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Koulourakia, traditional Greek Easter cookies, are butter biscuits shaped into coils, rings or twisted ropes. They are crunchy and melting, fragrant with orange and a hint of aniseedy mahlep, and will keep for at least three weeks. Did I say they are tremendous fun to make too?
I’ve had some trouble with this recipe. First of all, the word, as it often is the case with otherwise beautiful Greek language, is impossible to remember and repeat correctly. ‘Colour-cookies’ rolled off my tongue the easiest, followed by ‘cuckoo-ricky’. I had to watch myself to stick to ‘those lovely cookies’ when I was talking about them to my Greek friend.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts: indeed, it was all because she brought me the mahlep spice back from Greece. Mahlep is made from ground seed of a type of wild cherry (how do people ever come up with the ideas of what to use in cooking is beyond me) and it’s commonly used in Greece and Turkey added to breads and baked goods.
I was initially going to bake tsoureki, Greek Easter bread, but I’ve baked so many festive breads the idea wasn’t terribly appealing, regardless of the colourful eggs baked in the loaf. I came across the cookies and I was hooked – mainly because they appeared to be made with ammonia instead of baking powder. Living dangerously! Might make some mustard gas as a sideline?
It turns out baking ammonia, ammonium bicarbonate, was widely used in baking before self-raising flour was invented. It was also used in Victorian smelling salts, to bring round a fainting lady, and how effective it must have been transpired very abruptly when I opened the tub and sniffed.
I wanted ammonia; I wanted mahlep, but unless I did an extra-rapid course in Greek, there seemed to be a dearth of authentic looking recipes that would combine the two. I did what I do in such instances: combined and amalgamated, drawing much on My Greek Dish and Real Greek Recipes.
Some recipes advised chilling the dough instead of resting but I figured ‘traditional’ and ‘Greek’ would not usually involve ‘fridge’ a lot. And I was right, the dough rolled, twisted and coiled like an angel after a brief rest in the kitchen.
What are koulourakia like? Very nice: super-crunchy and melting, softening a little as they stand. The zest is refreshing, the mahlep is exotic and the vanilla, as usual, doesn’t add so much. Mine didn’t look pretty-pretty because The Weather Man and I had so much fun rolling the dough around, twisting and snailing it as if we regressed into toddlers. But hey, fun is what it is supposed to be about.
koulourakiaServings: 2 dozen biscuitsTime: 40 minutes plus resting the dough
- 150g unsalted butter, softened
- 100g caster sugar
- zest grated from 2 oranges
- 1 large egg
- 50ml warm milk
- 8g (2 tsp) baking ammonia (see note)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 350g plain flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 7g mahlep powder (if available)
- 1 egg yolk, for glazing
- sesame seeds, pearl sugar, for sprinkling
Note: If you can’t get baking ammonia, use 3 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp bicarb of soda. Don’t mix them with milk as the recipe below instructs for ammonia, but add to the flour with the salt.
1. Beat the butter with the sugar until light pale and fluffy. Beat in the orange zest and the egg, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.
2. Stir the ammonia powder into the warm milk; it will foam up like crazy so use fairly large cup. Stir in the vanilla extract.
3. In another bowl stir together the flour, salt and mahlep, if using.
4. Add the milk to the butter mixture and beat until combined. Add the flour mix gradually and keep beating on low speed, until the dough comes together, forms a ball and becomes smooth and not too sticky. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.
5. Line two large baking trays with parchment. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas 4.
6. Shape the cookies: scoop a walnut-sized chunk of dough (about 30g) and roll it into a 20cm or so long rope. Twist them like a rope; plait like a braid; coil into a snail or into an ‘S’; or twist into a pretzel. Place the koulourakia on the baking trays leaving plenty of space between them.
7. When they cookies are shaped, beat the egg yolk with 1 tbsp. water and brush the cookies. Sprinkle sparingly with sesame seeds or pearl sugar.
8. Bake for 15 minutes until lightly coloured, cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight jar; they will slightly soften as they sit, and will keep for a couple of weeks easily.