“Opa!”

“Opa”! I first heard that expression in 1976, when my parents took me to the Greek Festival in Houston. I’ll never forget that day; the exciting festival with all the people, dancing, and scrumptious Greek food, handmade by local ladies my family knew. While I wasn’t raised in the Greek church (or speak Greek), my father’s mother was born in Athens, Greece. Though my grandmother’s been gone decades, she’s on my mind as I cook comfort food with the arrival of colder weather, and begin holiday baking, using her treasured recipes.

IMG_9893

I don’t remember my grandmother well. Because my grandfather was Cajun French from Louisiana, instead of calling her the Greek traditional “YaYa”, she was my “Mam-Maw”. I remember sitting on her lap, and how she always had glamorous red nails and lipstick. It’s funny what childhood details one remembers. We’d visit their house in the West University area of Houston; a sturdy red brick with stone steps, always fragrant with delicious cooking. My grandmother raised chihuahuas. I wish I could show her my little chihuahua! My grandfather was an avid gardener, composting before most people knew about composting. My grandmother, well-known for her amazing cooking, was also an expert skeet shooter!

IMG_9896I wish I knew her story better, but even my father doesn’t remember all the details. From stories I’ve heard, she was strong and independent, a woman ahead of her time. Born privileged in Greece, as a child she suffered smallpox and was placed on a boat with her grandmother until she miraculously recovered. She later came to the United States at eight years old with her parents, landing at Ellis Island. The family settled in San Antonio, Texas, where they owned a successful bakery. At thirteen, just one year older than my own daughter {shudder}, she was married in an arranged marriage. Having her own mind, she divorced, and in 1938 wed my grandfather at twenty-nine. Raising two children, they were married thirty-nine years until my “Pap-Paw” passed.

IMG_9894I don’t have much of my grandmother’s, except for a treasured linen tablecloth she embroidered, and a necklace containing my picture. I resemble her, evident in photos.

My grandmother, 1920-something...

My grandmother, 1920-something…

Me, 1970-something.

Me, 1970-something.

In high school, a gentleman I’d never met visited school to talk about about a crazy, new invention: “the internet”. When he saw me, he looked like he’d seen a ghost; he knew I had to be related to Diane. He’d known my grandmother when she was very young.

My grandmother died having never owned a cookbook. Her recipes were “pinch of this, dash of that”. She passed some to my mom when she was a newlywed, as her mother-in-law did when she married my grandfather.

For Mam-Maw’s spaghetti, brown one pound ground beef. In another skillet, brown a medium onion and four garlic cloves in 2 TBSP olive oil, until soft. Add to meat. Add one can tomato paste, one tomato paste can of water, several generous pinches cinnamon, and a splash of sweet, Manischewitz cherry wine. Simmer 20 minutes. Serve over spaghetti…fragrant and delicious!

I also love her “Greek-Style” Macaroni and Cheese, a souffle-like take on the ultimate comfort food:

  • 1 lb. box elbow macaroni
  • 3 cups of milk
  • 2 eggs
  • salt and pepper
  • grated cheese (I use cheddar)
  • butter

Boil the macaroni ½ the time normally required (about five minutes). Drain and place in an rectangular, 9-X-11 buttered casserole dish. Beat eggs and milk together. Pour over macaroni, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover with cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350o for around 30 minutes, until liquid dissipates and casserole is firm. Cut into squares.

My favorite “heirloom” is her Koulourakia recipe, a Greek cookie-like pastry. Often eaten at Easter, we have it for Christmas.

The recipe makes a lot, but can be halved or doubled.

The recipe makes a lot, but can be halved or doubled.

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 6 eggs
  • 6 cups flour
  • 6 tsp baking powder
  • ½ cup milk, with part bourbon (my Mam-maw’s secret ingredient)
  • flour as needed for shaping

Cream butter until light and fluffy.

Add sugar, gradually, beating well until dissolved.

IMG_9870Add vanilla. Add eggs one at a time. Beat. Sift flour and baking powder together. Add to butter mixture alternately with milk. Using floured hands on a floured surface, shape into twists, and place on ungreased cookie sheet (I use parchment paper).

IMG_9873IMG_9874IMG_9875Brush tops with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350o for 20 minutes.

A silicone pastry brush is gentle on delicate pastry...I found mine at Ikea.

A silicone brush is gentle on delicate pastry…mine’s from Ikea.

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We eat these with coffee while opening presents Christmas morn.  They freeze and ship beautifully, too.

We eat these with coffee Christmas morn. They freeze and ship beautifully, too.

Daddy says when he eats my Koulourakia, it’s as if his mother made them. I like to think that would make Mam-Maw proud.

Until Next Time…Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

Leave a comment 30 Comments

  1. Sandy says:

    Do you make the Kouluorakia with the bourbon?

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Sandy. I do. It just doesn’t taste the same without it. I don’t drink bourbon, but I keep a small bottle in the cabinet just for baking koulourakia. I measure my milk, pouring it a scant shy of the 1/2 cup line. I then add a splash or so of the bourbon, until it is at the 1/2 cup mark (about a tablespoon or so). The milk will look not “quite white” with the addition of the bourbon. Of course the alcohol burns off in the baking, but leaves a nice, delicate flavor. Let me know if you try the recipe! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  2. Love this article! You do look like your grandma :). It is so important that we try to keep history alive for our kids. You are inspiring me to sit and write when my mom comes to visit in a few weeks. BTW, I have spent lots of time in Greece when I was younger. The food brings up happy memories, especially of community :).

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Heike…Thank you so much for the compliments! :) Enjoy your visit with your mom. Ask lots of questions. There are so many things I wish I could still ask both of my grandmothers. I have not yet been to Greece, but I really want to visit there someday. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  3. Adrienne says:

    What wonderful memories you have and great recipes you have inherited! You are blessed. Thank you for sharing them with us.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Adrienne! Thank you…I am so glad you enjoyed this post. Let me know if you try any of the recipes! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  4. Rosemarie says:

    Interesting blog and great story about your Grandmother! It is wonderful that you are preserving her stories and recipes for your daughter.
    I miss my mother’s Slovak and Polish Holiday Dishes. I will now get out the Slovak cookbook that she gave me and make some of the special dishes this Holiday Season.

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Rose! Thank you. I think it is important to preserve family history. It’s so interesting too. One thing I remember years back when Oprah had her show on in the afternoon, she said, “Everyone has a story”. It’s so true, and everyone has a history. Enjoy those special holiday dishes! Thank you for sharing. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  5. Karen(old cowgirl) Montoya says:

    Wow, I love getting recipe’s from different people who got them from their Grandparent’s or Aunts or Uncles. it just adds a wonderful flavor to your blog and e-mails. Of coarse we all get to enjoy recipe’s that we other wise may not even have heard of. Thank You and I will try making them this Christmas.
    Hugs
    Karen

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Karen, I love trying all kinds of recipes, too, especially “old” ones. Do you know what the first antique/vintage item I ever purchased was? It’s an old, vintage cookbook. I was waiting for a friend to get off of work, and was poking around the shops in New Hope, PA. There was an antique shop – the kind with everything including the kitchen sink – when I found a Good Housekeeping cookbook from 1942, in mint condition, for a song! It started a vast collection of vintage and antique cookbooks. I also like to try recipes from friends from different cultural backgrounds. Some of the recipes have become “regular” meals at our house! Thanks for reading and sharing. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  6. Carol D says:

    Love the pictures. Saw the resemblance immediately. Family heritage is so important. And, the recipes sound delicious – I will try them. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Joan says:

    Thanks for sharing, your family history and the wonderful recipes. I am a genealogist and collect recipes – this is special. God bless.

  8. Marge Hofknecht says:

    Thank you for sharing your grandmother with us. The older I get, the more I wished that I had asked questions of my grandparents when they were alive. Questions about life in the “Old Country” and so on. Years ago I began writing down funny little stories that my dad told me about his father and I’m glad I did. When my kids, nieces, and nephews had come for a wedding, they all read what I wrote and appeared to be very interested. I’ve since taken up scrap booking and I’m so glad that I did. Besides being a very creative activity, it also allows for pausing and remembering those long ago days and cherishing them. Enjoyed your post and I plan to try those little cookies. Have a blessed day!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Marge, thank you for commenting. I, too, wish I could ask my grandparents this or that. My daughter is twelve and at that “funny” age. With homework, extra-curricular activities, and life’s “busy-ness”, I always tell her she needs to pause and call her grand-parents. I always tell her how I would give anything for “just one more conversation” with mine. This past spring, my grand-mother’s last living sister passed away. She had lived a long life, but I felt like I lost a little more of my grandmother, they were so alike, and wished I had called her more often. On the plus side, after “signing” the online memorial for my Great-Aunt, I “met” one of my grand-mother’s nieces who I did not know even existed! We’ve since become close.

      How wonderful you are scrap booking your history! What treasures you are creating. And please let me know how your cookies turn out! Enjoy! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  9. carolyn stelle says:

    thank you so much for sharing, it’s very important for everyone to know where we came from.

    thank you

  10. Nicole, I love your post! Memories. photographs, and keeping your culture alive!

    I am from Greece too. My husband and I have made Chicago our home for 49 years. Our children and grand children fill our hearts with love and joy.

    I loved my grand parents and have great memories with them. I also tried to create good memories for my grand children.

    I have written a book…in the process of being edited…where the Greek culture plays a great role.

    I invited you to my inbox. Hope to see you there! Looking forward to knowing you better! Blessings and Light!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Katina! I am so happy you enjoyed this post! I am intrigued…I’d like to hear more about your book! Congratulations! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  11. Dori Troutman says:

    Nicole, I think your Mam-Maw was an amazing lady! And cute? Wow, she was a cute lady in her stylish clothes! And yes you certainly look like her. Reading your post made me so thankful that I get to live so close to my little grand-girls, it also made me aware of how I need to tell them stories that they will remember and cherish. Thanks for sharing! – Dori, Ranch Farmgirl – :-)

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Dori! Thank you! Your grand-girls are indeed blessed to live close to you. I wish we had either one of our families close so that my daughter could spend more time with her grandparents than just the once or twice a year trips. As for my mother’s mom, I still remember her “sleepovers”, where she would sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag with me, because I wanted to. (Her poor back must have been in awful shape, but she never complained). I still remember all the stories she would tell…probably why I am obsessed with the 1940’s now! Enjoy those grand-babies, and make lots of great memories! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  12. Beverly Battaglia says:

    This brought back so many memories for me. Your grandmother was expecting your father in a picture I had never seen. Your recipes look so good and I love the pictures of the cookies. Mam Maw would be proud of you. She also made wonderful baklava. The picture of your hair with the braids on the sides were of you in third grade in your school uniform. Your grandmother always said you were a beautiful child.
    Love, Mother

  13. Betty McTiernan says:

    Nicole,thanks for the recipes. You look so much like your grandmother. It’s incredible!

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Betty, Enjoy the recipes, farmsister! I will be making the cookies for our Farmgirl Sisterhood Christmas party. Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  14. Denise says:

    I loved this post. My parents were Dutch and I have some receipe books that I use especially around Christmas time. It keeps the connection to them alive since they are both gone. I also feel linked InTo my family history this way, it really feels like we belong I think

    • Nicole Christensen says:

      Hi Denise, What a wonderful way to connect to your parents. Thank you for sharing. I bet you’ve got some great Dutch recipes! Farmgirl Hugs, Nicole

  15. Alice - Farmgirl #12 says:

    Nice post! Thanks so much for the recipes, especially the Koulourakia – looks like the cookies that both of my grandmas made. I’m going to make these for my dad soon!

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