Last Updated on March 15, 2023
Georgia seemed to open the door and embrace us in one motion. As she hugged us, she called me and my sister by a Greek diminutive and asked, “your Yiyia called you that?” Once we assured her that Yiyia (our grandmother) had, she padded off down the hallway. Her kitchen and dining room look like that of any other elderly, Greek woman’s. There are ornate clocks, glass statues, and a set of gold embossed cups. Those cups must come standard issue to every Greek immigrant upon arriving in America (or at least to those who settle in Utah).
TAKEAWAY: Utah might seem like an odd place for a Greek community to take root, but coal-mining and herd industries in the area attracted many Greek immigrants over the last hundred plus years. As a result, there is still a thriving Greek community here today, with more than half a million Greek-Americans living in Salt Like City.
Salt Lake City’s Greek Festival is one of the many celebrations that the Salt Lake community hosts. Georgia needed to make melomakarona for this Greek festival that takes place every September and invited us over to learn how to master this recipe of Greek-American baking.
What are Melomakarona?
In Greece, melomakarona are a Christmas cookie. Greeks make them most, if not exclusively, in December. Thus, it may seem odd that our baking class took place on a bright summer day. Georgia explained the discrepancy to us as we measured ingredients. “They are good though,” she said, “so we make them anytime.” As the rest of the class revealed, Georgia cares less about traditions from the “homeland” and more about taste and personal history.
Her recipe, for example, requires that for each cookie you wrap unbaked dough around a small ball made up of diced walnuts, honey, and a touch of cinnamon. This is a uniquely Greek-American version of melomakarona. It may even be specific to Utah’s Greek-American community. We think this because when my sister asked where melomakarona come from (meaning where in Greece did they originate), Georgia answered that the recipe came from Price, UT.
As the added walnut balls demonstrate, there is no definitive recipe. Georgia doesn’t even have one. Instead, she does everything by touch and taste. We tried to write the recipe but soon abandoned that method. The measurements she did have were only marginally useful. When she said a cup of oil, she meant her cup, a tablespoon referred to her tablespoon, and she didn’t have any measurements for flour other than, “until it looks like this.” The only constants in her recipe are that the orange juice needs to be fresh and the cookies must cool completely before you submerge them in syrup.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Georgia’s flexible recipe, the melomakarona came out just as delicious as any batch she’s made before. She even declared about a tray of them, “enai perfect.” It’s perfect. All told, our baking class lasted almost five hours.
In that time we got to talk a lot with Georgia. The thing that stayed with me the most, however, was not a fact about cooking but a story about my Yiyia. “When your grandmother was dying, she said ‘if anyone loves me, make koulourakia for my son and husband because they love them.'” For the last six years, Georgia has done just that. Every Christmas, Easter, baptism, and funeral comes with a Tupperware box of her Greek butter cookies. In those Greek funerals, the priest often chants, “may your memory be eternal.” For Georgia, my family, and the greater Greek-American community, foods such as melomakarona help keep those memories alive.
More on Greek Desserts
Χριστός Ανέστη! Happy Easter to all celebrating Orthodox Easter. After a period of Lent and fasting the feasting begins at midnight on Saturday. Koulourakia are traditionally baked for Easter Sunday. If you haven’t tried them before, they are a very short cinnamon shortbread. It’s impossible to make them in small batches, but the good news is that they keep very well. I can remember in years past boxes of these would be tightly packed up with a sea of postage stamps and posted from Greece just in case we hadn’t made enough any ourselves. #greekeaster #koulourakia #greekeaster #greekfood
If you would like to try and make these cookies on your own, this is the recipe for melomakarona that most resembles Georgia’s; though Georgia uses canola oil and shortening as the two oils and a simplified syrup recipe. It is also worth noting that this recipe makes no mention of the walnut centers that Georgia claims originated in Utah.
Between the walnut centers, the syrup, and the dough, these cookies can be time-consuming. To try them, and a variety of other Greek desserts, you can visit either Greece or your local Greek festival. Many churches use Greek festivals as a fundraiser, and pastry sales are an important part of them. If you attend one in Utah, there is a good chance the melomakarona you enjoy will even come from the kitchen of Georgia herself.