Provisions: Kourambiethes Christmas Cookies

We uncover the traditions of a Greek Christmas treat with a woman who's been doing it for nearly 100 years
Hero kourambiethes hero

Dec 25, 2014 | By Nicole Varvitsiotes

f cookies were White Elephant gifts, Kourambiethes would be stolen and guarded, lost and gained as Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin, Spritz and Thumbprint cookies sit idle, forgotten. Such coveted, crumbly, powdered-sugar clouds are a traditional Greek Christmas dessert, though one that does not require Greek heritage of its baker — rather it requires only butter. Lots of butter. 

“In Greece, we made ours from sheep milk,” my grandfather said in unbalanced English from the head of his kitchen table. His r’s rolling, his pauses hanging, his left forearm drawing close to his bicep so that his index finger, crooked and inflamed, pointed up to the ceiling. “Our village: one day’s walk from town,” he continued, “so we only go for spices. Fabrics. Everything else — cheese, butter, bread — your Yiayia, she make herself.” 

To this day, in their modest house in Oakland, California, my Yiayia and Papou continue to live by the maxims of their youth. Vegetables come from their garden, dresses from her sewing machine. No housekeeper, no processed foods. 

I visit them on Sunday afternoons after they’ve made it back from church and into their house slippers. By the time I arrive, my grandmother usually has coffee and cake waiting for me — cup, saucer, fork, plate, a complete set straight from the sixties. This week, though, instead of just eating together, we baked together. As she bent down to pull the cookie sheets out from below the oven and lifted a tub of flour onto the countertop, I expected my Papou to retreat to the garage and tinker with tools or check on his wine barrels. Instead, he stayed and took us back in time. 


“In 1944,” he said, unsolicited, with one arm on the table as if to give blood, “the Germans, maybe eight, maybe ten, they come to our village. From on top our pasture, I see them kill our lamb.” He reached for and held his glass without lifting its stem from the vinyl placemat. “They kill our sheep, they kill everything and they drive away. We have no meat, no milk, nothing, so your Yiayia, she fries dandelions every day so we don’t go hungry.” He looked up at her and back at me. A faint pitch, high and staccato, slipped out from her hearing aid. She set the baking powder next to her spatula and told me in Greek how every night that summer, after Papou fell asleep, she would crochet using a borrowed needle and yarn. Her neighbor, Frosini, taught her a simple pattern so that she could sell blankets in town. 

“One day, she come home with butter and brandy.” His futile expression stretched the already long silence. “Why? I ask to her, we don’t afford it,” he said, pivoting his body to face us square and lifting his other arm onto the table. Above his knitted fingers, a wet smile waved up his face, “she buy them to surprise me for Christouyena — Christmas is no Christmas without Kourambiethes.”


Their lives brightened in an ordinary instant, and seventy years later, as I watched my grandfather sip his wine and my grandmother unwrap a pound of butter, I wondered how many more stories they have tucked away like this, coiled in their marrow, untold. They’re both in their nineties now and though it’s uncomfortable to admit that the end dangles near, I have come to realize that what they know, what they make, who they are, what they’ve lived through — it will all go with them. What remains unsaid will too. 

I’m not suggesting that we pry, but that we make ourselves available to listen. While I left my grandparent’s house that day with two dozen holiday presents for friends and coworkers, the real gift was their unforeseen story. [H]

Make your own traditional Greek Kourambiethes — just like Yiayia’s

Ingredients:
12 oz unsalted sweet cream butter
4 oz salted butter
2 egg yolks
½ cup white granulated sugar
5 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon brandy
¼ cup slivered almonds, chopped.
Powdered Sugar

Instructions:
• Preheat the oven to 325 degrees
• Place butter in a saucepan and cook on low-to-medium heat, stirring until melted
• Skim and discard half of the froth from melted butter
• Transfer butter to a big bowl and place bowl in freezer
• In a small bowl, combine ¼ cup flour with baking powder, set aside
• In a small bowl, place two egg yolks. Cover yolks with sugar and with an electric mixer,
  beat on low until smooth. Set aside
• Remove butter from freezer (it should still be liquid) and mix the butter on Low for 1 minute,
  then Medium for 5 minutes
• Add the sugar and egg mixture into the butter and continue mixing at high speed for 2 minutes
• Add the chopped almonds, brandy and the flour/baking powder mixture.
  Continue mixing for 3 minutes
• Reduce the mixing speed to Low and add 3 cups of flour, one at a time. Once the batter appears fluffy and smooth, turn off the electric mixer.
  Add the fourth cup of flour and knead dough by hand. Add the fifth cup of flour and knead dough by hand
• Roll dough and space each cookie about an inch apart. They won’t rise or puff much in the oven,
  so cozy them up on the pan
• Bake for 25 minutes
• Sprinkle with Powdered Sugar as desired

Nicole Varvitsiotes is a Kinfolk Magazine contributor based in San Francisco. Follow her on Instagram here