As a young girl, my favorite place to go out to eat was a Greek place at the foot of the Watchung Mountains. We lived in suburban Scotch Plains, NJ, and my father liked this family-run, homestyle joint that had checkered tablecloths like Italian restaurants, yet the colors were blue & white and there was no red sauce on the menu.
Part of the fun was that dinner felt like a meal of exotic appetizers. The restaurant’s specialty was phyllo dough cigars filled with either spinach (spanakopita), Greek cheese (tiropita) or seasoned ground meat (kreatopita?). My father would ask how many of each kind we'd like, which always resulted in a variety to share. I loved this food and rotated bites of each phyllo cigar. They were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with flavors always fascinating in their newness to me, and always delicious.
It was the end of each meal, however, that was the best part—a new tradition for this budding foodie to look forward to. They did their own baking, and as much as the baklava was interesting and (too) sweet, I preferred their homemade kourambiedes, or Greek butter cookies topped with powdered sugar. They were served in pairs of two stacked in a cupcake liner, in all sorts of magical shapes including half moons and stars. The moons were one order, the stars were another, and I could never decide on which shape! It was always a tough choice, one that made me feel a little grown up. Decision in hand, I’d take a bite of kourambiede and while my teeth hit the soft cookie part, my lips were simultaneously smacked with a 1-inch-thick bomb of powdered sugar. What a treat!
Kourambiedes in their most basic form are just butter, flour, salt and powdered sugar. They have a similar composition to shortbread cookies, except shortbread cookies contain granular sugar and cold butter, and kourambiedes contain powdered sugar and melted butter. The former is crunchy, the latter melts in your mouth. These Greek butter cookies are beloved, and not just by the Greeks. Through the years I’ve noticed many global cultures have a similar white-dusted butter cookie with minor alterations: Mexican wedding cakes, Russian teacakes, Swedish butter cookies, even German Pfeffernusse—albeit the latter example only looks the part, with its spicy interior.
We moved from Scotch Plains to a town in the same county, but it felt continents away and I missed those cookies. Once in high school, car-owning friends and I took a drive to Scotch Plains and saw that the Greek restaurant was gone. It was around that time that I met my best friend K's new boyfriend, A, a guy from a nearby town and school whose father owned a Greek diner. I think the story goes that one Christmas A shared his family’s special cookies with K and me. They were shaped like almond horns and covered in powdered sugar so I expected to taste almonds, but instead I tasted the long-lost kourambiedes of youth. Thrilled, I shouted, “Oh my God, it’s the cookies! Can I please have the recipe??” Immediately A said no. Family secret, his father's recipe. It didn't matter what I said each time I saw him, but no budge.
One day during my junior year of college on the other side of New Jersey, I noticed of all people A was entering the campus student center. This was a surprise, it had been years. I asked him two questions: 1) “What are you doing here?” and 2) “How are those cookies?” After explaining the first answer, he moved on to the second with a cheerful “Good!” and nothing more. We exchanged numbers and stayed in touch, and I figured maybe one day he'd let me have the recipe.
A few years after college graduation I traveled to Europe for the first time, with a mandatory stop in Greece. That’s right, I'd get to experience my favorite cookie in the homeland! On the gorgeous island of Hydra, I walked up hilly pedestrian-and-moped-only streets crowded with gorgeous little houses and their bright blue doors on my way to the town bakery. The sign in the bakery cookie case said kourambiedes, though otherwise I may not have recognized them. They were shaped like almond horns again with a light dusting of powdered sugar, but their color was orangey-beige?
Whatever. I bought a bunch and skipped down the hill to enjoy my treasure on a stone wall overlooking the Aegean Sea (see photo at left). Oh these cookies sucked! Guess I didn't like the authentic kourambiedes of Hydra, Greece one bit. They were harder than the ones I knew, flavored with some sort of obnoxious liquor that choked the taste of butter out of them, and were loaded with walnuts. So I figured hey, maybe some Greek bakeries here are like some in the U.S., in that the cookies are okay but homemade are so much better. To this day I still don't know if the Hydra version was authentic or mass-produced bakery quality. Needless to say, I guess I just preferred them the way I knew them.
Soon after the trip, by some twist of fate I became A's roommate in Rahway, NJ. There was no drama to it: K was now happily married, and A and I were just friends. Living together presented a big fat bonus for me, too, in the hopes that he'd finally let me have "the recipe." We were roommates after all. For three years. And for three years he made his cookies and was even generous enough to leave some in a tin on the counter for sharing. But he would not under any circumstances share that recipe. At one point I realized—or he told me—it had something to do with his father. Both our dads passed away years before from the same sudden, life-ending heart attack. He wanted to honor his father by guarding his family recipe. And at the time—beyond wanting to recreate a lost treat—I think in making the cookies I wanted to honor my father too, for bringing them into my life. Eventually it became clear it was time to find my own recipe.
This was not easy. With no Internet yet and only book stores, my search ebbed and flowed like the Aegean. You can imagine my joy then when one day the recipe revealed itself to me in one of my very own cookbooks. My set of the Time-Life "Foods of the World” series from the 1960s contains practically every world cuisine in its pages, yet there was no Greece volume. And Greece wasn't a part of the Italy volume or any other I searched. It wasn’t until a casual perusing of the Middle Eastern book that I found it: kourambiedes, at last! Officially they are called "walnut butter cookies," so that's where the walnuts in the Hydra version came from. I simply preferred them in the flavor profile of my memory, so skipped the walnuts and baked a batch, which turned out exactly as I remembered them.
I’ve pretty much been making kourambiedes that way ever since, for Christmas and sometimes in between for good friends. They're a delicious cookie and other people seem to love them as much as I do. As with most favorite recipes, the page in my old cookbook is appropriately stained with buttery fingerprints. And no matter how much time goes by, whenever I taste one I have a flashback to the wonder of that Greek restaurant in New Jersey where a long time ago my biggest choice of the day was whether to choose the moon or the stars.