We all could use a yaya, a wise but kindly Greek grandma who fusses over us a bit, teaches us a thing or two about cooking but perhaps holds her best recipes a bit close to her pillowy bosom.
Well, technically, that's probably a yiayia, which seems to be the proper spelling of the term of endearment. But Plates regular Steph Zervas, of Millbrae, called her Greek grandmother yaya, and that's good enough for me.
And Zervas not only recognized the cookie Lisa Scott-Ponce enjoyed on a Greek vacation, she also provided a recipe and plenty of helpful baking tips.
A number of you came up with versions of kourambiethes for Scott-Ponce. Another Plates regular, Ro Taylor, even had her own yaya of sorts. That was her affectionate nickname for her first college roommate.
"My first year at college, I lived with a Greek woman, Panagiota Pappas, who was one of the best cooks ever," Taylor says. Pappas taught her how to prepare many Greek dishes, including kourambiethes.
With its heavy dusting of confectioners' sugar and nutty, buttery texture, this cookie will seem familiar. I've seen versions attributed to several cultures, and I make a similar recipe with ground walnuts every Christmas.
The recipe Zervas sent, from "Classic Greek Cooking" by Daphne Metaxas Hartwig, is also a Christmas staple. "At Christmas, you add a whole clove to each cookie to symbolize the spices brought by the three wise men to the Christ child," Zervas says. "You can make them in a crescent shape, triangle, square or ball. We use cupcake liners to keep them separate and to keep the excess powdered sugar in place."
I like the idea of nibbling around the little whole clove, but I'd also like more clove intensity. So I'm glad Marilyn Joliff, of Sunnyvale, didn't simply call Scott-Ponce with the recipe. Her version uses a teaspoon of ground cloves, and I found versions online that call for as much as two teaspoons.
"Lisa Scott-Ponce is a longtime, very dear friend of mine," Joliff says. "We worked together for many years and have exchanged many recipes over the years and enjoyed each other's homemade treats that we brought to work."
When Joliff saw Scott-Ponce's request, she remembered seeing a picture of the cookies in her 1963 "Betty Crocker's Cooky Book." I remember that photo as well. My mom had that cookbook, and it was the first cookbook I poured over time and time again as I took my baby baking steps.
Kourambiethes recipes often have subtle variations. Zervas sent a recipe that calls for a teaspoon of cognac or brandy. Versions identified as Easter or Lenten cookies don't seem to call for the whole cloves. Kristin Inouye, of Palo Alto, sent a recipe from a cookbook she purchased at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension's festival in Oakland.
Her recipe includes a half teaspoon cinnamon and two tablespoons orange juice. Faith Simon, of Concord, found a recipe that calls for three tablespoons rose water, and Taylor's college roommate used a half teaspoon finely chopped orange rind and finely chopped almonds rather than walnuts.
No matter the variation, Zervas can offer some advice. First, don't place more than 12 or 15 cookies on a baking sheet. "That's as many as can be dredged in the powdered sugar while they are still warm," she says. You can also make an indentation with a wooden spoon handle or your finger in the dough, then fill it with finely chopped nuts before baking.
Zervas also fondly remembers a dunking cookie her grandma made that had ground nuts, cinnamon and cloves. "These were basted with an egg glaze before baking, but had no powdered sugar and very little sugar in the dough," Zervas says. "No measurements on the spices were given; Yaya liked to keep her little secrets."
Short of adopting your own Greek grandmother, you can get your fill of Greek food and culture next weekend, May 16 to 18, at the 42nd annual Oakland Greek Festival. Get details at www.oaklandgreekfestival.com.
Of course, there will be cake when Barbara from Antioch celebrates her oldest granddaughter's graduation from high school in June. However, she doesn't want her 5-year-old and 18-month-old granddaughters to feel left out. The 5-year-old is allergic to peanuts, and the 18-month-old can't eat eggs. "Unfortunately, the two little ones will not be able to eat it (the store-bought cake) because of the eggs in the batter, and my daughter-in-law must be comfortable that the place baking the cake is peanut-free," Barbara says.
That's where you come in. Barbara hopes a Plates reader has a recipe for a cake that doesn't use eggs, but still tastes like, well, cake. "I found a box mix, but the taste was terrible," Barbara says. "I wanted to have all the granddaughters be able to enjoy a bit of graduation cake, even if I have to make it myself or do cupcakes for the little ones so they do not feel left out of the celebration."