Melomakarona from The Little Christmas Kitchen
There is no getting around it, this is chick-lit. What’s more, it’s kitchen-chick-lit. Even worse (depending on your standpoint), it’s Christmas-kitchen-chick-lit. Is that even a genre? It's a new one, at least for this reader, but Jenny Oliver's The Little Christmas Kitchen was an absolute treat.
Ella and Maddie Davenport’s lives were shattered when their parents divorced. Ella aligned with her father and his chic mistress in London. Maddie stuck with her Mum in Greece. The two sisters have grown apart and become resentful of each other’s advantages. Both are plagued by the insecurity of divided families. They each wonder if the grass was greener for the other sister. Each thinks she would be a happier, better person if she had chosen, or been chosen by, the other parent.
Fate gives the girls the opportunity to trade places for Christmas. Ella experiences a cold, wet winter in Greece, while Maddie tries on her sister’s glamorous London life for size. They both cook, a lot.
Predictably, the girls discover that you shouldn’t judge a cake by its icing and no-one’s life is exactly what it seems from the outside. Less predictable, perhaps, is the degree of emotional intelligence displayed by the author. Oliver doesn't rely on fairy-lit smooch scenes (although there are some) to tug on your heart-strings. She delves deep into the fears and vulnerabilities that prevent us from becoming the best versions of ourselves.
It’s a common enough scenario, but Oliver gets to the guts of it with plain language and witty dialogue. Ella realises that she grew up too soon and Maddie that she hasn’t grown up at all. Alternating chapters switch between London and Greece, keeping up a well-paced narrative and building towards a satisfying, but not over-sweet, happy ending.
The Little Christmas Kitchen is crowded with a host of delightfully sympathetic characters. A washed-up author spreads cynicism from his bar stool, a Simon Cowell-esque music mogul heralds reality, a lonely old lady spends her days writing letters of complaint, and a handsome Greek comes bearing gifts of sage advice and strong brandy.
As for the food... this little book comes packed with so much food it should probably have a calorie content warning on the front cover. The Little Christmas Kitchen features, to name just a few, stifado, moussaka, halloumi, kataifi, souvlaki, baklava, kourabiethes, amygdalota, and even a Christmas pudding. The icing on the cake is turning the final page and discovering a bonus ‘Little Christmas Kitchen Guide to Festive Feasting’ with six mouth-watering recipes including Ella’s Great-Grandmother’s Morello Cherry Liqueur.
There was, however, no difficulty in choosing just one recipe to represent this book. Ella rediscovers the pleasure of baking cookies in a warm kitchen at her mother's side. No-one who has ever cooked cookies with their mother or their child could fail to be moved by this simply perfect scene. Ella's grievances and fears, and the awkwardness of their situation all melt away as mother and daughter fall into the familiar rhythm of making melomakarona.
‘The taste of melomakarona in her mouth, of the honey spiced syrup on her tongue wasn’t just the taste of Christmas, but the taste of one of the few times in her life that it was just her and her Mum, alone.’
Melomakarona are quite plain cookies but, much like this unassuming novel, they have more personality than you might expect. A splash of brandy makes these golden nuggets most assuredly a grown-up indulgence. Polenta gives them the strength to maintain their composure through a character-enhancing bath of honey syrup. Walnuts make them gutsy and a final dusting of cinnamon lifts melomakarona from sweet to very interesting.
Some recipes use half as much orange juice and twice as much brandy, but that might be taking the spirit of Christmas too far. A Greco-Irish take on melomakarona, replacing the brandy with whiskey, works very well.
For the syrup:
1 star anise, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 cloves
Peel of one orange, with as little pith as possible.
For the cookies:
600g plain flour
150g fine semolina
1 teaspoon each of baking powder and baking soda
60mls Metaxa or any brandy
140mls fresh orange juice
Finely grated zest of one orange.
125g chopped walnuts
1 teaspoon cinnamon.
First, put on some Christmas music, Ella and Maddie's favourite is Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." Next, make the honey syrup by combining all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, simmer for five minutes and then take a moment to inhale a breath of Christmas.
Allow the syrup to cool while you make the cookies.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F).
Combine the flour, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl.
Combine the oil, sugar, orange juice, orange rind and brandy in a measuring jug.
Incorporate the wet into the dry ingredients. The mixture should come together into a manageable dough.
Knead lightly. Take a dessert spoonful of dough and roll it into an oval roughly 6cm long and 2cm high. Continue until you have used up all the dough.
Place the cookies on lined baking sheets and bake for 20 minutes until light golden brown.
Dip each hot cookie into the honey syrup and arrange them in a shallow serving dish. Spoon any leftover syrup around the cookies, so they can continue to suck it in. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts and a light dusting of cinnamon.
If you can resist nibbling a cookie while still warm and dripping with fragrant syrup, you are made of stronger stuff than I.
Serve with a nip of brandy, ideally Metaxa, or a strong cup of coffee and, obviously, a good book.
The Little Christmas Kitchen is one part Mamma Mia, one part Love Actually, a dash of Greek brandy and a morello cherry on top. Treat yourself this Christmas.