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Read an extract from Beneath the Fig Leaves: A memoir of food, family and Greece

Olympia Panagiotopoulos celebrates all it means to grow up Greek in Australia in her new book.

The summer heat hovers outside the sunroom door. We are making kouloúria in Mother’s kitchen. They are traditionally made at Easter but we like to make them throughout the year. When I was a child there were always tins of kouloúria in the cupboard but they didn’t last long. I would dip the biscuits in Greek coffee, grabbing as many as my little hand could hold, eating as many as my big mouth could fit in.

My daughters Natalie and Isabella and Mother and I have had our own kouloúria-making club for years, often enjoying a little competitive rolling and shaping along with boastful cries of ‘Look at mine!’ or ‘See how many I’ve made!’ Mother sits at the head of the table, the experienced one, rolling the dough with such pride, issuing advice and showing us time and time again how it’s done, her eyes scanning the trays in front of us, reviewing our work. She prefers the traditional braids and twisted wreaths while the girls have fun with hearts, letters, animal shapes and even the Eiffel Tower.

‘Last night I was in the village,’ Mother tells me as we set about rolling and twisting pieces of dough into orange-scented treats. ‘I was walking through a field with one of our five sheep. Her name was Boukourina and she used to follow me everywhere. She was all white. Mother often sent me to milk her and Boukourina would knock over the bucket of milk each time. I think she did it deliberately – she loved to play, but I needed to be careful otherwise we’d have no milk.’ She brushes a little egg yolk on top of the biscuits. ‘Sometimes we used the milk to make kouloúria. You know how much I loved making kouloúria with my mother? We made them every Easter and Christmas. I remember being little, sitting at a small table on a wooden seat that my father made.’

Most days Mother greets me with, ‘Do you know where I was last night?’ followed by, ‘I was in the village,’ and goes on to tell me about her dreams in great detail. They often involve food, usually bread or chórta, some member of her family, a secret love or one of the neighbours. Mother takes her dreaming quite seriously and all dreams are a sign. Someone from the past is usually trying to make contact, often to let you know what you haven’t done and should have done and what you now need to do to make things right. Often, they mean death. It’s a Greek thing.

In the late afternoon I take a kouloúri, still warm from the oven, and a cup of strong tea and sit on the garden bench under the fig tree. There are signs of rain with a few scattered drops. Everything is still; the garden is meditating. The orange tree sits silently in the stillness, as do the vegetables, the lettuce leaves, the rosemary and marjoram; except for the odd bee, I could be looking at a photograph. My gaze falls upon the fig tree. The sunlight plays up and down its trunk and across the branches as it searches for an opening in the clouds. From the back of the yard, the chickens cluck and the birds answer with their usual song. I want to fill myself with this moment: for the garden to stay as it is, beautiful and unspoiled, to breathe its life into me so I am part of it forever.

Kouloúria

In our family there is no Greek recipe more emblematic of tradition than kouloúria. The ritual of twisting and shaping sweet dough into plaits and circles is one that the women of our family learned as children, and we each have our own fond memories of our earliest lessons in crafting these golden baked treats. When we gather around my mother’s table, I know her thoughts return to village days with my grandmother Olympia, and it warms my heart to see my own girls roll up their sleeves and set to work under the watchful eye of their yiayiá.

The quantity of ingredients in this recipe will make approximately 60 biscuits, depending on how uniform or creative you are with your shapes.

Ingredients

6 cups self-raising flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

pinch of salt

7 eggs, separated (reserve 2 yolks for glazing)

1 cup caster sugar

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

zest of 1 orange

1 (25g) sachet vanillin sugar, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon brandy

1 cup full-cream milk

sesame seeds

Method

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until fluffy.

Whisk together sugar and oil in another large bowl. Add 5 egg yolks, orange juice and zest, vanillin sugar, brandy and milk, whisking after each addition. Fold in the egg whites until combined.

Gradually add the flour mixture and begin to work the batter into a dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead lightly until you have a smooth, soft ball. Keep extra flour on hand if the dough feels sticky.

To shape the kouloúria, tear off small pieces of dough and roll into 15cm strands that are just over 1cm thick. Fold the strand in half, holding both ends between the fingers of one hand and twist the dough into shape. My mother’s way of rolling kouloúria into this shape is to position her hands side by side, palms down on top of the strand of dough and slowly roll one hand away from her and one towards her, twisting the strand. She then picks up the two ends and holds them between the fingers of one hand which allows the dough to relax into a soft twist.

Preheat oven to 180°C. Line two baking trays with baking paper.

Place biscuits on lined trays. Lightly whisk the remaining egg yolks and brush each kouloúri with the glaze. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until golden, rotating trays halfway through baking. Remove from oven, leave to cool on tray for 5 minutes then transfer biscuits to a wire rack and leave to cool completely.

Beneath the Fig Leaves by Olympia Panagiotopoulos (Affirm Press, $32.99) is out now.

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