I've worked with phyllo dough before. Or rather, tried to work with it. Once tempted by the allure of such deliciously flaky Mediterranean delights as spanokopita and baklava, I thought I'd attempt a little Greek-inspired cuisine featuring the gossamer pastry sheets in the kitchens of stately Corrigan Manor. How hard could it be? Alas, while after considerable trial and error I eventually encountered some limited success in this area, I have never been even remotely satisfied with my phyllo-wrangling skills. But I have come to one conclusion about working with the stuff: It's a pain in the backside. It's unwieldy, flimsy, and if you don't work incredibly fast, it'll dry out on you in a jiffy and crumble to bits in your hands like a piece of 5,000-year-old papyrus.
However, in the right hands (clearly not mine), it can be transformed into the most wonderfully delicate of delicacies ever to dance across your taste buds. But don't take my word for it. Let the good people of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church convince you this weekend (Sept. 23-25) at their annual Greek Dinner Festival. This thing is regarded as one of the high holidays of Spokane's culinary calendar. Don't believe me? Well, then, you should ask around, because they've only been doing this annual Greek dinner thing for the last 69 years.
Fr. Stephen Supica and his wife, Irene, have been a part of it for the last 16 of those years. Irene is the festival's vice chair.
"I got a flyer from a Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle," she says, "saying, 'a Seattle tradition since 1960,' and I thought, 'Those slackers.'"
When I caught up to her by phone, Supica was immersed in the process of dipping pastries in hot honey and then packaging them up in preparation for the festival. It's the final stage of a process so time-consuming that it took her small crew three weeks' worth of evenings to complete.
"And that was just the last-minute stuff," she says. "We started making baklava in May."
"Well, we made over 20,000 pieces of pastry," she explains. "That involves cutting it, decorating it, wrapping, freezing, preparing the butter, chopping walnuts -- we have so many pounds of walnuts it's just unbelievable. And we've gone through 520 pounds of honey."
Never been to the Greek Dinner festival? Well, it's a pretty easy, fun and dee-lish thing to do. Here's how it works. First of all, just find the church on North Washington (you can't miss that gorgeous thing, right next to North Central High), then park your car and walk right up. If you feel a little overwhelmed by the commotion created by all the pleasant, hungry people and the heavenly aromas caressing your olfactory glands, take a deep breath and observe. Or better yet, ask someone. Once fully immersed in the good-time vibe, you should find the ticket vendor and purchase your edibles pass. Then it's time to put that baby to work.
You've got a couple of options here. The first is a sit-down Greek dinner of kapama (an authentic Greek dish of braised beef in a spicy tomato sauce), orzo pasta with browned butter and myzithra cheese, served in the dining room located in the lower level of the church social hall. The second is the al fresco experience out front on the lawn, with grilled souvlaki (incredible meat shish kebabs in a lemon-and-herb marinade cooked over an open flame) plus two side dishes. You can also get the beef dinner outside and get anything you want to go. Beer, wine, Greek coffee and, of course, pastries will also be available in abundance.
While you're there, be sure to take in some of the Holy Trinity Church's exceptional architecture. The original church building (now the social hall) was built in the 1920s by Greeks who had come to the Inland Northwest to work in the mining, timber and railroad industries. Thirty years later, parishioners had raised enough money to build the sanctuary, the beautiful domed church (complete with minarets) adorned with stained glass, mosaics and sacred paintings. Over the years, the church's ethnic makeup has changed dramatically from predominantly Greek to one with faces representing a mix of Mediterranean and Eastern European cultures.
"Actually, the majority of people in our church now are not Greek," says Supica. "We have one lady working down there from Belarus and another from Ukraine. They're acting as translators for the others who don't speak English at all. And we're all working together. It's really cool."
Even though you can find good Greek cuisine in area restaurants, Supica claims that the dinner served at the Greek Festival is unlike anything you could find anywhere else in Spokane.
"The beef dish is what we serve here at parish functions. We wanted something that we were familiar with, that everyone liked, that we had been eating here, rather than try to dream up something. That with the orzo pasta makes for real comfort food. People just love it."
Music and dancing, a raffle and (wouldn't you know it?) cooking demonstrations -- by a woman reputed to be a phyllo dough master -- are all a part of the equation.
"If you want to learn how to do that pastry, how to work that phyllo dough," says Supica, "she'll be there to show you how."
They say the secret is to not let it dry out.
"Definitely. You've got to put a piece of plastic wrap and a damp towel over it. But once you get the hang of it, you can do it so fast you don't have to worry about that. We don't cover it when we're working.
"After 50 pans of it," she laughs, "you get pretty good."