Greek (ish) Pomegranate Vegan Cookies aka Opa Cookies (Moustokouloura)

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Traditional moustokouloura are cookies made with grape must syrup (petimezi), flour, olive oil and the holy trinity of Greek baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). In Greece, these ingredients would have been widely available at a minimal cost.

These treats embody the genius and heart of Greek rustic cuisine. It evolved over centuries of poverty during which Greeks refused to lose their humanity and love of life. Its guiding principle: use the ingredients around you that don’t cost much and whip them into something that lifts your heart. Glendi food!

The main ingredient is naturally sweet petimezi, created as the first step in making wine. Although vineyards abound in Greece, that isn’t the case in many parts of the world. Greeks have been migrating from the homeland for centuries, even during the Bronze Age. They learned to adapt traditional recipes with local produce. In other words, substitution is a technique that is true to Greek cultural roots.

Greek-American/Canadian women will generally use molasses in lieu of petimezi. I had one of my baking eureka moments, promoted by a sale on pomegranate juice, and decided to try a different tangy fruit juice in place of grape must.

These “Greek immigrant” pomegranate cookies are moist, spicy, tangy, and perfect for dipping into strong coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. They’re designed for Greek Orthodox fasting days, so these cookies don’t contain eggs and dairy, making them suitable for vegans too. 

Ingredients (Will make around 15 cookies)

Pomegranate “must”: 1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice

Wet ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tbs lemon juice, 1/4 cup water

Dry ingredients: 1/4 cup sugar, 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tbs grated lemon zest, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/2 tsp salt

Alternative Almond Version Ingredients: Want to dial back the tanginess a bit? Like a buttery taste in your sweets? You’ll get both if you make this cookie with almond flour.

In lieu of 1 1/2 cups of flour, use 1 cup almond flour and 1 cup all-purpose flour. The greater weight of the nut flour necessitates adding 1/2 tsp baking powder more to the recipe above (mix with the dry ingredients). Given the moisture-retaining properties of almond flour, you probably won’t need the 1/4 cup of water. Only sprinkle the water on the batter, if you think the dough seems on the dry side.

Instructions

1. Make the pomegranate juice concentrate. This can be done in advance and refrigerated or frozen.

Bring one cup of unsweetened pomegranate juice to a boil and then reduce heat. Simmer for one hour or so, until the juice is reduced to a 1/4 cup. Allow the concentrate to cool to room temperature before using.

Warning: You might be tempted to add the sugar to the juice as it cooks. After all, you’ll be adding it eventually, right? If you do so, you’re making pomegranate molasses. You can make these cookies with pomegranate molasses, but that stuff is so thick, you’ll have to heat it to a thinner consistency.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a cookie sheet.

3. Combine the flour, spices, salt, and lemon zest.

4. Cream the olive oil and sugar.

5. Beat in the cooled, concentrated pomegranate juice.

6. In a cup, add the baking soda to the lemon juice (the acid activates the leavening powers of the baking soda). Get ready for some fizz! Mix this with the liquid ingredients.

7. Beat in the flour mix and 1/4 cup of water. As the batter thickens, you’ll need to use your hands or a spoon to mix it to a cookie dough consistency.

8. Get ready to roll! Pinch off walnut sized pieces of cookie dough and roll into a log about 1/3 of an inch thick. Greek women have preferences in their log “thickness,” and you also might want a thicker cookie. Just be sure to be consistent in the log thickness, since you want the cookies to cook evenly. Twist these logs into any shape your heart desires: braids, spirals, rounds, hearts. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination!

Tip: This dough is super sticky. Scattering a bit of flour on the rolling surface will make it easier to manipulate.

9. These cookies take about twelve minutes to bake when they are about 1/3 inch in thickness. If you’re making the almond version, they’ll be ready in roughly ten minutes.

Store in an airtight container and enjoy! They taste even better the day after they are made.

*You might not have access to a vineyard, but you can now buy authentic Greek petimezi! If you want to go back to the Hellenic cookie roots, order a bottle, also sold as Greek grape molasses, and give it a go. Just use a search engine to find it online or in a Greek grocery store near you.

The petimezibased recipe is essentially the same as the pomegranate version, but you won’t need much additional sugar as grapes are naturally sweet. Plus, no need for that first step of concentrating the juice: pour from the bottle right into the mixing bowl. I suggest cutting back on the spices in order not to overwhelm the more delicate taste of grape must syrup, but fans of spicy should feel free to ignore my advice.

You can also use petimezi as a natural sugar substitute, drizzling it on desserts and fruit, and as the key note in delicious Greek puddings and cakes. Support Greek farmers and entrepreneurs struggling to make a living, and reward yourself with this Greek delicacy!

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