oil in a saucepan or deep frying pan until very hot but not smoking.
Using two spoons, carefully drop about a teaspoon full of batter for each puff into the hot oil. Turn the puffs using a slotted spoon and fry until golden brown on each side. Remove the puffs to a plate lined with paper toweling to absorb excess oil.
Dip the hot puffs in the syrup and then sprinkle with cinnamon, ground walnuts, icing sugar. Otherwise present melted chocolate dip or honey. Serve immediately.
(Recipes all taken from About.com / Greek Christmas Food)