If the kleig lights circling out front didn’t show you the way to the Contra Costa Festival of Greek Food & Wine at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Concord, the smell of spit-roasting lamb surely would.
Autumn, it seems, is the time for the Bay Area’s moussaka-loving, retsina-toasting, fisherman-cap-wearing lovers of all things Greek to wander from booth to booth in church parking lots, dusting their shirtfronts with buttery shards of phyllo, munching souvlaki and sampling olive oils.
And while most street fairs start breaking down and sweeping up at 5 or 6 pm, the Greeks keep partying through dinnertime and beyond. At 9:30 last night in Concord, you could still get a paper plate of baklava or syrup-drenched loukoumas, a glass of red wine, a lamb sandwich or some garlicky Greek potatoes. The band was still playing, and a loose circle of dancers, hands joined, were revolving around the floor. Someone was doing a brisk business in glow-stick light sabers, seen waving from the hand of every child under 10.
There were tchotchkes for sale, carved wooden items, bits of painted pottery, t-shirts, the ubiquitous Zorba-style black fisherman’s caps, but, judging by the vast sea of white plastic tables set up under the tent, food (and wine) was the point here.
A whole lamb was roasting on a spit next to one booth, ready to be turned into plates of lamb, lamb sandwiches, lamb dinners with rice and salad. There were booths for fried calamari, for gyros, for souvlaki on a stick. Several bars offered a selection of Greek wines, along with a few local wines made by Greeks. Made from the Assyritko grape, the Hatziyiannis white wine from Santorini was beautifully golden, with notes of honeysuckle and peaches.
The place to get the real deal, though, was inside, where the ladies of Philoptochos, the church’s good-works organization, were earning their place in heaven by dishing out generous platefuls of roast lamb, moussaka, pastitsio (baked macaroni), baked chicken, stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), green beans with tomato, and more. For under twenty bucks, we got a cup of feta cubes, a cup of kalamata olives, a hefty square of moussaka, cinnamon-scented ground beef layered with eggplant and potatoes under a thick layer of creamy bechamel sauce, some sesame bread, and an enormous lamb shank braised with tomato.
We cleaned up the moussaka, feta, and olives in no time; the lamb shank we picked at, then realized that what it really needed was to go home with us, destined to be the centerpiece of a thrown-together rainy-day soup. The next day, into the pot it went, with sauteed onions, celery, carrots, and garlic, some tomatoes from the garden, sage and thyme, some soaked and parboiled white beans, a few chunks of potato, a glug of wine and just enough water to cover. A long, slow simmer, and last night’s dinner becomes tonight’s, and probably tomorrow’s, too.
As we paid for our plate, I asked the woman making change if all the food was made here. Oh yes, she told me, they’ve been working for months, chopping, cooking, and freezing. It’s the church’s 32nd annual festival, and by now they’ve got it down. “I call us the YaYa Sisterhood, you know, because “yaya” means grandmother in Greek,” she said.
Over at the pastry stall, we hear the same thing: all volunteers, working for months. I ask the woman handing us our baklava and kataifi if she was one of the bakers. “No, I’m a runner!” she laughed. “The bakers are these 85-year-old women. I call them ‘the machines’–their hands move boom-boom-boom, so fast! Me, I run for them–I run to get the butter, I run to put the trays in the oven, I run to take them out. It’s exhausting, but it’s easier.” She’s working on her own baklava, though. First try, the nuts–too big. Second try–too small. So she’s getting up her courage for round three, sure to be the charm.
Now, I don’t know if my own baklava would pass the yaya test, but I can tell that there’s nothing like freshly made baklava, made with lots of nuts, honey, and butter, the pastry crackling and shiny with syrup infused with cinnamon or orange.
The best way to get the consistency of the nuts right is to chop them by hand, handful by handful, on a heavy cutting board with a big knife. You want them rough and nubbly, and even one pulse too many in the food processor will turn them to powder. If you don’t already have a pastry brush, get one before you start. There’s a lot of buttering that needs to happen, and while you could use your fingertips or the back of a spoon in a pinch, a pastry brush is neater and does a much more consistent job.
The trick to getting the perfect balance of sticky and crisp (rather than stolid and soggy) is to have the syrup and pastry at opposite temperatures when they meet. Either pour hot syrup over cold pastry, or pour cold syrup over hot pastry. Let the syrup soak into the pastry for a few hours before serving. The baklava is best on the day it’s made, but it will keep for a few days, if you can possibly resist it for that long.
You can find frozen phyllo dough in the freezer aisle of most supermarkets, usually next to the puff pastry and frozen cakes. Let it defrost a little before you use it. Unroll the sheets carefully, and always keep a clean, barely damp dishtowel draped over the sheets while you’re using them, to keep them from drying out and becoming crackly and hard to use.
2 1/2 cups walnuts, almonds, and/or pistachios, or a combination, finely chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons honey
One of the following flavorings: 1 tsp grated orange or lemon peel and 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom; 1 teaspoon cinnamon and a pinch of ground cloves; 1 teaspoon rosewater; 1 teaspoon orange-flower water
1/2 lb phyllo dough (half a standard package)
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 tsp lemon juice
1/3 cup water
One of the following flavorings: 1 tablespoon grated orange rind; 1 cinnamon stick; 1 tablespoon rosewater or orange-flower water
1. Preheat oven to 325F. Lightly grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix nuts, honey, sugar, salt, and your choice of flavoring.
3. Unfold phyllo dough and trim into 8-by-8-inch squares. Spread a sheet over the bottom of the baking pan. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush sheet with melted butter. Repeat with 5 more sheets, lightly buttering each sheet before adding the next.
4. Spread half of the nut mixture over the top phyllo sheet in the pan. Top with another four sheets, lightly buttering each sheet before adding the next. Rewarm melted butter slightly if it gets too thick.
5. Spread remaining nut mixture over the top phyllo sheet. Top with another 6 sheets, lightly buttering each sheet before adding the next. Lightly butter the top sheet.
6. Using a sharp knife, make four equal vertical cuts (about 1 1/2 inches apart) through the top layer of pastry. Then, make eight equally-spaced diagonal cuts (about 1 inch apart) across these strips to form 18 diamond shapes. There will be a few triangular pieces left over along the edges –perfect for the cook to snack on before serving!
7. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until pastry is crisp and pale golden.
8. While pastry is baking, make the syrup. In a small, heavy-bottomed pan, bring sugar, honey, water, and lemon juice to a boil. Keep a close eye on it, as it will tend to froth and foam up. Add orange rind or cinnamon stick if using. Over low heat, simmer for 5 minutes until syrup has thickened slightly. Remove from heat. If using rosewater or orange-flower water, add now. Pour into a pitcher and let cool.
9. When pastry is baked, pour cooled syrup over hot pastry. Alternately, let pastry cool to room temperature. Reheat syrup to almost boiling, then pour hot syrup over cooled pasty. You may not need all the syrup; you want the pastry to be glossy and sticky but not drowned.
10. Following the previously made cuts, cut the pastry all the way through into diamonds. Let syrup soak in for at least 3 hours before serving.
The Contra Costa Festival of Greek Food & Wine continues through Sunday at the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, 1955 Kirker Pass Road, Concord, across from the Concord Pavilion. Sat., 9/18, Noon-11pm; Sun., 9/19, noon-8pm. Admission $5 adults, $3 seniors (55+), children under 12 free.
In San Francisco, the Annunciation Cathedral at 245 Valencia St will be hosting its annual A Taste of Greece festival Sept. 24-26th. Fri., 9/24, 11am-10pm; Sat., 9/25, 11am-10pm; 12pm-9pm.