This tried, tested and tweaked recipe for authentic koulourákia is sweet, sweet perfection.
EVERY YEAR SINCE 1960, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church holds a weekend-long Greek festival that draws thousands of attendants. Mostly, they come to eat.
To meet the demand, Philoptochos, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of St. Demetrios, AKA The Sisterhood, hand-makes enormous quantities of Greek specialties, including moussaka, dolmathes and souvlaki, and sweets, such as galaktoboureko, loukoumades and koulourákia.
At a recent cookie-making session in the church kitchen, Nina Varlamos, current president of Philoptochos (which means “Friends of the Poor” in Greek), explained that throughout the year, the 140 members meet in smaller groups once a month to prepare 300 meals at a time for St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic men’s shelter.
They also raise money for St. Demetrios by cooking and baking for the festival (coming up Sept. 14-16), catering memorials at the church, and selling anything they have on hand to anyone who’d like to buy it. And, of course, they make cookies to serve at Coffee Hour after Sunday services.
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In 1982, The Sisterhood published a cookbook, “Greek Cooking in an American Kitchen.” Currently in its fifth edition (and available for sale at the church and at the festival), the book was produced by a committee of eight members who collected recipes from congregants and spent 2½ years testing and tweaking them.
Unlike most community cookbooks that include multiple recipes for every dish, “Greek Cooking” has just one “perfect” version of each.
When I joined Varlamos and about a dozen members of The Sisterhood (including her real sister, Eleni Christofilis, and their 91-year-old mother, Lula Babarakos) to make cookies, three of the original cookbook collaborators were there: Frances Barnecut, Maria Kaltsounis and Alice Panagakis shared how each of them would test the recipes at home and then meet to talk about them.
If everyone agreed that someone in the community made the best version of a particular dish, they’d ask for a recipe. “And that was hard!” said Barnecut, laughing. “The older ladies didn’t measure anything. It was a little of this and a little of that, and we’d say, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ but they could only eyeball, and we’d just have to figure it out.”
These simple cookies are remarkably moreish, especially with a cup of good, strong coffee or tea. The Sisterhood makes about 15,000 of them for the festival alone. This recipe makes about 4 dozen.
Note: The version in the cookbook dilutes the eggwash and tops the cookies with sesame seeds, but we didn’t, so I’ve included that as optional.
1 cup butter, softened
1 scant cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1½ teaspoons baking powder
3½ to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon milk (optional)
Sesame seeds (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, and set aside.
2. Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well to blend, then add vanilla and mix well.
4. In a separate bowl, stir the baking powder into 3½ cups of the flour, then add it to the butter mixture. Mix until combined. Add additional flour if necessary to make a soft, pliable dough that doesn’t stick to the bowl.
5. Use a 1 fl. oz scoop to divide dough (or pull off pieces that are about the size of 2 tablespoons).
6. To shape the cookies, gently roll each ball of dough into a sausage about 6 inches long. Fold in half, then twist gently from both ends to spiral.
7. Place the cookies one-half inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.
8. Whisk the egg (and milk, if using), and brush onto the cookies. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if using. Bake about 20 minutes, until pale golden-brown.
9. Cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
These cookies freeze really well.