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

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This is a Sia recipe, and she insists that it is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT traditional. Well, that’s true, if you accept her argument that anything she makes is traditional because she makes it. I, for one, am not going to argue with the tiny titan!

And this is a recipe that is true to its Greek cultural roots in two ways.

When Sia and her late husband, Nector, immigrated to Massachusetts from Greece in the late 1960s, the pickings in Safe Haven’s grocery store were pretty sparse. (FYI, this is pre-foodie culture for the millennials out there.) She just couldn’t find the ingredients needed to make some Greek dishes.

One day, a homesick Nector says to Sia, “I really miss moustokouloura. Do you think you can make some?”

Now, Nector was the love of Sia’s life. A hard-working man, he asked for nothing and gave much. So she set her formidable mind to this task.

Brief informative digression: What are moustokouloura? They’re cookies made with grape must syrup, flour, olive oil and the holy trinity of Greek baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). Back in Greece, these ingredients would have been available to every cook at a minimal cost.

These sweets embody the genius and heart of Greek rustic cuisine. It developed 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. Opa food!

Back to our heroine’s story: It was impossible for Sia to make these cookies the usual way. The main ingredient is grape must syrup (petimezi), a concentrated juice made from grape must, which in turn is created as the first step in making wine. Needless to say, vineyards did not and do not exist in the Berkshires.* So what’s an old-fashioned gal to do?

You can make grape must from fresh grapes, but these weren’t often found in the village grocery store in the old days. Plus, grapes were expensive. Sia and Nector were working around the clock, and saving every penny to open a diner. (That’s their restaurant in the web banner, by the way.)

Sia had heard about Greek-American women making these cookies with molasses rather than grape must syrup. Substitution is a technique that’s also true to Greek cultural roots. Greeks have been migrating from the motherland for centuries (even in the Bronze Age!), and they would adapt traditional recipes with available local ingredients. This similar to the original ingredient sort of change didn’t offend Sia’s traditionally oriented sensibilities, and she gave molasses a shot. Alas, they didn’t hit her sweet spot. (FYI, these cookies are good. Give them a try.)

Then, Sia had a baking eureka moment: why not use a different tangy fruit juice in place of grape must? And so, pomegranate moustokouloura came into being, and her Nector rejoiced.

These “Greek immigrant” 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. Opa!

Ingredients (Will make around 15 cookies)

Pomegranate “must””: 1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice

Wet ingredients: 1/4 cup olive oil, 1 tbsp. 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 more buttery taste in your sweets? You’ll get both, if you make this cookie with almond flour.

In lieu of the 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 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 the product 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 Sia finds the stuff is so thick, she has to heat it to a thinner consistency, and that makes more work.

2. Prehead the oven to 350 degrees Celsius. Grease a cookie sheet.

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

4. Beat the olive oil and sugar together.

5. Beat in the 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 bring 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!

Hint: This dough is sticky. Scatter a bit of flour on the rolling surface to make it easier to roll.

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 about 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! Sia’s recipe is a nice variation on the original. If you want to go back to the Greek roots, order a bottle of petimezi, 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 petimezi-based 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. Sia suggests cutting the amount of spices in half in order not to overwhelm the more delicate grape must syrup, but fans of spicy should ignore her advice.

You can also use petimezi as a natural sugar substitute, drizzle it on desserts and fruit, and use it 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!