When I was growing up, Christmas Eve in our house meant baking sugar cookies. We cut them into baby bunnies, lions, maple leaves, stars, and hearts. We sprinkled them with homemade colored sugar, much of which landed on the floor. My parents usually removed themselves to the living room, leaving us to destroy the kitchen. Once the first batch was out of the oven, we proudly marched into the room and presented them with a plate of warm cookies. And then we sang Christmas carols around the tree. (Uh, no, that didn’t actually happen.) But we did make the cookies, and afterwards we were sent back into the kitchen to clean up, where we each tried to stake a claim on the largest cookies—the Christmas trees and the chickens. (Chickens? Who knew? Those chickens were integral to our holiday baking.) Years later I duplicated the tradition with my son, so that by the time he could stand on a chair and reach the counter we made gingerbread boys and girls, Christmas trees, and yes, chickens from the very same cookie cutter.
This year we will probably make them again in a few days, but in the meantime, I am making these Greek honey cookies. They are a welcome detour from the usual butter cookies I make every holiday. If my hand is going to be in the cookie jar at breakfast—it was this morning—I’d like to munch on something that won’t send me into sugar and butter shock before the day has even started.
Honey, olive oil, some whole wheat flour, and orange, along with the heady scent of orange flower water, give these a sandy texture and the irresistible allure of Mediterranean flavors. The large crystals of fleur de sel pop out as a pleasant contrast to the honey syrup. The thickness of the dough is important, so try to gauge it using 3 stacked quarters as a guide. These just get better and better as they mellow in a cookie tin.
Greek Honey Cookies
Makes about 3 1/2 dozen small cookies
2/3 cup natural cane sugar
2/3 cup honey
2/3 cup water
1 teaspoon orange flower water, or 1 Tbs. orange liqueur such as Triple Sec
Combine the sugar with the water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, and stir in the honey and orange flower water.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/2 coarse sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup natural cane sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup finely chopped pistachios
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.
2. Whisk the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and baking soda together in large bowl until blended.
3. Vigorously whisk the olive oil, orange juice, sugar, vanilla extract, and almond extract in a separate bowl until emulsified. Stir it into the dry ingredients until incorporated. If the dough feels crumbly, add more orange juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, to form a pliable dough.
4. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half to a thickness of 3/16-inch thick on a lightly floured countertop (hint: 3 quarters stacked on top of each other are slightly thicker than 3/16-inch.) Cut with a 2-inch round, fluted cookie cutter, and transfer 1-inch apart onto the baking sheets. Gather the scraps, roll, and cut again, until all the dough is used. Bake 25 to 35 minutes, until deep golden brown.
5. Transfer the cookies while warm to large baking dish, in batches as necessary, setting them close together in one layer. Reheat syrup if necessary. Pour the warm syrup over the cookies to cover. Soak in the syrup for 20 minutes, turning once or twice. Transfer to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle each cookie while still wet with a pinch of pistachios. Leave until dry (they will still be slightly sticky.) Store between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight tin. Best if left to mellow in the tin for a week or two.