Opa! Learning how to bake like a Greek at the annual Dayton Greek Festival
By Emily Kaiser
Pulling up the hill and into the parking lot of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, I fully realized what I had gotten myself into. I don’t bake. I don’t speak Greek.
Why did I say yes when my editor asked me to experience making pastries for the upcoming Greek Festival September 9, 10 and 11? I was hungry at the time, that’s why.
As I walked into the church’s kitchen, I screeched when I recognized a customer, Diane, from my day job at Flavor’s Eatery in Centerville. “Thea!” I called out to her as I entered the room with about 20 Greek women bent over rolling dough. All at once they stopped and looked up at me. Of course, they all answer to Thea (the term for “aunt” in Greek). Genius, I thought to myself.
As I took a seat, I watched with amazement as the women swiftly twisted the dough into beautiful braids of deliciousness. Right off the bat as I pulled my hair net on, I realized I wasn’t properly dressed. I wasn’t worried my hair net didn’t go with my cute strapless summer dress. I was worried because I started to recognize how much work this was going to be. These ladies mean business. They weren’t just rolling this dough, they were trying to kill it — really putting their backs into it.
I sat with Evanthia Valassiades, Kathy McAlpine and Suzanne Zonars- Hambrick to get the details about what I was supposed to be doing. I quickly learned that the women were making Koulouria, a sweet cookie that goes great with coffee or milk. Valassiades told me it was a cookie that many Greek families keep in their home at all times as a sweet treat for visitors or just to snack on.
I wondered how the recipe was perfected. Valassiades informed me that over the years, through trial and error, they have finally reached the perfect cookie. The Dayton Greek Festival has been using the same recipe since the 1980s and Valassiades doubts it will ever change.
“It’s a big hallmark of our success because people know that they’re handmade,” said Valassiades. “These recipes have been handed down through the generations.”
In the name of research (and perhaps my own desire as well), I grabbed a perfectly round dough ball from a huge bowl. It was time to learn some customs. As I rolled the dough and began to twist it, I realized it was harder than I thought. I then began to look around as the women were barely concentrating and chatting amongst themselves. What took a lot of effort on my part seemed like second nature to them. These women have raised the bar when it comes to baking the perfect Greek cookie.
As I was pounding away, trying not to hurt myself, I noticed a fresh batch being taken out of the oven. The aroma was intoxicating; I had to sneak over for a taste. After the first bite, I could see why one would want to have it on hand all the time. It was the perfect cookie. It was sweet enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, but not too rich. It would be nearly impossible to just have one. I found my hand reaching for another just as I was swallowing the last bite of the first.
While stuffing my face, I watched the ladies roll and twist, talking of their families and trying to explain their culture to me. The Dayton Greek Festival really exhibits what Greeks are all about, they said, and they get to show off how much baking is dear to their hearts. It was easy to see how proud they were of their culture and beliefs.
The festival has been going strong since 1973. The Parish is celebrating its 90th year this year. It started as a little church in 1921 and in 1945 moved to its current location. It is now a huge staple in the Dayton community.
“It really helps out the City of Dayton,” said Valassiades. “It adds to the ‘fun’ of the city.”
The homemade pastries are obviously a huge draw, but the line is always long as people come for the main attraction: the food. Gyros are incredibly popular at the annual festival. Made with authentic lamb, these are not the knock-off gyros you may be used to. They are made in pure Greek style, the way gyros should be .
There are many different pastries to choose from, so if you can’t decide, there are no worries. You can purchase a box with a variety of pastries, to choose which one is your favorite.
After you have had your fill, enjoy the Greek custom of dancing. Dancers of all ages will be performing throughout the entire festival. They will be in traditional Greek attire while performing intricate dances.
The Greek Orthodox Church is beautiful from the outside, but you can see more of its beauty by taking a tour. There will be 15-minute tours given to explain the iconography and meaning behind much of the church’s adornment.
There will be vendors on site selling arts, jewelry and even groceries. For those of you who not only love to eat but cook as well, there will be cooking demonstrations given throughout the duration of the festival.
This year there will be off-street parking at the festival, so don’t let the hassle of transportation keep you home. You won’t want to miss the Theas and their cookies!
The Dayton Greek Festival will take place the weekend after Labor Day, September 9, 10 and 11. Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.daytongreekfestival.com.
Reach DCP editorial intern and freelance writer Emily Kaiser at EmilyKaiser@DaytonCityPaper.com.