Galaktoboureko (custard in filo), kourabiedes (butter cookies) and halva (nut butter sweets) are all among Greece’s most beloved desserts. The pies, pastries and biscuits that are considered quintessentially Greek all have fascinating origins and stories behind them. Many desserts bear similarities with syrup-rich treats found in Turkey and the Middle East, while others date back to ancient Greece or the Roman era. Whether it’s a slice of portokalopita (orange cake) or a honeyed melomakarona, be sure to end your meal on a sweet note with one of these Greek desserts.
With their recipe based on ingredients for which Greece is typically known – oil, honey, oranges and nuts – melomakarona are considered a typical Greek dessert. Even though nowadays they are mainly served during Christmas time, folklore studies suggest that these scrumptious honey cookies have been part of local culinary tradition since antiquity. Easy and cheap to make, melomakarona have survived throughout the centuries and today they are a mainstay of the Christmas festive table.
Kourabiedes signify the beginning of the Christmas season. Just like melomakarona, the sugar-dusted butter cookies make their appearance on pastry shops’ shelves around mid-December and households all over the country make sure to add them to their festive menu. The original recipe for kourabiedes, already popular in Asia Minor, arrived in Greece in the early 20th century when refugees from Cappadocia immigrated to the northern Greek city of Kavala. Looking back even further, researchers trace the origins of this sweet treat to 7th-century Persia.
To make diples, dough is rolled into thin strips, fried in hot oil and then covered in syrup and walnuts. This traditional Greek dessert originates in the Peloponnese region, but can now be found throughout Greece. It is common to serve these light, crispy fried pastries on special occasions such as weddings and religious holidays, but they are in particular demand come Christmastime.
Glyka tou koutaliou, which translates to “spoon sweets” is a type of traditional Greek dessert strongly connected with the countryside. Not wanting to throw away leftover fruits and vegetables, rural communities in antiquity used to dry crops in the sun. When Arab merchants brought sugar to Greece in the 14th century, Greeks started boiling the fruit and vegetables with sugar, adding different spices to elevate the taste. The term glyka tou koutaliou was born due to the way this dessert was served: either in a large bowl with several teaspoons or – as it is offered nowadays – on a small plate with a teaspoon. As this dessert’s main ingredient is fruit or vegetables, this sweet treat is seasonal: quinces in autumn, citrus fruit in the winter, apricots in spring and grapes in the summertime.
With its name translating to “milk burek”, galaktoboureko is a Greek custard pie coated with syrup. Even though the dessert’s origins are lost in history and it remains unknown when exactly this mouthwatering dessert entered the Greek culinary scene, the first pastry shops serving galaktoboureko in Athens date back over 100 years. The filo dough used for galaktoboureko came to Greece from Turkey, but the complete recipe was born in Greece itself.
Bougatsa comes in sweet and savoury variants. This filo pie, commonly filled with custard cream or cheese, is particularly popular in Thessaloniki and other parts of northern Greece. It is commonly held that bougatsa originated in Turkey, and the recipe became popular in Greece when Greeks living in Asia Minor introduced it during the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
Revani is a syrup-soaked cake made with semolina and yoghurt, known for its slight lemony taste. Even though it is served in every region, Veroia, a city in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, has a reputation for producing the country’s most delicious revani. The dessert takes its name from a Turkish poet named Revani who lived in the 16th century and was known for composing poems about gastronomy which became common in Greece during Ottoman rule. Legend has it that a Turkish pastry maker gave the recipe to a Greek counterpart, and it then passed down from generation to generation. Revani still remains a popular dessert in Turkey as well.
Three types of halva are popular in Greece: semolina halva, tahini halva and halvas farsalon. Semolina halva is flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, and is made with raisins and nuts, together with honey or sugar. Tahini halva is a vegan and nutritious food and, consequently, a ubiquitous snack during Orthodox fasts. Made with tahini (sesame paste) or other nut butters, sugar and flavours including chocolate and pistachio, tahini halva is commonly served on Ash Monday (the first day of lent). Halvas Farsalon derives its name from the city from which it originates, Farsala, and contains cornstarch, butter, sugar and almonds.
The flavour of oranges blends perfectly with the aroma of cinnamon in this syrup-drenched cake. Even though portokalopita has a reputation for being one of the most easy-to-make desserts, having the right proportions of ingredients are essential for the final result. It’s usually served with ice cream or yoghurt.
These deep-fried doughnut balls date back to the 13th century and are still popular throughout the Balkans, as well as in the Middle East. In Greece, they are served with honey, sugar or chocolate on top. A similar dessert, likely the forerunner to loukoumades, is recorded as dating back to Roman society in 2nd century BC.
Kataifi has roots in the Middle East, but variations are also found in Turkey and Greece. Greek kataifi is made with shredded phyllo dough, rolled and stuffed with walnuts and pistachios, and then covered with syrup. It is often served with battered ice cream (dondurma).