Saturday morning, 8:30 am. The doorbell rings.
The doorbell rings for a second time.
The doorbell rings for a second time.
I can hear S grunting next to me, a clear indication that he's not getting up. The doorbell rings again for a third time.
A far less audible grunt. S is somewhere between being asleep and awake. The doorbell rings for the fourth time.
Who can it be? It's Saturday morning. No one I know is up at this hour on a Saturday.
There is no way S is getting up for this. And I, I don't want to get up.
The doorbell rings for a fifth time—persistently.
I get up, quickly. Can't find my slippers, as usual.
I climb down the stairs, slowly, carefully—our building, a four-story Dutch townhouse, is more than a hundred years old and the stairs are possibly the narrowest, steepest you have ever seen. Having to climb down three flights of stairs, since our apartment is the top two floors with our bedroom being on the top floor, is something I do not want to do at this hour.
I finally reach the front door. It's the mailman. He mutters something in Dutch and hands me a package.
I'm still sleepy, my vision is a bit blurry. I think we drank too much wine last night but it was superb. The shots of tsikoudia though afterwards were not such a wise choice. Well, too late...
I catch a glimpse of my name written on the brown paper. Oh, it's for me.
Hungover and tired, I make my way back up. I place the package on the small kitchen table and I head straight back up to bed.
As I'm lying there, catching my breath from this unnecessary early morning workout, I remember. Yes, I was expecting a package; from Greece. No, that can't be it. Not that soon.
I get downstairs to the kitchen. This time I'm wide awake and filled with anticipation. I grab the package. I search for the name of the sender. Yes, that's it.
What the package contained was treasured goods. A number of Greek gems sent to me by the generous Kiki, a talented Greek food blogger and cookbook author. Living in Holland, it is very hard for me to get my hands on good Greek ingredients and various foodstuffs—sometimes verging on the impossible. My family sends me stuff every once in a while and when they visit, they always bring with them extra suitcases filled with Greek olive oil, dried oregano, honey, you name it. This time a friend came to the rescue.
Kiki's package included orzo, mastiha (mastic), sumac and other spices and most importantly, petimezi (grape molasses/non-fermented grape syrup). Petimezi is the sweet viscous liquid product that comes from boiling grape-must for a long time over low heat. It is a natural sweetener that is as old as wine and along with honey, was commonly used by the ancient Greeks. It is rather expensive since the process of its production is lengthy and the yield is small. It takes five liters of grape-must to produce about two liters of petimezi.
Its flavor is sweet with a hint of spice and its aroma is pungent, heady and so incredibly tempting. Petimezi is used regularly in Greek cuisine in savory dishes—its nectarous flavor being used to enrich sauces that accompany lamb and pork as well as fish. The most common use of this dark-colored syrup though is for making different kinds of sweets like moustalevria, which is a grape-must pudding and moustokouloura, grape-must cookies. Moustokouloura are my favorite traditional Greek cookies.
I had a debate with myself whether or not to post this recipe because these cookies, let's face it, are not particularly appealing. I'm a firm believer that we eat with our eyes first and these are not so pretty to look at but they are very healthy; perhaps the healthiest cookies out there. And what they lack in looks, they more than make up for in taste. Petimezi imparts its unique sweet flavor to the cookies—a flavor that can't be described, a flavor you have to experience for yourselves. Cinnamon and cloves are the spices that not only give a beautiful fragrance to the moustokouloura but they complement perfectly the taste of the petimezi. The richness of the olive oil rather that that of butter completes the picture, making these cookies irresistible.
There are two types of moustokouloura; the hard ones and the soft ones. Each category has its own loyal followers who swear by their preferred texture of the cookie. Hard moustokouloura have a biscotti-like texture and are perfect to dip in coffee whereas the soft moustokouloura are chewy and crumbly. The ones I make though are somewhere in between. Not being a fan of either type, I make mine medium-soft, or medium-hard, depending which way you want to look at it.
These mocha-colored cookies are ideal for dipping in your morning Greek coffee or your afternoon tea without disintegrating (an oh-so-important characteristic of a good Greek cookie) and without causing you to chip a tooth when biting into them, they are slightly chewy, just enough to make you realize you're eating moustokouloura but not so much that you want to reach for a toothpick, and naturally, they are finger-licking good.
Moustokouloura (Greek Grape-Must Syrup Cookies)
These Greek cookies are traditionally made in early autumn when the grape-must, called 'moustos' in Greek, and petimezi are fresh (even though petimezi keeps forever). They are very easy to prepare and they need to be baked in the oven for only 15 minutes.
There are different versions of these cookies that contain either grape-must or petimezi (grape-must syrup). They are both called "moustokouloura" in Greek.
You can find petimezi in Greek or Middle-Eastern stores.
Yield: about 30 moustokouloura (cookies)
½ kg all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
310 ml good quality olive oil
110 ml petimezi (grape-must syrup)
110 g sugar
1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
60 ml orange juice, freshly squeezed
½ tsp baking soda
Special equipment: stand mixer or hand held mixer, 2 large baking trays
You can either make these cookies with the help of a stand mixer or with a combination of a hand held mixer and... your hands, for bringing the dough together.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl), add the olive oil, grape-must syrup (petimezi), sugar, ground cinnamon and cloves. Turn your mixer on to medium speed and beat the ingredients for 2-3 minutes.
In a small bowl, add the orange juice and baking soda. Stir with a spoon so the baking soda dissolves and becomes frothy. Empty this mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer (or the large bowl) and continue to beat at medium speed.
Add the flour-baking powder mixture little by little into the bowl of your stand mixer (or large bowl), beating at medium speed until incorporated and until you have a homogeneous, soft dough, about 5 minutes. If you're using a hand held mixer, once a dough starts to form, switch to using your hands.
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Line the bottom of two baking trays with baking paper.
Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 1 minute. It will be pliable and oily but don't be scared of it; it should be like that. Cut the dough into smaller pieces and using your hands, roll the pieces into 2 cm-thick x 17 cm-long cylinders. If you find it difficult to roll the dough with your hands (if the dough is soft), use a piping bag to form the cylinders. Take each cylinder and shape it into round cookies with a hole in the center (see photograph above).
Place cookies, spaced apart, on the two baking trays. These cookies will spread while baking and puff up only a little. They will also form small cracks. All this is because the dough is soft, which is exactly what you want in order for the cookies to become soft and chewy.
Put the first batch in the oven, on the middle rack, and bake for 13-15 minutes, until cookies are golden on top and a bit soft when pressed in the middle. Be careful because they catch easily on the bottom so you may want to check them after they have been baking for 10-11 minutes.
Once ready, take them out of the oven and onto a wire rack to cool.
Continue baking the second batch.
Keep the cookies in an airtight container for up to 4 weeks. They taste better as each day passes.