It's three days of almost nonstop Mediterranean food and fun -- music and dancing, sweets and savory dishes, grilled meats, music, movies, cooking demonstrations, tours. In short, it's like a brief trip to Greece, and it happens this weekend at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Baltimore.
For about 20 years, Greek Orthodox churches in the area have been holding festivals that celebrate Greek culture, from Alexander the Great to stuffed grape leaves to crafts and traditional dance.
The Greek festival is just one of nearly a dozen celebrating different ethnic threads in the tapestry of Baltimore's population this summer. The festivals offer a chance to sample foods from tamales to samosas, from kielbasa to pasta, while also getting a taste of the music, arts, crafts, and culture of the diverse communities.
This weekend also brings the Lithuanian Festival, Saturday and Sunday at Catonsville Armory. Next month will bring the Ukrainian and Italian festivals; August will bring the Hispanic, Native American and German festivals, as well as India Day. September brings the Afram and Korean fests.
The festivals also bring together folks within each community, as they prepare to show off their heritage. Volunteers at St. Nicholas have been cooking since the week after Easter to prepare for the three-day event, said Helen Frantos, who's been involved in most of the festival activities over the years. "This festival is what keeps our community going," she said.
She was planning to spend yesterday making baklava, a sweet made of layers of phyllo dough, honey and nuts. Make that "a lot" of baklava: The volunteer cooks will prepare 30 commercial baking pans of the sweet, about 40 serving per pan.
They're also making 800 galatobouriko, a sweet of phyllo with a cream filling, and 1,100 melomakarona, or honey cakes.
And that's just the beginning of the glorious foodstuffs that will be available. Other treats to try include karethopeta, walnut cake, and koulourakia, cookies.
There will be savory foods too: pastitsio, layered pasta with ground meat and cream sauce, and moussaka, layers of potatoes, ground beef and eggplant with cream sauce. There will be cheese pies and spinach pies made with phyllo dough, and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), not to mention grilled lamb, shish kebabs, grilled chicken, octopus, calamari (squid), and Greek beer and wine.
When you're not eating and drinking, you can study Greek culture through films, lectures and tours of St. Nicholas, or shop for needlework, Greek clothing and crafts, and flowers.
Or you can find out how to make some of the Greek dishes yourself by attending cooking demonstrations by Stella Koukides. Ms. Koukides will be showing how to make tyropitas, cheese pies, and spanakopitas, spinach pies. "I'd like to do a dessert," she said, perhaps a powdered sugar cookie: "Some popular cookie you can serve over a cup of Greek coffee with your friends."
The cooking demonstrations, at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, are popular, and generally become standing room only. "It's good because they get to sample the food too," Ms. Koukides said.
The festival takes place at two different sites, with slightly different activities at each one. At the church, which is at 520 S. Ponca St., there is a dining room that offers dinner items, a booth selling sweets, and a pastry room. The church also has exhibits, lectures, and flowers, crafts and clothing for sale. Nearby is the "platia," or field, the open-air portion of the festival, which features grilled foods, a band and demonstrations of Greek dance by children's groups from St. Nicholas, St. Demetrios, and Annunciation Greek Orthodox churches.
Hours for the festival are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 11 p.m. on Sunday. On Saturday and Sunday, when the festival closes at the platia, activities move back to the church for Taverna Pireaus, with live bouzouki music by Scorpio, a bar, and light fare. Admission to the festival is free. Admission to Taverna Pireaus is free.
Here's a list of the other festivals taking place into late summer. For more information, call the Baltimore City Office of promotion and Tourism at (410) 837-4636 or (800) 282-6632.
*June 10-11, Lithuanian Festival, Catonsville Armory, 130 Mellor Ave., Catonsville.
*July 21-23, Ukrainian Festival, St. Michael's Church, 500 S. Montford St.
*July 28-30, Italian Festival, Patterson Park, East Baltimore Street and Patterson Park Avenue.
*Aug. 12-13, Hispanic Festival, Hopkins Plaza downtown.
*Aug. 18-20, German Festival, Carroll Park, Southwest Baltimore.
*Aug. 25-27, Native American Festival, 5th Regiment Armory, Bolton Hill
*Aug. 26, India Day, Hopkins Plaza
*Sept. 16, Korean Festival, Hopkins Plaza
*Sept. 22-24, Afram Festival, Camden Yards Lots B and C.
If you'd like to try making a Greek treat at home, here's a recipe for powdered sugar cookies. It's from "Food for Thought," a cookbook by the women of St. Nicholas. The cookbook will be on sale at the festival.
Makes 10 dozen
1 pound sweet butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, plus more for dusting
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see note)
2 teaspoons vanilla
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt butter in saucepan. Remove from heat and cool. Pour butter into mixing bowl and beat with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs and sugar and beat well. Add flour and vanilla and beat for a minute or two. (If dough is too sticky, add a little more flour.) Then work almonds into the dough with your hands. Using rounded tablespoons of dough, shape cookies into balls, crescents, S-shapes or other desired forms.
Bake on ungreased cookie sheet for 25 minutes, until no longer pale. Do not overbake or cookies will be tough. Let cool and dust with confectioners' sugar.
Note: Toast almonds on a cookie sheet under the broiler for a couple minutes. Watch to see that they don't burn. You can also toast them in a skillet or saucepan over medium heat.