Almond Shortbread cookies (Kourambiethes)

Every family has Christmas traditions.  Some are cultural, some have been around so long we think they are cultural, some were bred out of circumstance, and some are so new we don’t even realize they are traditions until they are gone.

For the past several years, I would take Christmas Eve off work and drive up to my grandmother’s house to help her with her Christmas baking.  The baking was inevitably complete by the time I arrived.  I was convinced that she woke up extra early that morning so that she could finish before I got there, keeping her recipes secret from me for another year.  Kourambiethes have been my favourite treat since childhood: the ritual of dusting off the excess icing sugar, that first bite of buttery goodness melting in my mouth, the crunch of the first toasted almond. I rarely stopped at just one.  Maybe because they were my favourite and maybe because she needed to feel needed, kourambiethes were the one cookie we never baked together.

This Christmas was my first Christmas without my grandmother, and the first Christmas that I realized my drive to her house on Christmas Eve morning was a tradition that I will miss.  I decided to start my own tradition, and woke up early on the morning of December 23rd (though not quite as early as she would have woken up), sorted through her recipe box until I found a card for “kourambiethes” in her distinctive cursive, and got to work.  Like all her recipes, it was little more than a list of ingredients, but all those years in the kitchen with her paid off.  I had been her helper long enough to know that the eggs went with the butter, the liquor was the last liquid to be added, and icing sugar could be re-sifted.  So I set to work, combined ingredients in a way that made sense to me, and hoped for the best.  What came out of the oven a little over than an hour later was better than I could have imagined.  With the first bite, I was transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen, icing sugar falling on my sweater as I bit into a still-warm cookie, recognizing the taste as “yiayia’s recipe”.  Her secret was safe with me.

Prep time: 30 + 10 minutes, cooking time: 20 minutes, makes ~60 cookies


1 lb butter

2 egg yolks

2 cups + 2 tbsp icing sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 cup amaretto or similar liqueur

1 cup slivered almonds, toasted

4 cups flour

  1. In a large bowl, combine butter and egg yolks
  2. Add vanilla extract and liqueur
  3. In a separate large bowl, combine 2 tbsp icing sugar, baking powder and flour
  4. Slowly scoop dry ingredients into bowl with wet ingredients, continuing to mix
  5. Add slivered almonds and mix
  6. Grease 2 large baking sheets
  7. Scoop dough into roughly 1″ balls, and create an S-shape or flattened balls
  8. Bake for 20 minutes at 360F, or until cookies begin to brown
  9. Remove from oven and transfer to wax paper
  10. While cookies are still warm, dust evenly with remaining icing sugar, making sure that cookies are fully covered
  11. Let cool, and remove excess icing sugar

Keep for up to 1 month in the fridge

The source material

Vanilla Cookies (Koulouria)

My grandmother loved entertaining. I grew up believing it was normal to have extended family over nearly every evening of the week, and that every house had an assortment of homemade cookies ready for children to snack on, and for adults to enjoy with their coffee.

Everyone who walked through our door knew that they would leave well fed. My grandmother and aunts spent hours in the kitchen together baking, sharing, gossiping and loving every minute of it. As a small child, I sat in the kitchen with them drinking my milk and waiting impatiently to eat the warm cookies as soon as they came out of the oven.  When I got older, I joined in. First I was assigned easy tasks: getting ingredients from the fridge, lining the baking sheets, rolling the dough in preparation to braid the koulouria. As I got more comfortable, my grandmother started to give me real tasks: adding ingredients, mixing until the dough was at the right consistency, actually braiding the koulouria, and watching them bake so I could learn to see when they were ready. In my grandmother’s later years, I started writing down every ingredient and instruction on whatever scraps of paper I had in my purse, and filing them away in my envelope of recipes.


Here is the recipe I captured for Koulouria, braided Vanilla Cookies that were a staple in her house and often served with coffee.


Koulouri with Turkish coffee

Prep time: 45-60 minutes Cooking time: ~30 minutes Makes: ~100 cookies



1 lb butter

2 cups sugar

10 eggs, separated + 1 egg white

2 tbsp baking soda

2 tbsp vanilla extract

1 cup of milk

4-5 cups flour, sifted


  1. Preheat oven to 360F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper
  2. In a large bowl, mix butter and sugar. Add egg yolks and continue to mix.
  3. In a small bowl, whip egg whites. Once whites are frothed, add to batter.
  4. Add baking soda, vanilla extract and milk to batter, continue to mix
  5. Begin adding sifted flour to the batter, continuing to mix until the dough begins to form soft peaks
  6. Remove mixer, and continue to add flour to dough while needing, until the flour stops absorbing (about 5 cups)
  7. Use a dinner teaspoon (not a baking teaspoon) to scoop dough, roll and form a braid, and lay on baking sheet. Alternatively, you can form ovals, s-shapes or o-shapes.
  8. Whip one remaining egg, and brush egg wash over tops of cookies
  9. Bake for ~30 minutes, or until egg wash starts to brown
  10. Remove from oven, let cool, and enjoy. Cookies store well in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Chocolate Pound Cake

I don’t remember exactly when I was given the recipe, only that I was.  I was in yiayia’s kitchen helping her with her baking, and as she was putting one recipe card back in the box, she handed me another card for Basic Cake, saying: “This was your mother’s.  Take it.”  So I did.  I took it home, put it in an envelope marked “recipes”, and left it there.  It was valuable to me because it one of the few items I had in my mother’s handwriting.

Last winter I wanted to make a chocolate cake, so I started looking for a recipe.  I didn’t like anything I found in my recipe books, and a short internet search proved just as unsuccessful.  So many recipes expected me to actually melt real chocolate, and I had no interest in doing anything that difficult.  I was ready to give up, when I remembered my Basic Cake recipe card.  I knew exactly where it was, tucked away in a white envelope inside my Audrey Hepburn cookbook.  I pulled it out and looked at the ingredient list, in my mother’s slightly cursive English writing (so that’s why yiayia had given it to me!  She couldn’t understand it!)

simple cake

This I could work with!  I had all the ingredients, and by this point I had spent enough time in yiayia’s kitchen that the lack of instructions didn’t bother me.  I could figure out how to mix all the ingredients.  To make my chocolate cake, I skipped the lemon rind and added cocoa powder and chocolate chips.  I also swapped oil for butter, and milk for coconut milk, for a final recipe that looked like this:

Prep time: 15-20 minutes; Cooking time: ~45 minutes

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 4 cups flour
  • 6 eggs
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 4 tbsp cocoa powder
  • ½ cup chocolate chips
  • 2 tbsp unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 360F
  2. Melt butter on low heat
  3. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and cocoa powder. Add egg yolks and melted butter and mix.
  4. In a separate bowl, combine sugar and egg whites, and mix until egg whites start to form peaks
  5. Add sugar and egg whites to large bowl, along with coconut milk, and mix
  6. Pour half the batter into a baking pan (or two loaf pans), and sprinkle ¼ cup on chocolate chips (and 1 tbsp coconut flakes). Add remaining batter, and sprinkle remaining chocolate chips (and coconut flakes).
  7. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a knife can slide cleanly through the cake
  8. Makes 2 small loaves

The result is a tasty and moist chocolate pound cake.  I have since successfully made vanilla, cinnamon and almond pound cakes.  The variations continue, but at their core are the same 6 simple ingredients (I always skip the lemon “grind”).

What variations will you come up with?