Inspiration from Chef Maria Elia’s Kitchen: A Greek Christmas

By Maria Elia | December 21, 2015

We asked Maria Elia, chef and author of Smashing Plates, Full of Flavor & The Modern Vegetarian, to share her Christmas Day menu. A mix of traditional and modern Greek fare, here is what she has planned.

Christmas Morning
As a Christmas Day treat, I like to start my morning with a cup of tea and some Greek pastries such as Kourambiedes (almond cookies flavored with rose water) and Melomakarona (small cinnamon and orange flavored cookies drenched in honey syrup with walnuts).  I always make these at Christmas time along with some gingerbread cookies which I like to give as gifts to my friends for their trees. It’s not very Greek but a lot lighter than the Greek pastries.

carrot keftedes by Maria Elia
Carrot Keftedes (Photo: Jenny Zarins)

For Starters
I’ve not decided on the starters yet. I’m torn between my Roquefort crème brulee as that’s a favorite from my Modern Vegetarian cookbook or my carrot keftedes with carrot tabouleh (recipe below) from Smashing Plates as they’re so fresh, flavorsome and light! 

The Main Event 
We’ve always eaten a traditional turkey roast on Christmas Day, which I’ve now taken on board and added a few twists. Christmas Day will consist of a boned and rolled turkey. The breast I will marinate with some herbs and garlic and slow cook in a roasting bag with some white wine, cranberries, tangerine zest and sage. The legs I will roast with the potatoes in duck fat and sea salt. Christmas Day is a day of decadence. I’ll make some stuffing with something like chestnut and brandy and we have to have ‘pigs in blankets’ or it wouldn’t be right: chipolata sausages rolled in pancetta! 

There’ll be a feast of roasted vegetables, such as parsnips, carrots and sprouts. I’ll serve roasted Brussels sprouts with tahini, pomegranate and spiced seeds. Roast carrots with hummus, orange segments, almonds and herbs. I love to use the leftover turkey to make an orzo soup, an adaptation of my chicken and orzo soup in Smashing Plates.


tomato baklava
Tomato Baklava (Photo: Jonathan Gregson)

A Holiday Staple
I like to make one of my savory baklavas, a rabbit and white bean or a tomato, feta & almond baklava for my vegetarian friends.  It takes a little preparation so you need to plan your time, but once it’s cooked it’s a great entertaining dish as all you need to do is reheat and serve.


Kourabiedes (Greek almond Christmas cookies)
Makes about 34 cookies

250g softened unsalted butter
100g icing sugar, sifted, plus (plus approximately 200g extra, for dusting
1 large egg yolk 
300g plain flour, sifted with ½ tsp baking powder
100g slithered almonds 
1 tbsp Ouzo or Brandy
2 tbsp orange flower water (Or rosewater)

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. 
Using an electric mixer, whisk the butter and icing sugar until pale and fluffy for at least 20 minutes (don’t rush this part).
Meanwhile scatter almonds on an oven tray and roast until lightly golden (3-4 minutes). Set aside and cool, then finely chop.
Slowly add the egg yolk and Ouzo/brandy to the butter mix whisking until combined.
Gradually add the flour and nuts, a cup at a time to combine to form a soft firm dough. (You may have to mix the final cup or so of flour by hand to knead the mix together). 

Roll walnut sized pieces of mixture into balls, then roll into 5cm lengths and form into crescents. Place crescents on baking paper-lined oven trays leaving a gap between each and bake for 15-20 minutes or until lightly golden and firm to touch. (It’s tradition to pierce each crescent with a whole clove before baking, but it’s not pleasant if you take a bite and forget to remove the clove, so nowadays most families leave them out.)
Transfer Kourabiedes to a wire rack and, while still warm, sprinkle lightly with orange flower or rose water. Dust with icing sugar, then leave to cool. When completely cool, dust generously again. The Kourabiedes will keep in an airtight container doused in copious amounts of icing sugar for up to 1 week.

If you wanted to be a rebel and experiment with flavor variations here’s a few ideas to add to the basic recipe above: 
Finely chopped rosemary and orange zest
Pinch dried ginger
Cardamom pods, ground
Plain chocolate, finely chopped, replacing half the almonds w hazelnuts
Instant coffee, dissolved in Brandy, drizzle with orange flower water
Fennel seeds, crushed, drizzle with rosewater
White chocolate chips, finely chopped, drizzling Kouradiedes w a splash of rosewater
Half almonds with chopped walnuts and add a pinch of ground cinnamon and replace Ouzo with Brandy

(The crescent shape is traditional, but the dough can be rolled out to a 1cm thickness and cut into stars/ holly etc, ideally they need to be bite sized as they’re pretty messy to eat, also best served with a glass of water as all that icing sugar can sometimes take your breath away!)

Carrot tabbouleh
Serves 4

1 medium sized carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
60g flat leaf parsley, with stalks
25g mint leaves, picked
1 tomato, finely diced
½ small red onion, finely diced
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
Sea salt
Juice of ½ lemon
2½ tbsp olive oil

Place the carrot in a food processor/chopper and pulse blitz until it resembles the texture of bulgar wheat/couscous. Pour into a large bowl whilst you prepare the herbs. 

Using a very sharp knife, slice the parsley as thinly as possible, starting at the leafy top all the way to the stalks, repeat with the mint and add to the carrots. Combine with tomato, onion and spices. Dress with lemon juice, olive oil and season with sea salt before serving; if you’ve the time let the tabbouleh sit for ten minutes before serving to allow the flavors to develop.

Tahini yoghurt sauce

1 small garlic clove
1 tsp sea salt
35g tahini paste
2 tbsp lemon juice
Pinch of ground cumin
100g Greek yogurt 

Crush the garlic with the sea salt until pureed and transfer to a bowl. Add the tahini, lemon juice, cumin and 2 tablespoons of water, whisk together and add the yoghurt. If the sauce is a little too thick, add a little more water. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.