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Baking the Greek way

Greeks bearing cookies buzzed around the kitchen of a local Greek Orthodox church. Kneading, rolling, sprinkling, chatting, tasting, these busy women baked a heavenly batch of goodies for their annual church festival.

By JANET K. KEELER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 2001


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No yolking: It takes 56 . . .
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. . . and a handful of busy knuckles making dimples . . .
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. . . plus a divine sprinkle or two of powdered sugar, to equal . . .
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. . . 1,150 kourambiethes. No, 1149. One is melting in Ranie Glicos’ mouth after her work at the mixer is done.

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]

ST. PETERSBURG -- There is no room for the timid, the nervous or the squeamish when the women of St. Stefanos Greek Orthodox Church gather to make traditional Greek foods, both savory and sweet, for the annual festival. The adage "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" rings especially true here.

On this day, Ranie Glicos, the "It Girl" of the kourambiethes (KOO-rum-bee-ETH-us), is handling the industrial mixer with determination, if not total mastery. Glicos' version of the butter cookie laden with powdered sugar is considered the best of any in the congregation, no small feat in a church of fabulous cooks.

Despite Glicos' crowning as the kourambiethes queen, opinions overflow on how stiff the dough should be, from how large a ball each cookie should be rolled and how the powdered sugar should be applied. Even the way the little dimple is made at the top of the oval cookie has fans and detractors. (Some prefer to use the knuckle of the forefinger, others a swift poke with the tip.) Many unbaked cookies are reshaped by two women stationed near the ovens to make them smoother, more uniform and just plain right.

By the time the kourambiethes were tackled last week, the women of the philanthropic Philoptochos Society had been cooking for several weeks, working passionately in preparation for this weekend's Greek Festival at the church. Already in the walk-in freezer was a mountain of aluminum-covered trays containing spanakopita (spinach pie), tiropita (cheese pie), paximadia (Greek biscotti), finikia (honey-dipped cookies), koulourakia (braided butter cookies) and other treats to be sold at the 15th annual festival. Organizers expect about 15,000 to 20,000 people at the three-day event, which will help raise funds to expand the kitchen.

Greek recipes:

  • Kourambiethes
    (Powdered Sugar Cookies)
  • Koulourakia
  • (Sesame Cookies)
  • Paximadia
  • ("Greek Biscotti")
  • Finikia
  • (Semolina Honey Cookies)
About 75 percent of all the food sold at the festival will have been made by the women of the church. Recipes for each item come from the woman whom everyone says has the best version, explains Marilyn Blazakis, a newcomer to the church along with husband Nick, one of this year's co-chairmen. (The others are George Diakoumis and Steve Talkington.)

Marilyn Blazakis, a former caterer and experienced festival planner from Dayton, Ohio, was the captain of the considerable spanakopita team. About 35 women volunteered to make the spinach pies. She said she had the ladies exercising their weary arms when the repetition of brushing butter on sheets of phyllo dough became too much.

On another day, Bessie Adams became the "paximadia lady," using a recipe a friend gave her about 10 years ago. Stasi Segallis was in charge of the koulourakia, braided cookies sprinkled with sesame seeds. For kourambiethes day, Segallis is on oven duty because "I'm tall enough to reach the top ones." Wearing huge oven mitts, she pops the large baking sheets in and out of the ovens with expert ease. Each sheet holds 48 cookies.

"I learned how to cook from my mother," she says while sliding a tray of cookies from the oven.

"We all learned from our mothers," adds Catherine Gaitan as she shakes powdered sugar from a flour sifter onto the hot cookies. The recipes and techniques learned at the elbow of Mother, often in a kitchen in Greece, are passed on to daughters, and an occasional son. Several of the 20 women making cookies say their daughters are now better cooks than they.

Yet, the cooking for the festival remains an activity mostly for the church's older women, who line long tables in the fellowship hall to roll cookie dough and talk about losing husbands, having grandchildren and taking trips back to Greece. Marilyn Blazakis says she hopes that some of next year's cooking sessions will be at night to accommodate the church's younger working women.

Though Greek is spoken widely throughout the kitchen, it is naive to think of the morning cooking sessions as simply a window on quaint old-country traditions. A discussion about bread machines and exchanges of e-mail addresses place the women squarely in the 21st century.

The Rev. George Patides, who makes himself scarce so as not to be tempted to stray from his high-protein diet, marvels at the dedication of the cooks.

"This is more than a simple fund-raiser," Patides says. "It's a community event and a lot of fellowship takes place. The women come here to cook and to hang out and work for something of common interest."

The common interest today is making perfect kourambiethes. Glicos samples one, closes her eyes in heavenly bliss and pronounces it delicious. Indeed, it falls apart in the mouth, the butter and powdered sugar each tantalizing different parts of the taste buds. "They melt in your mouth, don't they?" Glicos says.

The session ends with more than 1,000 cookies ready to be packed away. The volunteers sit down to a lunch of pastitsio, a Greek baked ziti courtesy of Glicos, salad, green grapes, bread and Coke, regular or diet.

"Who will be here next Tuesday to make bread?" Marilyn Blazakis asks.

Hands shoot up and a chorus of "me, me, me" chimes in. There is no room for the timid when there is more food to be made.

At a glance

St. Stefanos Greek Orthodox Church holds its annual festival from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at the church, 3600 76th St. N in St. Petersburg.

Foods for sale include pastitsio, moussaka, spanakopita, dolmades and many Greek pastries and cookies. There will also be dance performances, live music and a marketplace selling food and imported gifts. Admission is $1, students are free. Call (727) 345-8235 for more information.

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