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The home cooks behind Birmingham’s Greek Food Festival

by on September 23, 2010

This is how big a production Birmingham’s Annual Greek Food Festival is: Between today and Saturday, people will buy 27,000 plates of food (half of that, drive-thru), 6,500 gyros, 300 full pans and 600 half pans of pastitsio (that’s a Greek lasagna made with tube pasta instead of pasta sheets, topped with bechamel sauce), and about 16,000 cookies.

All of it is made primarily by home cooks—most of them, members of Holy Trinity, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The Greek Food Festival takes an entire year of planning, and the cooking starts about a month in advance.

I got a behind the scenes look at part of the process: Cookie baking!

Sonthe Burge invited me to the workshops that started at the end of August. Cookies are arguably my favorite thing to make, so there was instant appeal for me. And then, there’s the cookie-lover’s dream experience.

First, I drove into the Cathedral garage, which is two floors below the kitchen, and the entire garage smelled like butter. Not engine grease or exhaust: Butter. Sonthe escorted me through the building to the kitchen, and there, in the middle, stood the stuff of heaven: Women standing around a huge stainless steel table, each of them sifting mounds and mounds and mounds of powdered sugar.

A giant table covered with sugar!

(The kid in me really wanted to sail through the air and land, face down, in all that sugar. Just once.)

About 20 men and women of all ages are grouped into stations in the kitchen. Some have been cooking for the Greek Food Festival for 20 or 25 years, or even longer. Others are still pretty new at it. Their goal is to make 4,000 kourambiethes, Greek wedding cookies that are coated twice in powdered sugar. Some people are patting out cookie dough and cutting it with crescent-shaped cutters. Others are manning the ovens, putting cookie sheets of ready dough into the oven, and taking cookies out. Still others are making dough, chopping huge bowls full of pecans, or manning speed racks.

Hoover's mayor, Tony Petelos, making dough for kourambiethes, Greek wedding cookies.

As I made my way around the kitchen, I found Tony Petelos, the mayor of Hoover, manning two Kitchen-Aid mixers, making cookie dough with butter, powdered sugar, flour, and what he called “corn extract” with a wink and smile—bourbon. “It really does bring the flavor out,” he said. “I made a batch without it once, and you can taste the difference.” Over the weekend of the food festival, he’ll make lamb kabobs. His parents came to the US from Samos Island, in the North Aegean Sea. Tony was born in the United States, but his older brother Angelo (who took on the fun job of dumping warm cookies on the sugar table) was born in Greece and came to the United States when he was 12.

I went back again, just after Labor Day, when Sonthe and another crew were making a different Greek cookie, a twisted butter cookie called koulourakia that is only slightly sweet, making it perfect for dunking in coffee or tea. The crew uses a recipe by Sonthe’s mother (below). They made 1,000 dozen koulourakia in two days.

You can’t watch this scene and not want to be a part, because everyone in the room is a part (even children help by packing the cookies). From my perspective, it feels that it comes together so easily, yet the truth is that it’s a lot of hard work and long hours. The entire process seems lubricated by a shared culture, a tradition people enjoy keeping alive, and a common goal. And, as Sonthe said, cookie making here is always about more than making cookies. It’s about fellowship, too.

The 38th Annual Greek Food Festival is held at Holy Trinity, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral at 307 19th Street South in Birmingham.

Edited to add a cookie recipe.

These Greek wedding cookies are nearly done: They'll get another coating of powdered sugar before being packed.

Angelo Petelos dumps a sheet of Greek wedding cookies onto a table of powdered sugar: The sugar sticks better when the cookies are still warm.

Koulourakia, Greek butter cookies, waiting to go into the oven.

These ladies are shaping koulourakia, Greek twisted butter cookies.

Koulourakia (Greek Butter Cookies)

This recipe comes from Sonthe Burge’s mother.

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup vegetable shortening (such as 1 Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening Stick)
2 2/3 cups granulated sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
6 eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
7 to 9 cups of all purpose flour
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In the bowl of a mixer, cream together the butter and shortening. Mix in the sugar, and add 5 eggs (save the sixth egg for an egg wash). Mix well.

In a separate small bowl, mix together baking soda and orange juice. Pour the orange juice mixture into the butter mixture.

Add vanilla to the butter mixture, and mix well.

Add baking powder, cinnamon, and 7 cups of the flour. Add enough of the remaining 2 cups of flour to make a consistency good for shaping by hand.

To shape cookies, pinch off pieces of dough about the size of a walnut. Roll into a ball between your hands. Now, roll each ball into a snake shape about 6 inches long and about the thickness of your pinky finger. Fold this in half and twist it twice. Place unbaked cookies on prepared cookie sheets, leaving about 1.5 inches between cookies.

In a small bowl, beat together the remaining egg with the water. Brush the cookies lightly with egg wash, and sprinkle a little sugar on top of each cookie.

Bake cookies in the preheated oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until lightly brown. Store in an airtight container.

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8 Comments
  1. Libby Pantazis permalink

    Shaun,

    You really captured the essence of the Greek Festival and Sonthe! Well written article; a keeper for my cooking file!

    Libby

  2. This blog is wonderful! Thanks for bringing these stories to us.

  3. Angla permalink

    Hi,

    Very nice koulourakia. I am from Australia and was wondering if the dough can be made a day ahead and baked the next day?

    Many Thanks
    Angela

    • Yes! I suggest wrapping it tightly so it won’t dry out. The flavor will probably improve with an overnight rest. Before you begin to shape it, let it warm up on the counter, so it becomes easy to work with.

      • Angla permalink

        Thankyou very much.

        Kalo Pascha!

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