I never thought I would hear myself say this: The Greeks did it first! In this case, the “first” isn’t some scientific or philosophical or social eureka moment; it’s the very mundane but healthy tradition of baking with olive oil, even for holidays like Christmas, when, elsewhere in western cuisine, butter burrows in every sugary bite.
It’s not that Greek holiday sweets aren’t made with butter. Of course they are. But the sweets that call for olive oil are plentiful enough to be called a genre in their own right. For example, melomakarona (pl.), is almost always made with olive oil, not butter, regardless of the region it is from. In Neapoli, Laconia, the classic Christmas melomakarona aren’t only made with an olive oil dough they are fried in olive oil as opposed to oven-baked. In Levidi, a lovely, perfectly preserved architectural gem high in the mountains of Arcadia, the traditional butter-infused kourambiedes are always made with olive oil, even at Christmas. In the Peloponnese and elsewhere, diples, are traditionally fried in olive oil before being doused with ground walnuts, cinnamon and honey.
Some holiday sweets call for a combination of olive oil and butter. One such sweetmeat are the samousathes (pl.), sesame-and-nut-filled spiced biscuits common, again, in the Peloponnese. Before going into the oven they are brushed with a combination of butter and olive oil, then, hot, dipped in honey syrup. In the Peloponnese, even baklava, the nut-and-phyllo layered Greek classic that is typical of the holiday table, falls into the butter-olive oil combo category. One of my favorite versions comes from Neapoli, where it is layered with raisins and sesame seeds, each gossamer sheet of phyllo brushed with a mixture of melted butter and the robust, local extra-virgin olive oil.
Olive oil in Greek holiday sweets lends a healthy spin to an otherwise over-the-top two weeks of gustatory indulgences. The nuts, dried fruits, citrus, honey, and spices that perfume Greek holiday sweets also bring with them a cornucopia of nutritional value. Using olive oil in pastry means that despite the high caloric content of most sweets, there is little if any saturated fat. When using olive oil instead of butter, the rule of thumb is that you need 25% less fat. The flavor? Sweets with olive oil are definitely denser and less crisp than those made with butter, but in the Greek pastry kitchen the profusive use of citrus in so many sweets offsets that.
Click here for the melomakarona recipe