Christmas Bake

Katerina Cosgrove can still smell the cinnamon and cloves from her aunt’s syrupy melomakarona.

I was born to a Greek mother, but you would be wrong to think she taught me the traditional art of Christmas baking. She was simply not interested, preferring to eat a quick salad and get on with reading a book. It was my theia, Efmorfia, my mother’s unmarried youngest sister living in the flat across the hall, who taught me how to bake.

She would begin early in December with the ritual of making kourabiedes (crescent-shaped almond shortbreads), which my Aussie friends called “exploding cakes” for their habit of releasing a puff of icing sugar when you bit into them, making you sneeze.

My absolute favourite biscuits, though, were the fragrant, syrupy melomakarona (spiced honey macaroons). The ancient Greek word makaria means “blessed”, and that’s how I felt, perched on the Formica kitchen counter in the blissful silence and coolness of my aunt’s home (no other kids! no blaring TV! no bickering parents!) watching her slowly take off her gold rings and place them in exactly the same place she always did, on the windowsill near her pots of basil. Then she would put on an ironed white apron and begin kneading and shaping orange-blossom scented dough. She would bake the oval biscuits, then pour over warmed honey, dusting them with cinnamon, cloves and ground walnuts.

Memory is a slippery thing. If I close my eyes, I’m still there, a scrawny seven-year-old, wearing the pale pink organza dress my aunt bought me the previous Christmas. We called this dress to petalouthiko, due to its butterfly-like sleeves. I refused to take it off, ever. My mum had to prise it out of my hands to wash it. I can feel the soft pleated fabric on my skinned knees, smell the sweet spices wafting through my aunt’s kitchen. She offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in a special glass, tall and thin and bright green. Time folds in upon itself, loops, elongates, like the pliant dough in her rough, sunburnt hands.

For the next few weeks, I would gaze longingly at the pyramid of biscuits on her dining table, waiting for Christmas Day. Alongside them were the exploding shortbreads in airtight containers, vanilla‑flavoured biscuits called koulouria and large trays of galaktoboureko, a filo pastry custard slice dripping with sugar syrup. We were at the tailend of our 40-day Greek Orthodox fast, where we abstained from any animal products, instead eating mounds of tahini, flabby soy cheese and dry bread. Each day my aunt’s delicacies looked more and more seductive. But it was the melomakarona I coveted.

Some days she would spy me hanging around her kitchen, staring at the biscuits. Being childless, she had brought me up when my mother was at work. I knew I was her favourite, and she could never refuse me anything. “Take one,” she’d say, gesturing at the melomakarona. “They have no butter or eggs, just olive oil. It’s okay.” But I would shake my head. They were too special to eat on an ordinary day.

On Christmas Day itself, I would devour one, two, three melomakarona, savouring them, inhaling the aroma that encapsulated the holiday season for me in a deeper way than any carols, fir trees or Santa’s presents ever could.

These days, Theia Efmorfia hardly ever makes melomakarona at Christmas. Her nieces and nephews have all grown up and some have moved away to entirely different states, like me. My sister died in 2010, leaving a huge well of loss in my aunt’s heart. But when I do come to visit with my daughter and husband, with my sister’s children and grandchildren, she brings out the blue and white boxes from Marrickville’s Hellenic Bakery. Now, she expresses her love for us by rising at dawn, getting on a train and bringing home Greek sweets, enough to fill two shopping bags. The bakery’s melomakarona are moist and aromatic. But nothing can compare to the biscuits of my childhood, when my theia was strong and full of life.

These biscuits are still the epitome of Christmas to me. Today I make melomakarona with almond meal, buckwheat or tapioca instead of wheat flour, to cater to mine and my family’s gluten intolerances. Of course, they don’t taste the same, but they’re a close approximation – and they still manage to transport me back to my childhood.

Katerina Cosgrove is the author of two novels, two novellas and has written for Al‑Jazeera, Sunday Life and The Independent, among others.

First published in ed#650.

Illustration by Lauren Rebbeck.