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Greek bliss: A lesson in pastry-making glows with buttery sweetness

Thursday, June 27, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson .Food Editor, Post-Gazette

I didn't know how to pronounce it and certainly couldn't spell it, but anytime I hear the words Greek and pastry in the same sentence, it's probably worth a trip.

Two favorite Greek sweets: the powdered sugar-covered Kouranbiethes and the twisted Koulourakia. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

So I was happy to strike out for Oakmont for a lesson on Kataifi. It soon became obvious that learning to make Greek desserts might have to become my life's work, what with so much and so many to learn about.

Of course, the best known is baklava, that combination of nuts, buttery dough and sweet syrup. But that hardly scratches the surface of the nirvana that is Greek pastries, what with galatoboureko, diples, kouranbiethes, loukoumandes, finikia and koulourakia.

Any one of them is enough to get my shorts in a knot.

On this day, though, my mission is Kataifi, which looks a little like a nest made by a frantic bird who hides her nuts away inside her birdhouse. More prosaically described, the dessert is shredded wheat (also called kataifi) filled with almonds and walnuts.

When a blondish dog with curly hair was spotted in Joanne Cope's Oakmont neighborhood, her 11-year-old daughter, Erin, quipped: "It looks like Kataifi!"

It's a historic recipe, say the pastry bakers of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition in Oakmont, where, all told, they will use more than 200 pounds of fresh walnuts, which they've chopped with a commercial mixer attachment.

On my lesson day, seven women have gathered at the church to roll Kataifi, which will be frozen to be baked later. Cope, Marie Kokales and Isabel Soilis are all from Oakmont. Kay Lewis is from Verona, Ella Moravec from Point Breeze, Barbara Lafferty from Freeport and Karen Dimopoulos from O'Hara.

They're creating pastries for the 28th annual Greek Food Festival, which will be tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday at the 214-member Oakmont church, which is on the Allegheny River.

Cope -- her co-workers say she's the chairwoman, though she claims she's simply the "go-get-it" person -- gives a mini-tour of the grounds. A big tent will arise in the parking lot, she says. There will be space for dancing and tables for food, which includes such Greek staples as shish kebabs, lamb shanks, meatballs, fish (Friday only) and lamb (Saturday). The Greeks will grill shish kebabs, cook smelt and make gyros, while the adjacent banquet hall (the former Bootleggers restaurant) becomes Pastries Central.

The bakers' goal is not to let the pastries run out before the guests' money does. The event is free -- the whole community joins in -- because the food is the fund-raiser.

Greek Food Festival

FESTIVAL HOURS: 5 to 11 p.m. tomorrow, 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 2 to 11 p.m. Sunday.

DINNER HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, 4 to 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday; patio grill and bar until 11 p.m.

WHERE: Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition, 12 Washington Ave., Oakmont (across from Oakmont Yacht Club).

ENTERTAINMENT: Greek music and dancing.

ADMISSION: Free; food sold by the meal or a la carte.

OFFERINGS: Chicken, meatballs, beef in tomato sauce, fish (tomorrow only), lamb (Saturday) and shish-kebab dinners, plus stuffed grape leaves, baked beef and macaroni, moussaka, Greek fries, spanakopita, green beans, Greek salad and a variety of Greek pastries. Imported and domestic wines; beer on tap.


In Pittsburgh and environs, Greek food festivals spring up like daffodils after the first spring rain, continuing into fall. There was one in Mt. Lebanon this month, and two are coming up in August -- one east of Pittsburgh and another the North Side. Some churches do little more than hang a banner over the street and wait for word of mouth to do the advertising.

The Oakmont bakers believe their word of mouth is good. When I arrive in the church's restaurant-style kitchen, the women erupt into a discussion of which festival has the best food.

"I think we and St. Nicholas [Oakland] have the best food," says one. "They're organized."

"But our chicken is the best," says another. "It's Mary Alexis' recipe."

"You can't have that recipe," says a third, looking right at me. "It's a secret."

"I think Canonsburg has a good one, too."

"That's because you're from Canonsburg!" is the answer.

The Kataifi -- pronounce it kah-tah-EE-fee, if you can -- recipe is not a secret. In fact, it can be found in Greek recipe books. Not that the women don't have their special touches, and those they'll share, too.

For one thing, they extend the traditional almonds with less expensive walnuts in a particular proportion: 2/3 pound almonds to 1/3 pound walnuts. But then they intensify the almond flavor by adding almond paste to taste.

Lewis, one of many mavens of the shredded wheat nests, stands over a gigantic bowl of chopped almonds and walnuts and latches onto small lumps of paste, which she crushes in her fingers. She has a tip for easy distribution: "I freeze the almond paste and then grate it into the mixture," she says. "No lumps."

These women seem at home with big bowls and -- though the recipe doesn't say to -- Lewis pours a bit of syrup into the nuts, the better to hold the filling together. (It's not sticky, but moist.) All told, they will use 30 pounds of kataifi to make the pastries of the same name.

Cooking this much food is a long haul. Not every church-goer has either the time or the stamina to finish a cooking project that began four months ago. As many as 7,000 people await the feast.

"We started in March, and some of the things will be baked the week of the festival, and of course we had Easter in there, too," says Cope. The Orthodox Greeks' Easter fell on May 5, much later than the norm.

Re-creating a signature dessert from the past requires a combination of old and new techniques. Ready-chopped nuts? No, ma'am. The nuts have to be absolutely fresh, and you never can be sure about chopped nuts.

"The pastry will start and never stop," says Cope.

"You find your niche where you like to work," says Soilis, who takes me into her web of kataifi.

As I roll, the shredded wheat, or phyllo, seems easy to handle. It's an aesthetic hands-on exercise. I grab a handful of shreds -- about 1/2 cup -- then form a rectangular bed. It's important to keep the kataifi moist, and unless you work fast, it doesn't hurt to cover it with a damp cloth as you work, as you do with baklava.

  An eager eater's guide to Greek pastries, as described by Cathy Champagne of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition of Oakmont:

An eager eater's guide to Greek pastries, as described by Cathy Champagne of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition of Oakmont:

Baklava -- Chopped nuts, cinnamon and many thin layers of phyllo pastry baked to a golden brown and drenched with a honey syrup. They will also have apricot baklava.

Galatoboureko -- Delicately flavored custard baked in a phyllo pastry with a honey syrup.

Diples -- Light tender pastry sprinkled with honey.

Kataifi -- Chopped nuts layered between a shredded pastry and then baked with a sweet syrup.

Kouranbiethes -- Greek butter cookies topped with powdered sugar.

Loukoumandes -- Light and fluffy honey puffs, served warm with syrup, sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts.

Finikia -- Moist oval cinnamon cookie dipped in syrup and sprinkled with ground walnuts.

Koulourakia -- Crispy butter cookies with a perfect twist, topped with an egg wash and baked until golden brown.

-- Suzanne Martinson


I brush on butter, then scoop out a heaping teaspoon of nut mixture. When the recipe says butter, they melt unsalted butter.

I practice rolling by putting the nuts farthest from me on the kataifi and rolling it toward me. Then I put the nuts close to me and roll them away from me. Does the way one rolls reveal personality type?

Whatever works, I figure, and my instructor is supportive.

We place the individual Kataifi into large loaf pans in four long rows of about 13 each, then lightly brush with more butter.

Although the ingredients appear quite similar, there are subtle differences in flavorings and big preparation differences between Kataifi and the ubiquitious Greek sweet, baklava.

In baklava, the phyllo pastry comes in delicate sheets, although butter and a nut-cinnamon mixture are paramount in this treat, too. After baking, a honey-lemon syrup boiled with cinnamon sticks is poured over it.

But Kataifi is topped with hot sugar syrup in which sliced oranges boiling in the syrup provide a subtle citrus taste. "It's just orange -- we want to keep the almond taste," says Soilis.

The finished baklava is sliced, Kataifi is its own little ball of heaven.

Sticky fingers for both, though.

In the large dining room, away from the heat of simmering syrup, the other women stand or sit at tables.

"I'm worried my Kataifi are too small," one woman says. "I'm new at this."

We don't want too many different sizes, say one voice of experience, shaking her head. When I suggest that maybe that will give calorie-conscious consumers a choice, the bakers laugh.

Nobody keeps track of fat or sugar at a Greek food festival, they chortle.

They deviate from the printed recipe, which instructs that cooks pour on the butter, though they carefully brush it on. I follow their example, as any acolyte would.

Kataifi are kinda cute. Nestled in the pan, they might be peas in a pod, pigs in a blanket, nests in a barn loft.

When they emerge from the oven they take a dip in warm syrup, and maybe they get doused again two or three more times. The women cover the Kataifi with parchment paper to soak up the excess syrup.

Not far away from where the trail of volunteers gather around the work tables are large coolers and freezers, where the food rests until festival week.

As they roll the Kataifi, the women exchange news, good and bad.

One mentions a great tip about brushes -- buy the ones with black bristles, then you can spot any stray strand in the kataifi.

In the end, 30 boxes of kataifi -- purchased at Stamoolis in the Strip -- will make 15 pans full.

Though a little part of me wanted to mark my pastries with those labels like the ones home sewers use -- "Handmade by ..." -- I resisted the impulse.

When I come on one of "mine" this weekend, I'll feel it in my bones, or at least my belly.

Kataifi (Shredded Wheat Rolls)

1 pound shredded pastry (kataifi)
1 pound unsalted butter, melted
1 pound almonds and walnuts, chopped ( 2/3 to 1/3)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Almond paste to taste

Combine chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon. Mix well. Mix in almond paste (freeze first and grate into mixture -- no lumps). Pour in a little syrup to moisten (see recipe below).

Place small portion of kataifi on a plate (we used a counter) and spread in a rectangular shape, approximately 3 by 4 inches.

Pour 1 teaspoon butter on kataifi. (We brushed it on with a paintbrush.)

Place 1 heaping teaspoon of nut-sugar mixture in the center of kataifi and roll pastry.

In a 9-by-13-inch greased pan, place the pastries very close together so that the pieces touch. Continue until all the kataifi is used.

Pour 1 teaspoon melted butter over each piece of pastry. (We used the brush again.)

Bake in 350 degree oven about 1 hour or until brown.

Remove from oven and immediately pour hot syrup on hot Kataifi. Repeat two or more times.

Next, cover hot Kataifi with aluminum foil so that the steam will not escape and pastry will become softened. Keep covered until cool.

Note: Kataifi shredded wheat is available at Stamoolis in the Strip District.


3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups water
Orange slices, washed but unpeeled

Boil ingredients until sugar becomes syrup, or until it reaches 255 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove orange slices before pouring.

Note: Pour on warm; Kataifi has to "absorb like a sponge."

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