Friday, June 12, 2009

Greek Almond Biscuits

When I was about 13 years old, my mum was invited by a work colleague to attend the Christening of her God daughter. This was a big deal because both she and the baby being Christened were Greek. If you know any Greeks, you'll know that everything they do is BIG, and the Christening was no exception. Despite us being significantly removed from the family of the baby, we were none the less welcomed with open arms to a joyous family occassion for something like 400 people.

We attended the Christening ceremony at a Greek Ordthodox Church, which was an event in itself. While the structure of the building was hideous on the outside, the interior was incredibly ornate. The ceremony was entirely spoken and sung in Orthodox Greek - so we couldn't understand a word of what was said. And everyone in the church was clearly very Greek. We fifth generation Aussies looked distinctly unexotic next to everyone else. The God Mother stood proud as punch at the front of the church, holding the baby - a four month old little girl, plump as a peach, and dressed in an ornate white Christening dress. She was such a good girl throughout the ceremony, despite its length and despite having to get her head and hair very wet.

Afterwards we were invited to the celebration - a typical Greek party, with mountains and mountains of food. I remember looking across the room to see the baby perched on her handsome young father's knee while he fed her half a peach (she been changed out of her Christening frock and into something more durable). No wonder she was such a healthy baby! After we'd eaten our fill the dancing began. Despite my love of dancing I was very shy about joining in - mainly because I didn't want to be ridiculed by my family - you know what teenagers are like about public embarassment. But when both my sister and I were dragged out of our seats, I couldn't refuse.

We danced in typical Greek style - in a circle, holding hands high, two steps this way, one step back that way, and three steps back in the direction we'd started. It was great fun, although I remember being troubled by my jelly shoes - a silly piece of plastic held on my foot and ankle by a long shoelace with silver lame thread through it. They were possibly the most uncomfortable shoes I've worn in my life!

At the end of the night we bade our goodbyes to the God Mother and thanked her for such a wonderful night. She handed each of us a huge biscuit wrapped in red cellophane tied with a gold ribbon that had a little plastic crucifix dangling from it. She told us they were the traditional biscuit to give at Christenings but that she'd ordered them too late so they were still very fresh. She suggested we wait two weeks before we ate them.

Not likely! I waited two minutes until after we'd pulled away from the function centre in our car, then I unwrapped my biscuit and bit into it. And the world changed for me in the very next second - pure delight are the only words I can use to describe the experience. I'd never tasted anything like it - the unique combination of almond and sugar, baked so that the exterior was just crunchy, while the interior remained soft and squidgey.

Thus began a 25 year search for the recipe of that magical biscuit which, until now, has evaded me. I have found Greek cake shops which sell those bisuits by the kilogram (which is obviously how you'd need to buy them for a Christening with 400 hundred guests), and I've also come across them in the shape of a horseshoe, sold at cafes invariably run by Greeks. But I've never been able to find the recipe and make them myself. Until now. Following, is the recipe for Greek almond biscuits, with a little twist to put my own stamp on them of course.

3 cups almond meal (ground almonds)
1 cup caster sugar
3 egg whites
1tsp drops almond essence
125g flaked almonds
2/3 cup dark chocolate chips
15g vegetable shortening (Copha)

1. Place the almond meal, sugar, egg whites and almond essence in a large mixing bowl. Mix until all ingredients are combined and form a thick, sticky paste.
2. Pour the flaked almonds onto a dinner plate or a relatively flat pasta bowl.
3. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a large round piping tube. Pipe logs of mixture about 10cm long in rows on a baking paper lined baking sheet.
4. Roll the logs of mixture in the flaked almonds, ensuring that the entire surface area is covered and place back on baking sheet.
6. Bake in oven (pre-heated to 180 degrees celcius) for 15-20 minutes or until golen brown on the outside. Gently transfer from cookie sheet to a wire colling rack using an egg lifter. Allow to cool.
7. Place two handfuls of chocolate chips in a microwave proff bowl, with one knob of vegetable shortening (Copha). Heat on high for 30 seconds or until shortening melts - be careful not to burn the chocolate. Mix until combined then spoon into a disposable plast piping bag. Snip the tip of the piping bag off with scissors, then pipe thin lines of chocolate across biscuits in a criss-cross fashion. Allow chocolate to cool and harden, then serve.