Greek Koliva Memorial Wheat Dish

Koliva is a boiled wheat dish traditionally served at memorial services to honor deceased loved ones.  It is often served at various intervals after a loved one's death to honor them.  It uses hard wheat which you must soften in water then cook and allow to dry.  It requires time and labor to make it, and I am glad to be able to put in the effort to honor my brother, Stephen, who was such a fantastic man.

The recipe is from an It's Greek to Me! cookbook my mother has.  You start the cooking process on Friday evening for the dish to be served on Sunday morning. The only thing I changed was using sliced almonds instead of buying whole almonds and blanching, splitting, and toasting them.  I looked all over the place for silver dragees, which are small silver ball-shaped sprinkles traditionally used to decorate the Koliva, but even the party store and craft specialty stores did not carry it, so I was forced to use silver sprinkles and pearl colored ball-shaped sprinkles.

This was definitely my biggest cooking experience yet, as this recipe is for 100 servings.  The wheat is very perishable and can ferment and cause illness if not kept cool, so I was extremely careful not to let it sit out more than necessary while drying and to keep it refrigerated.  I made Homemade Zweiback Toast to use with this recipe since the pre-made kind was unavailable in my area.

I started out on Friday evening by rinsing 5 pounds of hard wheat in water and then letting it soak in fresh water overnight in the fridge.  According to the original recipe, tradition dictates that you use an odd number of pounds of wheat berry.  I used a scale to confirm I had the right amount.  Don't mind my sweet stickers on the scale.

5 pounds of hard wheat

The next day, I placed the pot on the stove and cooked the wheat over medium heat for just over an hour, when the skin was breaking apart on some of the wheat and they were softened.

Soaking the wheat

Then I drained out the water and rinsed the wheat berry again.

After boiling the wheat

Next I lied the wheat out on clean cloth.  I let it dry for 4 hours, turning the wheat occasionally to allow all sides to dry.  Now, even though the temperature in my home was only around 75 degrees F, I kept my air conditioner running to make sure the air stayed cool enough since I was also using the oven while these were drying.  I wanted to be extra safe and prevent fermentation.

Drying the wheat

In the mean time I toasted the sesame seeds and almonds in the oven.  Since it was my first time working with toasted nuts and seeds, I made a Toasted Sesame Seed and Almond recipe post.

Toasted sesame seeds and almonds

I chopped up the pecans and walnuts in a chopper, then crushed up 6 ounces (it worked out to be 7 slices of toast) of Zwieback toast so I could sift it over the top.  I started by putting the toast in a bag and trying to smash it with my hands, then switched to a meat tenderizer which just ended up piercing the bag. So I switched to my Magic Bullet (voila!) and ground it up until it was about the consistency of sand.

Ground up Zwieback toast

I used fresh straight-leaf parsley and cut it up into small pieces.

Fresh chopped parsley

Once wheat berry was dry and the other ingredients were ready, I put the wheat out on a large clean sheet.

Preparing to mix the Koliva

Next I added the sesame seed, almonds, walnuts, pecans, dark and white raisins, ground cinnamon, cloves, and parsley on top, then carefully mixed it using a large wooden spatula (actually, it's for putting pizza in the oven) and my hands.

Mixed Koliva

When the ingredients were thoroughly combined, I lined a tray with foil and began to place it on the serving tray in the shape of a cross; this is a traditional step of the recipe.

Koliva in the shape of a cross on the tray

Then I piled on more of the mixture to make a mound. I scooped the remaining wheat berry mixture into a bowl.

Koliva on a tray

Then I placed a sheet of waxed paper over the mound and pressed down firmly to pack it down solidly.

Using wax paper to press down on the mound

I next sifted the 6 ounces of crushed Zwieback toast over the top. I ended up grinding up about 6 more pieces of Zwieback toast to have enough to cover the entire tray. I repeated covering the koliva with the wax paper and pressed firmly down on the mound on all sides.

Sifted Zwieback covering the Koliva

Then I sifted powdered sugar over the top, and used the wax paper to press down again. I repeated sifting powdered sugar and pressing down on wax paper until the mound was thickly covered.

After adding the powdered sugar

The original recipe states that you are to use a cross stencil and a toothpick to mark a small portion of the cake, then remove the layer of powder sugar from the stenciled area. I tried to so this, but the sugar layer was a bit too soft to scoop out any particular area. I figured I was better off not messing up the whole koliva and decided to decorate the cross win Jordan almonds and a few of the silver sprinkles and white pearl dragees my mom tracked down.

I tried to make the decorative frosting by making a hot syrup poured into egg whites, but it didn't turn out well. Even though I tried to pour the syrup slowly I think it may have been overcooked. Oops.

The finished Koliva decorated with Jordan almonds

It was blessed at the church for Stephen's 2 year memorial and then mixed together and served afterward.

Serving the Koliva

It was so delicious and very filling!  I ate one cup full and felt full. It was so sweet with the powdered sugar and zwieback mixed in.  The wheat was a perfect softness and the raisins and nuts were perfect.  I saw many people going back up for seconds and got a few complements from those that tried it.  I knew it was good when my dad had 2 and a half cups of his own.  It was so nice to be able to honor my brother in such a special way, and next time will be much easier since I know what to expect. It was a lot of work, but I learned so much during the process and doing something small in honor of my brother is always a pleasure.  Go Koliva!

Greek Koliva Memorial Wheat Dish Recipe
(serves 100)


For the Koliva:
5 pounds hard wheat, whole grain
1 pound sesame seed
1 pound sliced almonds
2 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup chopped pecans
1 pound white seedless raisins
1 pound dark seedless raisins
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1/2 cup straight leaf parsley
6 ounces Zwieback toast, finely crushed and sifted
2-3 boxes confectioners sugar 
1 pound white Jordan almonds


For a Sunday morning memorial service, begin preparation on Friday evening.

Put wheat in a large pot, fill with water and let water slowly overflow to rinse wheat.  Wash away any loose dirt and dust.  Fill pot with clean water and allow to sit overnight.  Drain the following morning and put wheat in a pot large enough to fit 1 part wheat and 2 parts water.  Cook over medium heat about 1 hour, until tender and skin splits, stirring often with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking.  Drain wheat, rinse, and spread on a table covered with several layers of clean cloth to completely absorb moisture.  Turn what to help dry.  This process takes about 2-4 hours.  Prepare the other ingredients while wheat is drying.  Toast almonds and sesame seeds in a low heat oven, stirring frequently.  Crush the Zwieback toast and chop up the parsley.  Move the wheat to a large, clean cloth.  Add toasted sesame seeds and almonds, chopped nuts, cinnamon, cloves, raisins, and parsley.  Use your hands and a wide spatula to gently mix ingredients.  Line a tray at least 21" x 15" with foil.  Begin to mound the wheat mixture onto the tray in the form of a cross.  Then continue to add the wheat mixture to form a large mound.  If any of the mixture does not fit, place it in a separate bowl.  Place a sheet of wax paper over the mound and press firmly down on the mound.  Sift Zwieback crumbs over the entire surface (layer should be about 1/8" thick).  Sift confectioners sugar over the Zwieback and using the wax paper again, press down on the mound.  Sift more sugar and repeat the wax paper pressing until sugar layer is 1/4" thick.  Surface should be firmly and smoothly packed.

Decorate cross and initials as desired with dragees and Jordan almonds and use the remaining decorations on the base of the mound.  Decorate with Jordan almonds and dragees as desired.  Keep the Koliva cool until served.


  1. How long can you keep Koliva? Can you freeze it?

    1. To be honest, I have never tried. I would be concerned the berries may dry out, but it may actually freeze well if wrapped tightly.

  2. I know this is more than a year since you posted your question but I thought I'd reply anyway
    I would keep prepared KOLLYVA, no longer than one day and of course it must be kept in your fridge.
    If you boil a large quantity of wheat berries, once they're dry, you can freeze them in ziploc bags. They keep very well for months, don't dry out or go mushy. Once defrosted, you DO have to remove any moisture once again before proceeding with the recipe. Hope this helps


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