Opa! Time for Greek Fest by Mary Stein Hurst

Opa! Time for Greek Fest
By Mary Stein Hurst

Katerina Ioannidis and her cadre of women have been baking for weeks, preparing the delicacies for which thousands flock to — the annual Greek Fest, to be held Feb. 21-23 at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church, located at 1030 Bradbury Road off Winter Lake Road in Winter Haven.

Greek butter cookies were made first and stored for the fest, which draws an estimated 4,500 people over the three-day event. People from all over Florida come to the festival to celebrate the Greek culture, not the least of which is the food.

The festivities will feature live Greek music by Grecian Strings, dancing, church tours, a Greek grocery store and boutique, and vendors selling everything Greek, including clothing and jewelry. Of course, the classic licorice-flavored Greek liquor Ouzo, Greek wine, beer and soft drinks will also be available.

The festival is the church’s major annual fundraiser, the proceeds from which are used to fund church operations, and national and international ministries of the Greek Orthodox Church. A $2 donation is requested at the door.

Ioannidis said they make about 3,000 Greek butter cookies and begin with that because they can keep for up to a year.

“We use 81 pounds of butter, 110 eggs, 15 pounds of flour and 15 pounds of sugar,” she said. “That, of course, makes three batches.”

Every Sunday beginning in mid-January, the women gather around a table in the church hall surrounded by large bowls of the cookie dough, rolling it into a cylindrical shape that gets bent in half, twisted, brushed with butter and baked. After they finish the butter cookies, they begin baking the favorite layered dessert of filo dough, chopped nuts, butter and honey — baklava. Prices range from $2 to $10 for a box of six pieces of baklava.

Also available to take home will be Kourambiethes, holiday shortbread cookies dusted with confectioners’ sugar, Galaktoboureko, a custard-style pastry in filo with honey syrup, Kataifi torte of shredded filo pastry with custard and whipped cream, Greek anisette biscotti called Paximadia, Koke torte made from chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and lemon cream and Greek rice pudding.

After the baking is finished, the women begin two weeks before the festival making Dolmathes, the stuffed grape leaves folks have come to expect of the festival held for many years the church. The grape leaves are stuffed with meat, onions, rice and spices.

Ioannidis, the owner with her sons of Greek restaurants in Avon Park and Wauchula, said the baking is done by the week before the festival. That’s when the cooking of the rest of the now familiar Greek fare begins in earnest.

Greek lasagna, called Pastichio, features ground beef, macaroni and a white sauce with cream cheese, is feature inside the hall, as well as Mediterranean baked chicken, Athenian Grouper, Souvlaki, Keftedes (Greek meatballs), a village lamb shank in tomato sauce, Spanakopita (spinach pie in filo dough) and Tiropita (the cheese variety). Dinners will be served with Greek seasoned green beans, rice pilaf and bread. Greek salads will also be available.

A tent between the church and the church hall will be where to find the Greek three-piece band, dancing and other goodies including Gyros sandwiches, Souvlaki, grilled octopus, flaming cheese called Saganaki, and calamari or squid.

Combinations plates will be available for the dinners and the bakery items.

Lakeland resident John Balasis, festival chairman, said the event takes all year to plan.

“It’s a process through the year,” he said. “We brainstorm, determine what works and what doesn’t, but we don’t change things for the sake of change.”

He said he and his fellow parishioners are proud of their Greek heritage and the festival is a way to share that with others throughout Polk County and the area.

“Our culture is tied very closely to our religion,” he said. “We’re Greeks — we’re very proud people. The festival is a way for us to share all of this with the community.”

Father Dean Photos is the parish priest, having moved here with his wife Georget in 2004.

Anyone who knows Georget knows her passion for cooking. She is working on a cookbook and holds Greek cooking classes throughout the year. She’s travelled and studied with chefs in Greece so that her recipes, if they didn’t come from her family, are authentic to the mainland and islands of Greece.

She supplied recipes for Dolmathes, the Greek stuffed grape leaves, and the filo pastries featuring spinach in Spanakopita, and feta cheese and eggs in Tiropita.

Georget also proudly shares her recipe for Souvlaki, or shish kabobs, which she learned from her great grandmother Irene, who lived in Greece, to be 115.

With the shish kabobs, she recommends securing them, while on the grill, with stems of dried oregano tied together.

“You can make a brush out of dried oregano stalks,” she said. “You flick it over the shish kabobs to add a wonderful flavor.”

Her great grandmother used a marinade of dry red wine, olive oil, garlic and oregano.

“If you leave either pork or beef in the marinade for a longer period, the meat is tenderized — cooking the steak in the wine as it were,” she said.

The event will run from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is a suggested $2 donation at the door; children 12 and under are free. Parking is free.

For more info call 863-299-4532 or visit the church’s Facebook page.

Click here for Greek Recipes, provided by Georget Photos of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Winter Haven, Fl.