Cooking with Kukla
Our earliest memory of cooking, or in this case baking, was at the ages of four and five when our mom sat us down on a frosty December morning to make our Christmas cookies. But these weren’t just any cookies, they were Greek, which translated into us learning techniques such as rolling, filling, and decorating—not just for one but three different kinds of cookies, Melomakarona/Finikia, Kourambiedes, and Koulourakia. And we weren’t making just a few dozen, it was 200 of each kind.
These cookies were so special that our mom would package them up with pretty silk bows and ornaments and give them as Christmas gifts to all of her friends and co-workers every year…they were eagerly anticipated and seriously appreciated.
By the time we were in high school we realized why she got us started so young, she needed the help!
The first cookie we learned how to make was Koulourakia. The idea was to roll out each piece of dough into a perfect rope before twisting it. In the beginning we repeatedly asked Mom “how come we can’t do it?”, frustrated because her ropes always looked so flawless and ours were skinny on one side and lumpy in the middle.
She was so patient with us and explained that this dough needs to be worked well (thoroughly kneaded) before rolling, and we had to start at the center of the rope, rolling it gently out to the ends. She said the more we practice and get a feel for the dough, the better our cookies will look and the easier it will get. This is how she learned from her mom.
When Mom felt that we put enough time into making the Koulourakia, she gave us each a piece of dough to roll out and cut into Christmas shapes like trees, camels, bells, and stars…this was the part we loved! We’d sprinkle our cookies with red and green sugar and bake them alongside our mom’s twists. The smell coming from the oven was heaven and it ushered in the holiday season.
Today we’re experts at making Koulourakia, and all of Mom's cookies—yes, practice does make perfect—and we taught my niece Jackie the same way our mom taught us. We knock out 600 cookies in a two-day marathon and Jackie is always eager to get started. In fact, Jackie has been our official sugar-duster and nut-sprinkler since she was four—and she gets her own piece of dough to cut out and decorate just like we did. Plus we never have to worry about over-baking—from the moment Jackie could speak she’s been shouting out “COOKIES!” whenever the oven timer goes off…just in case we didn’t hear it.
Baking Bread in our Kouzina
When we were about six, our aunt Frances was baking bread, Yiayia’s recipe for Christopsomo (Christ’s Bread), and as soon as she took it out of the oven we were begging for a taste. She told us that she couldn’t cut the bread until it cooled a bit, otherwise it would be too wet on the inside. Each time she baked, we asked and got the same response.
One night, while the 15-inch round loaf was cooling, the aroma was so intense that we just couldn’t wait. We devised a plan. While our mom and aunt were busy in the living room, we went into the kitchen and poked a couple of holes in the side of the loaf and pulled out some of the crumb. We turned the bread so our handiwork was hidden, ate our booty, and then went to watch TV.
Later on we overheard our aunt telling Mom that she thought we had mice…actually two mice that got into the bread via perfectly round holes. The jig was up…we were disappointed to discover that we weren’t as clever as we thought!
Friday Night Grocery Run
TGIF meant more to us than just the end of the school week. Friday was the day Mom would come home with bags of gourmet goodies from 9th Avenue (Hell’s Kitchen) in Manhattan.
After work she’d head over to Esposito’s for the finest meats, including ground beef, thick-cut pork chops, shell steaks, calf's liver, chicken, and cold cuts.
Then she was off to International Grocery for feta, kasseri, olives, dried oregano on the stem, and all foods Greek (the Karamouzis brothers have owned the market for decades and still run it).
Finally she checked out who had the freshest fish and picked out artisan bread from the local bakery.
Carrying bags weighing about 50 pounds in each hand (we joked with her, in a Greek accent, that she was “strong like bull!”), she braved the subway and headed home. Joanne and I waited for Mom on the stoop of our brownstone and ran to her as soon as we spotted her coming down our block. We were so happy she was home and she was visibly thrilled to see us with hugs and kisses all around.
Nights following a 9th-Avenue run meant we were having fresh ham-and-feta sandwiches with lettuce and tomato, all the ingredients from the treasures found in Mom’s shopping bags. She used to ask us not to tell anyone we were eating sandwiches for dinner, which we couldn’t understand because we thought this was the best meal ever!
Entertaining at Kukla's
When it came to entertaining, be it Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, or a dinner party, Mom was busily preparing, running back and forth between the kitchen and dining room, and making sure her guests had everything they needed. She was always the last one to sit down at the table and she encouraged everyone to start eating without her so the food wouldn’t get cold.
For Mom it was about being on the serving end and creating a memorable evening. Her guests often told her that it was like going to a five-star restaurant.
One night it was fruit salad flambé served as a first course—Mom always stressed that just because you’re serving a salad doesn’t mean it has to be ordinary, an opinion clearly demonstrated in her fish-shaped tuna salad complete with sliced-carrot scales and olive eyes. Another occasion it was shrimp cocktail arranged in scooped out pineapple halves (recipe in our Meze cookbook).
Mom taught us that our focus should always be on great cuisine and its superb presentation—every day was a celebration of life and food!
The example she set took root when we were about 10 years old and decided to surprise Mom with an exotic meal when she came home from work, giving her a break from cooking that night. It was a Greek Luau…yes, I said “Greek”! Is there any other kind?
Having Kukla as our mom?...Now that was priceless!
Our new cookbooks Kukla’s Kouzina: A Gourmet Journey~Greek Island Style, Meze (Appetizers & Petite Plates) and Spreads & Dips mark over 20 years since we started this food journey with Kukla and are available on Amazon. These are the first in a series that we have developed and we’re excited to see this dream become reality! For details about the books and us, go to our BOOKS page.
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Kali orexi! Good appetite!
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