The women arrive with a purpose. Some tie on aprons and all have remembered their comfortable shoes for a long day of holiday baking.
Chatting in an easy mix of Greek and English, they take their positions on a cold Dec. 8 in the kitchen of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, on Cub Hill Road, near Towson.
Waiting for them are dozens of eggs, heavy sacks of flour and sugar, a carefully preserved recipe. By mid-afternoon, all of those ingredients will be transformed into traditional round loaves of Greek Christmas bread, known as Christopsomo, which they will sell to help raise money for the charities the church supports.
The women, all volunteers, have specific roles: melting butter and heating milk, making mashed potatoes, pouring flour and sugar. Most stand side by side to form the loaves of the traditional bread.
These ladies never question their measurements or doubt their success. They have made the bread many times, and move with confidence until the dough has become a golden brown dome of sweet yeasty goodness.
Christopsomo, a fragrant spiced bread filled with eggs, butter and sugar, is a traditional Christmas morning treat. Golden brown, the finished bread features a cross on its domed surface and its rich aromas fill the kitchen.
The Women of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church — who are mostly women in their 70s or 80s — gather several times a year in the church kitchen to make special breads for Christmas, New Year's Day and Easter. The bread used in Sunday liturgies is made in this kitchen, too.
'A lot of fun'
More than a dozen women have answered the call in the church bulletin to help make the bread Dec. 8. Most are veterans, though a few are still learning, including Angie McQueeney, of Perry Hall.
"I'm the next generation," she said. "They have their ways and we need to learn their ways."
This year is her second making the bread. At nearly 60, she is the youngest baker of the dozen or so who mix, knead and chat.
"It's a lot of fun," McQueeney said. "These ladies are unbelievable. This is the heart right here."
The bakers come in shifts. Among the first to arrive is Georgia Kerasiotes, of Towson, to mix the first of 10 batches. The dough is rich with butter, milk and eggs, Greek spices and a tea-colored liquid redolent of cinnamon, cloves and bay leaf.
She oversees the mixing in an industrial kneading machine. Helping her is Ritsa Economakis, who next week will be in charge of the New Year's bread. Economakis, who heads a committee that makes the altar bread for Sunday liturgy, traces a cross in each batch of dough before it begins its first proof, or rising.
The dough has to go through two proofings, an egg wash and a sprinkle of sesame seeds before baking.
By mid-morning the kitchen is filled with parishioners who work side by side. In the middle of the activity is Kerasiotes, who has been baking bread at St. Demetrios since she was a young woman.
She came to help the older ladies some 35 years ago. Back then, five or six women gathered to make 30 to 40 loaves. They kneaded the dough by hand and covered the loaves with blankets while they rose.
"We were so happy," Kerasiotes said.
At the time, still a newcomer, Kerasiotes was asked to take over leadership of the annual baking event. "I didn't know anything," she said. But she learned.
"And here I am, 35 years plus," she said.
A secret recipe
Over the years, the bread has become more popular, requiring more bakers and modern equipment. The bread kneading machine was donated. And two proofing ovens taller than any of the women aren't enough to handle all the loaves. Anyone with a question asks Kerasiotes, who brings the recipe on a tattered hand-written page.
"It's my secret recipe," she said, explaining that cousins in New York shared it with her. She then had to figure out the proportions for 150 or more loaves.
Kerasiotes also brings the special spices used in her recipe, which she buys during visits to Greece, where she was born. These spices include mastica, formed from the resin of an evergreen that grows in Greece, and mahlepi, a sweet fruity spice made from the pits of Persian cherries.
The Dec. 8 gathering is Marcella Lambros' first experience with baking the bread. "I do everything," she said gamely as she finished scrubbing the inside of an oven. The Rosedale resident volunteered as a way to honor her brother, Steve Harris, who died suddenly in November.
"Monday would have been his nameday," she said, citing a Greek custom of celebrating the feast day of the saint for whom one is named.
Disynou "Daisy" Delynou comes every year. She didn't have time when she ran a dry cleaners on Loch Raven Boulevard, she said. But now the Perry Hall resident has time. "I like to talk," she said. "I like the women."
Angela Koutsoutis, of Towson, said she loves to bake but, since she now lives alone, she usually gives away all the pastries she makes. Still, she enjoys coming to help bake the traditional bread.
"That's one good thing about America," she said. "The people still have their traditions."
At $8 a loaf, the bread goes quickly. Most had been reserved before baking began, according to Dottie Ganer, of Perry Hall, who coordinates the bagging of the loaves as well as taking the orders for them. The bread is so popular that orders are limited to four per person. By the time baking began, 120 of the 150 loaves were already claimed. The remaining loaves, Ganer said, are snapped up quickly by worshippers after Sunday liturgy.
Proceeds of the sale of the loaves go to St. Demetrios Ladies Philoptochos Society. These "friends of the poor" raise money all year for a long list of national and local charities ranging from the Ronald McDonald House to serving needy children at two area schools, according to McQueeney, Philoptochos' president.
While the bread bakes, its fragrance filling the air, the bakers take a break for a lunch. Bread will continue to come out of the ovens for the next couple of hours.
A few of the women plan to return to help bag the bread on the following day, Friday, for distribution that Sunday.
Many of the bakers also expect to be back Dec. 15 to bake the New Year's Bread, Vasilopeta. Though the bread is similar to the Christopsomo, it has an important difference: Inside is a coin, an omen of good luck in the coming year for the person holding that slice.