Greek Festival a herculean cooking effort

Helen Sophocles and Christine Patsantaras prepare trays of pastry—baklava and kourambiedes—at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church for its annual Greek Festival, which will be Saturday.

The sweet smell of freshly baked phyllo dough and the happy sounds of women’s laughter wafted from the open screen door of the kitchen at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday morning.

It takes several weeks for the women of the church to make all of the goodies sold at the church’s annual Greek Festival, which will take place Saturday.

Inside the church kitchen, the atmosphere was warm and inviting, as the women — all of Greek heritage — folded, baked and dusted trays of kourambiedes, a traditional almond pastry, with powdered sugar.

“We hardly ever burn anything,” Christine Patsantaras joked.

“Unless we want to eat it,” Connie Jouflas added with a laugh.

They sipped coffee from styrofoam cups, chatted and laughed together while they waited for more cookies to be pulled from the ovens.

By midweek they had made 35 trays of baklava. On Wednesday, they were busy baking hundreds of traditional cookies and treats, some of which are quite labor-intensive.

Koulourakia is a butter cookie. Each cookie must be rolled, cut, then twisted into a decorative knot. Loukoumade, which are similar to donut holes, are hand-dipped into honey. Paximadia, which are biscotti-type cookies, must be cut and baked twice.

Once the cookies are finished, the women will begin preparing the other traditional Greek foods, such as gyros, souvlaki, pilaf, green beans in tomato sauce and Greek salad. As members of a tightly knit congregation, the women said the work making all the food brings them even closer together.

“We’re like one big family here,” said Nikki Blackburn, one of the church’s 100 members and a tireless kitchen volunteer.

Plus, when Greeks get together, it’s just fun.

“We really have a good time,” Helen Mahleris said.

The recipes have been handed down from woman to woman, generation after generation, Blackburn said.

“That’s why they come,” Blackburn said of the more than 2,500 people expected to attend this year’s festival, “because it’s good.”

Many of the church’s members are fifth-generation Greek-Americans who are carrying on the traditions of their families through food and worship.

“If you know where you came from, then you know where you are going,” Blackburn said. “It’s just a feeling you get inside knowing that you are continuing tradition, mostly just because you love it.”

For that reason, there are no secrets inside the church’s coveted cookbook. Instead, the cookbook is for sale in the church’s gift shop.

Blackburn said everyone who enters the kitchen becomes a Greek at heart.

“We are all Greek by the grace of God,” she said. “Being Greek is an attitude and a feeling of living with intensity.”

The church has been a landmark in the Grand Valley since 1957. Inside the sanctuary, handcrafted Byzantine icons with gold leaf solemnly grace the walls and ceiling. Every detail on the icons are symbolic of Scripture, Blackburn said.

The church is without a full-time priest at the moment, but the Rev. Luke Uhl travels to the church from Denver every other week to say Mass. He will be giving guided tours of the church during the festival.

“He does a beautiful job of explaining it all,” Blackburn said.

Greek coffee will be available, and traditional dancers from the Hellenic Dance Academy of Denver will perform.

The church uses the fundraiser to make church improvements and to help benefit the community. This year, Marillac Clinic and Catholic Outreach will receive 10 percent of festival proceeds.


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