How many pounds of flour does one need for over a thousand servings of loukoumades (fried honey balls)? How do you reheat chilled baklava? What is the trick to perfectly rolling diples (a flaky pastry liberally dosed in honey and nuts)?
These questions might present a quandary for the novice chef but not for the local ladies who make up an informal baking committee for the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons. On a recent blistering Friday morning, they are hard at work preparing for their annual Hamptons Greek Festival, which starts today, Thursday. They rattle off the answers to the above conundrums with ease while buttering, layering, frying and baking dozens upon dozens of sumptuous treats. (And for those intrigued readers you need 500 pounds of flour for the loukoumades. Never reheat baklava in the oven or it will turn to mush, simply soak it in warmed up syrup. And the trick to making pristine diples is using two forks to roll the dough while frying.)
Of the 10 to 12 women who regularly cook for the event, four are here today to produce two more batches of baklava, a pan of kataifi, shredded filo filled with honey and nuts, and to show off the latest round of kourambiedes, butter cookies with almonds generously topped with powdered sugar. The foreign sounding names of these pastries melodically roll off their tongues, sweetly punctuating their American accents. In a commercially equipped kitchen, the women line up six pitchers of honey syrup and a large bowl of nuts, two ingredients incorporated into almost every Greek dessert.
“Our food is made with love,” Mary Caloir boasts, looking over her colleague’s creations.
“My mouth is watering,” Greta Nikiteas remarks.
The homemade food from baklava ice cream sundaes to roast lamb shank and spanakopita, spinach and feta cheese pie, has always been the main draw of the festival, says Xanthi Karloutsos, whose husband, Fr. Alexander, is the senior pastor at the church.
Caloir notes that the hours spent in preparation, which begins weeks before the weekend long event, and baking pastries in the kitchen pays off by drawing thousands of devotees. Even today, the ladies have been fielding calls from people in the community asking if their favorite dishes will be served.
Most Greek Orthodox congregations, explains Caloir, make one or two specialties and purchase the rest of their festival fare from local eateries. The food lacks uniformity and the home brewed je ne sais quoi (that’s French, not Greek by the way).
“At my son’s church little by little they started to make only two things,” Caloir says. “The people, [parishioners], were all working.”
The women here have seen their numbers dwindle over the past few years as their comrades age and the younger generation of women work outside the home. Every now and then the ladies are able to recruit from outside of their Greek ancestry.
“Greta became Greek through the festival,” Caloir jokes, pointing to Greta Nikiteas whose husband is Greek, though she is of Italian and German stock.
“This is a very special group. I remember my first festival a lady said come with me [to the kitchen] and I haven’t left since,” Nikiteas recalls.
The ladies’ ancestry may be traced to different regions of the Mediterranean (and elsewhere), but the group is always convivial. Swapping stories from baking nightmares to recent trips, their baking sessions are part intense pastry making, part boot camp and part gabfest.
“It’s therapeutic,” Caloir says.
“At least for those of us with a sense of humor,” Chrisanna Vagianos adds.
One topic that seems to worm its way into conversation throughout the morning is when mediocre Greek food passes as masterpieces of the ancestral cuisine. Sharing tales of kitchen catastrophes, one of the women gossips with the others about a recent wedding gone sour by mushy baklava. The lady recounts how the caterer, who wasn’t Greek, transferred cold baklava into the oven in an attempt to reheat the dish. In the process, the syrup-soaked layers of buttered filo turned into a ruined soft mass. The ladies of the Greek Orthodox kitchen gasp at the story of wasted work.
“[But] what did they know?” cried one of the ladies of the guests who naively enjoyed the second-rate version of this staple Greek cake.
One thing the ladies of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons will never scrimp on is quality, but this requires work and devotion. In the weeks and days leading up to and throughout the festival, these ladies will continue to butter thousands of pieces of filo dough and put up no qualms about beating 120 eggs at a time. What might unravel the cooking staff at other congregations, the ladies in Southampton take in stride with generous servings of camaraderie and laughter.
The 2010 Hamptons Greek Festival will be held from Thursday, July 15 to Sunday, July 18. 4 to 11 p.m. July 15 to July 17. Noon to 9 p.m. on July 18. In addition to Greek specialties, the festival offers Greek music, dancing, vendors, beer and wine, carnival games, rides and raffles. The Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons, is at 111 St. Andrew’s Road, Southampton. For more information call 283-6169.