This is a post I’ve been meaning to share forever. I’ve been blogging since 2012 and every year this season I’d think about it. Well, ladies and gents, I guess it was about time! Since I have a lot of photos on my hands and I want to give several details in both Greek and English, I thought it would be neater to share everything in two different posts—otherwise, you might have had to scroll to infinity.
So let’s get down to the details. Kourabiedes, pronounced [kou-rub-ye-thes], are light sugar/butter cookies, fluffy but crispy on the outside and melt-in-your-mouth crumbly to the bite. It is a traditional Christmas cookie, but in some parts of Greece, they’re also offered as a treat at weddings and christenings (since they’re sprinkled with powdered sugar, their white color is associated with innocence & purity).
This recipe was passed down to my mother from her mother (my grandmother Chrysoula). It is hand-written with a blue-ink fountain pen (unknown by who—my grandmother couldn’t read or write, so she must have dictated this to someone and then had it sent to my mom) and if you look close, despite several spelling mistakes, you can distinguish the diacritics (accents) of the Greek polytonic orthography system above certain vowels. I had to laminate the piece of paper because it was falling apart, but I so wanted to keep it!
Before we get down to the actual recipe and all the how-to’s, I would like to draw your attention to a very particular ingredient, the wood-ash ‘lye’ water. Lye water seems to be an extremely confusing term and googling it, will most likely add to your confusion! I had to read through a lot of articles before I could make any sense of it myself, and here’s what I’ve come down to: Food-grade lye (as it is marketed in Europe and the US) is sodium hydroxide (NaOH), commonly called caustic soda, and it is a very strong alkali. Soap-makers use it, but it is also used in baking (a key ingredient in pretzel recipes) and has several other uses in the food industry (e.g. in chocolate & cocoa processing). It is often confused with potassium hydroxide (KOH), commonly called caustic potash, which is also used in soap-making and has several other industrial uses. The wood-ash ‘lye’ is a tad stronger (has a higher pH) than baking soda (NaHCO3) and it is nowhere near NaOH in strength. It is a mixture of sodium carbonate & potassium carbonate, NOT hydroxide! The Chinese ‘lye water’ used in Asian cuisine is also wood-ash (or other plant-ash) water. You can use that in your recipe, but I will also tell you how to make your own—if you have a fireplace it’s not that big of a deal.
On an easier note, another special ingredient is Ouzo: an anise-flavored aperitif that is widely consumed in Greece & Cyprus. You could replace it with several other anise-flavored liqueurs such as the French Anisette or Pastis, the Italian Sambuca, the Spanish Ojen, or with Arak, the traditional aperitif of Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Turkey, and Iran.
Okay! Let’s get down to business—first, you need to blanch and toast your almonds. You can make them the day before as they need to be completely cool when used in the recipe.
How to blanch & toast almonds
- raw unsalted almonds (this kourabiedes recipe calls for 7 oz/200 g)
- Bring a small pot of water to a boil.
- Place your raw almonds into the boiling water. Let them boil for merely 1 to 2 minutes. Don't leave them longer than that because they will start to soften.
- Drain the almonds immediately in a colander or strainer and rinse them with cold water to cool them down.
- Blot them dry with a paper towel.
- You'll notice that the skins will be slightly shriveled. Use your fingers to gently squeeze the almonds and loosen their skin off.
- Once you remove the skins, cut them lengthwise in fourths and lay them on a rimmed baking sheet.
- Bake them in a preheated oven at 350 ºF/180 ºC for 10-15 minutes until they're golden brown (careful, they burn easily).
This is what your almonds should look like when cut in fourths:
Moving on to the next step—making your own wood-ash ‘lye’ water. First and foremost, you will have to make sure the ash you use is nothing but clean, pure-wood ash. This practically means that if you have a fireplace or are borrowing ash from a neighbor or friend who does, you can’t use it if you/they burn:
- firelogs containing petroleum or bio wax
- sawdust or recycled coffee grounds firelogs
- newspaper logs
- any other type of fake firelogs
- wood or corn pellets
- random disposable items e.g. napkins, tissues, cigarette butts
How to make wood ash ‘lye’ water
- 2 glasses water
- 3 rounded tbsp wood ash
- In a small pot bring a glass of water to a boil.
- Add 3 rounded tbsp of ash and one more glass of water. Do not stir!
- Resume boil, remove from fire and set it aside until all the ash settles completely (this usually takes an hour).
- Drain—using a ladle, so as not to shift the pot—through a very fine mesh strainer and take half a glass of water.
One more step before getting down to the actual recipe!
How to clarify butter
- 2 lbs butter (approx. 1 kg)
- Place the butter in a heavy saucepan and melt slowly over low heat. Skim the foam from the top.
- Remove the pan from the heat and let the butter stand for 30-40 minutes.
- Slowly pour into a clean container through a very fine mesh sieve, discarding the milky solids in the bottom of the pan.
So without further ado, here’s the basic recipe:
- Stand Mixer
- 5 cups (approx. 37.19 Fl. oz/1100 ml) melted, clarified butter (1.5 to 2 lbs of butter will give you 5 clarified cups, see instructions in this post)
- 3 - 5 pinches pure vanilla powder (careful, not paste nor extract)
- 1.3 Fl. oz (40 ml) ouzo
- 5 level tbsp powdered sugar
- 3.7 Fl. oz (110 ml) wood-ash ‘lye’ water (quantity appropriate for a 2-lbs-flour dough, see instructions in this post)
- 7 oz (200 g) blanched, toasted almonds cut lengthwise in fourths (see instructions in this post)
- 2 lbs (approx. 1 kg) flour
- 2 lbs (approx. 1 kg) powdered sugar [this is how much you’ll approximately need to properly coat 70 pieces—it is not added in the actual dough!]
- Put the clarified butter in the mixer bowl and beat it at low speed for about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla, continue beating until incorporated.
- Add the ouzo and 5 level tablespoons of sugar, continue beating for another 10 minutes.
- Add the lye water. Continue beating until the mixture turns into a smooth, white cream—takes about an hour!
- Tip: add a lemon peel while beating the cream but make sure you cut a rather big chunk that won’t get caught in the mixer whip.
- Pour the butter into a clean large bowl—the rest of the mixing/kneading will be done by hand.
- Add the almonds (they must be completely cooled down) and mix, remove the lemon peel.
- Slowly add the flour and mix until you have a dough that’s neither too firm nor too soft or too sticky in touch.
- Grease a baking sheet with butter. Preheat oven.
- Use a spoon or small ice-cream scoop to take even amounts of dough and shape them into small patties. Use your thumb to make a slight curve on top.
- Bake on the middle rack, at 350-392 ºF/180-200 ºC until they are golden brown and little cracks form on the surface (about 20 minutes to half an hour per batch).
- Lay paper towels on a counter to cover a large enough surface. Then lay greaseproof paper on top of that. Cover the paper with a thick layer of powdered sugar—use a sieve to sprinkle.
- Distribute the kourabiedes on the sugar as soon as they come hot out of the oven.
- Sprinkle another thick layer of powdered sugar through the sieve on top of the kourabiedes. Make sure they are well-covered!
- Continue with the rest of your batches and let them cool down completely. It’s best if you leave them overnight—spread out, sitting on sugar, and completely covered in it as well.
- Only after they had been sitting like that for hours and are completely cooled down can you get rid of some of the excess powdered sugar and arrange the kourabiedes in cookie boxes, food containers, or plates.
See how clear clarified butter looks? It makes a lot of difference both to the taste and to the texture of the end product.
And this is what it should look like after it’s been beaten for an hour:
This is what your “patties” should look like:
And here they are out of the oven:
See those cracks I was talking about? They are pretty essential for taking in the necessary amount of powdered sugar later on and they’re also a good indication that the kourabiedes are baked to perfection.
I realize that with all the prep required this might seem a bit intimidating but I do hope you’ll give kourabiedes a try, they’re sooo worth it. Enjoy!
*images by Athina D. Pantazatou for Kicking Back the Pebbles