It comes last but not least, at the tail end of four months of hard work, four months of making spanakopita, baking chicken, rolling meatballs.
Baklava: The last item they make at St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church for the menu of their annual Savannah Greek Festival.
About 7,500 pieces of baklava, to be exact.
“Many of the other things we can freeze ahead of time, but this you want to be as fresh as possible,” says Irene Pethis as she lovingly pushes a pointy clove sprig into the center of each piece of baklava in a pan of 72 before they go into the oven at the Hellenic Center.
“It’s all right, we always keep our hands clean around here,” laughs Kelli Holevas, who is in charge of the baklava operation this year. “It all gets baked at 300 degrees anyway.”
And made by hand it certainly is: The baklava brigade begins its work in the fellowship hall of the Hellenic Center, sitting at large tables arranged in a big square. Each volunteer from the congregation at each baklava station gets an empty baking sheet, a bowl of pecan crumbs, rolls of phyllo pastry, and a bowl of melted butter with a brush.
Their job is to fill that empty baking sheet the old–fashioned way: layer by layer of paper–thin phyllo, brushing each with a liberal coating of butter, adding an occasional layer of nuts.
It takes some folks longer than others.
“It’ll probably take me about an hour to do this one sheet,” laughs Mary Leopold, a baklava volunteer who most of you know better as co–owner with husband Stratton of Leopold’s Ice Cream on Broughton Street.
“Some of these ladies that have been doing this for years will get through several pans by the time I finish this one,” she muses.
Holevas keeps a close eye on the proceedings. “Ladies, let’s make sure we put a nice layer of butter on the top,” she says, so the top of the baklava doesn’t dry out in the oven.
After being baked, the baklava is drizzled with honey syrup for that distinctive robust sweetness that doesn’t come with processed sugar.
The Savannah Greek Festival has been a huge local hit for years, and doesn’t need our help getting people to go. But it’s important to point out that all the food items at the Greek Festival are made by hand, by the parishioners — by no means a given these days.
“A lot of Greek Festivals in other cities have gotten so big, they no longer make everything by hand,” says Pethis. “We’re different.”
Indeed, that’s the consensus of many in the fellowship hall this day: Many other Greek Festivals just buy their food pre–made and heat it up.
That’s not the St. Paul’s way.
“The most important thing is that food has to be made with love,” says Mary Leopold.
“And that’s what we do here.”
Savannah Greek Festival
When: Oct. 13 11am – 9pm, Oct, 14 – 11 am – 9pm, Oct. 15, 11am – 9pm
Where: St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church Hellenic Center, 14 W. Anderson St.
Cost: $2 requested donation after 4 p.m. Thurs. and Fri., all day Sat. Food & beverage additional