The smell of these soft cookies might remind you of almond extract. Yet, they taste nothing like almonds.This Greek cookie is flavoured with mahlepi, tiny cherry seeds used often in breads, cookies, cakes and sometimes in savoury dishes. It is a common ingredient in the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean but to most of the rest of the world, it is probably rather exotic. The heady smell of the cookies is what will first intrigue. You crush the seeds to release a scent that is like almond extract with a little star anise thrown in but it is neither of those.Then comes the taste of mahlepi. It is slightly bitter but not unpleasantly so with an almost astringent bite. You add just enough to the dough to flavour them. It taste similar to chinese dried apricot kernels or bitter almonds.I first tasted mahlepi when I used it in my Greek Easter Bread, Tsoureki. It has become my favourite festive bread. There is no other bread that taste like it! 

I can’t seem to control myself when it comes to eating these rustic greek cookies. My record is 6 cookies in one seating. It’s as if I am making up for lost time at not having had this spice in my diet earlier.  A fresh batch is now baking in the oven.  If only you could smell it!

The recipe below is adapted from ‘Vefa’s Greek Cooking’ an impressive 3″ thick cookbook by “Greece’s best selling cookery writer for the last 30 years”, Vefa Alexiadou.  Following her recipe, I have had to increase the flour by 1/4 cup to be able to form it into a workable dough. The mahlepi I increased 3X. I like mahlepi and might just go even higher the next time. I have also provided instructions with regard to making self raising flour and assembling the cookie dough. Other than that, her recipe makes great mahlepi cookies.

Greek Mahlepi Cookies

Prep: 20  minutes 
Cook: 10 – 15 minutes
Inactive:
Level: Easy
Makes: 25   4″ (10.16cm) long cookies
Oven Temperature: 360F (180C), oven rack middle
Can recipe be doubled? Yes
Make ahead? Keeps well in tightly covered jars up to 5 days.

Ingredients

2 cups (8.81oz)(250g) self raising flour
OR to make self-raising flour:
If using measuring cup: Fill the bottom of measuring cup with 2 and 3/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/8 salt, top up with enough all-purpose/plain flour to reach 2 cups.
If using kitchen scale: Add 2 and 3/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/8 teaspoon salt, then top up with flour to reach 8.81oz (250g).
1 and 1/2  teaspoon ground mahlepi*
OR
use 1/2 teaspoon pure anise extract instead as it imparts a similar taste profile.
1/2 teaspoon salt**
1 cup (4 oz)(113g) soft unsalted butter***
1 cup (3oz)(85g) caster sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened yogurt
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
1/2 Tablespoon sesame seeds for sprinkling
* Scroll down to ‘Tips’ for information on mahlepi and where to purchase.
** Omit if you are using salted butter.
*** ‘Soften butter’ should feel similar to Playdoh. Poke the butter and it would be just soft enough to leave a depression (without collapsing) and your finger should not be wet with butter. You do not want ‘melty’ butter as your dough will be too wet. 

Method

1. Preheat oven to 360F (180C). Oven rack adjusted to middle.
2. Prepare the baking sheet. If yours is nonstick, well and good. If not, either grease them or line with parchment paper or a silicon mat.
3. Sift the flour and salt (if using) together and set aside.
4. Ground the whole mahlepi seeds with 1 Tablespoon of sugar and mix this with the rest of the sugar.
5. Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until it light coloured and creamy.
6. Mentally divide the dry ingredients into 3 portions.
7. Mentally divide the yogurt into 2 portions.
8. With the mixer on low speed, add the first third of the dry ingredients, increase to medium speed and mix until just incorporated. It should take less than 30 seconds. It’s perfectly fine, in fact, ideal to have a little unincorporated dry ingredients.
9. With the machine still on medium speed, add the first half of the yogurt and mix until just incorporated.
10. Work in the second third of the dry ingredients the same way (low speed first – so flour doesn’t fly all over – then up to medium).
11. Repeat the same procedure with the remaining half of the yogurt and finish off with the last third of the dry ingredients.
12. The dough should be soft yet workable. If the dough is too sticky, work in a little more flour until your are able to work with it comfortably without it sticking to your fingers. Refer to image below

Shaping cookie dough
1. Slice off 1 Tablespoon worth of dough. On a lightly floured surface (I use my unfloured sililcon), roll the dough into logs about 4″ (10.16cm) long and 0.78″ (2cm) thick.

2. Taper the ends in opposite direction so that you have the letter ‘S’.
3. Set the cookies 1 and 1/4″ (3.17cm) apart on the baking sheet. They will expand ever so slightly on baking.
4. Beat the egg yolk with 1 teaspoon of water and brush on the cookies, then sprinkle immediately with the sesame seeds. Not too much or it will musk the taste and smell of the mahlepi which is the star here.

Baking
1. Bake ~10 – 15 minutes or until golden brown (refer to photograph below). If you like the cookies a bit harder and not cake-like, bake for slightly longer, ~5 minutes, until a deeper shade of golden brown. I prefer the cake-like texture and it does stay moist for a longer time compared to the ones baked for a longer time.
2. Let them cool on the tray for 5 minutes (as they might break) before transferring to cooling racks. When cooled, store in air tight containers.

3. These are lovely with a cup of black coffee.

Tips

What is Mahlepi?
Also referred to as mahleb, mahlep, mahlab and other varying spellings. It is a St. Lucie cherry seed used often in breads, cookies, cakes and sometimes in savoury dishes. It is a common ingredient in the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean but to most of the rest of the world, it is probably rather exotic.  It has a distinctive scent and taste and consequently has no clear substitutes. Its scent is like that of a pure almond extract with a little star anise thrown in but it is neither of those.

Then comes the taste of mahlepi. It is slightly bitter but not unpleasantly so with an almost astringent bite. You need just a little to flavour. It taste similar to chinese dried apricot kernels or bitter almonds. I know chinese apricot kernels are not a good substitute as I have tried using that in place of mahlepi. You need a significantly larger quantity to get the same intensity of flavour from mahlepi and even then the taste of chinese apricot kernels dissipates with baking. Substituting with almond extract will just make the cookies taste like almond extract. For a better substitute, use pure anise extract instead as it imparts a similar (but still not quite the same) taste profile. The anise extract substitute suggestion comes from Tessa Kiros, author of Food From Many Greek Kitchens.

In terms of size, a mahlepi seed is about 1.5X larger than a peppercorn.  Buy mahlepi as whole seeds and keep refrigerated. Ground mahlepi loses its flavour quickly. Grind only when you are ready to use it. Unless you have a Greek, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grocery store near you, you probably have to order it online. I bought my supplies from, Greek International Market, before I bought a whole lot home on my return from my Greece holiday

WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?

Black bread! A similar bread was served to us at Grace Santorini, Greece. I was so intrigued by it, I replicated it. Doesn’t it look grand? It is a very soft loaf. What makes it black? Look out for my next post!

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