At 5:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Vivi Laggis unlocked the door to the basement of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons in Southampton and made her way to the windowless kitchen.
Into the stainless-steel bowl of an electric mixer, she measured 6 pounds of butter, 3 dozen eggs, 3quarts sugar, 1/2 cup baking powder, 1/4 cup vanilla and 10 pounds of flour. When the dough was smooth and shiny, she scraped it into an enormous wooden bowl. Then she started again.
In all, Laggis would make nine batches of cookie dough to produce 3,700-plus koulourakia, twisted butter cookies, that will be on sale at the 27th annual Hamptons Greek Festival, taking place tonight through Sunday at the Southampton Elks Lodge. Except for the gyros and souvlaki, all the food for the four-day festival is prepared by about a dozen congregants.
Xanthi Karloutsos, one of the organizers, explained that the cooking starts in May. "First we make the moussaka and pastitsio," she said. "Unbaked, they freeze well, and we'll bake them off as we need them during the festival." Next come the phyllo pastries, sweet baklava and savory spanakopita, also frozen unbaked.
But the freezer is no friend of cookies, and so the koulourakia and kourambiedes (almond-butter cookies showered in powdered sugar) must be made within two weeks of the festival.
By the time Laggis finished her last batch of dough, more women had trickled in, and the two-step process of forming the cookies began: first, walnut-sized balls of dough are formed; second, the balls are rolled into little snakes and twisted into the koulourakia's distinctive double-helix shape.
The second step requires more skill. Veteran volunteer Greta Nikiteas recalled "my first year making these, one of the other ladies stood behind me and remade all my cookies." She took the hint, and now only forms the balls. (It must be said in her defense that she was raised in a Swedish-Italian household and "married into" this whole Greek cookie business.)
Karloutsos conceded that the advance food preparation is done almost entirely by women. "During the festival, the men will help carrying trays of food, doing the last-minute cooking, but they just don't seem to like this kind of tedium."
The women didn't seem to mind one bit. While they worked, they chatted companionably about their families and mutual friends, about slow contractors and sick pets, about local Greek restaurants (Trata, Nammos and Greek Bites all got the thumbs up). They also talked about the huge renovation their church is currently undergoing: When the work is finished (perhaps by November), the Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons will be more than double its present size. The current sanctuary will be converted into a community hall, and a new sanctuary will rise, complete with a shining, 60-foot-high copper dome.
While she rolled dough, Nikiteas said the construction made all the food prep wonderfully tangible. "Sometimes when I'm working I think about just how many spanakopita it will take to complete the sanctuary."
Three Greek pastry recipes
KOULOURAKIA (BUTTER TWISTS)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
7 eggs, divided
1 pound (4 sticks) butter
2 tablespoons shortening
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
5 to 6 cups flour, divided
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a small bowl, combine the vanilla with 3 whole eggs and the yolks of 3 more. (Discard the 3 whites, or save them for another use.) In a separate bowl, beat the remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water. Set this mixture aside for brushing the cookies before baking.
3. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and shortening until light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until creamy and white. Add the egg-vanilla mixture and beat to completely integrate.
4. In a small bowl, combine the baking powder with about 2 cups of flour. Beat this mixture into dough, then gradually add remaining flour. When you have added about 4 1/2 cups, start checking the dough. It should be soft and pliable but solid enough so you can roll a ball of it into a little "snake."
5. To form the cookies, use a spoon to scoop dough and roll into a ball about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. On a flat surface, use your hands to roll the ball into a snake about 5 inches long. Fold the snake in half, then twist it 2 or 3 times to make a little rope. Place twists on a baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. Makes about 70 cookies.
SPANAKOPITA (SPINACH-FILLED PASTRIES)
You can freeze these after they have been assembled and then bake them off directly from freezer.
5 pounds spinach
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 medium leeks, chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 bunch dill, chopped
Small bunch parsley, chopped
12 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled
6 to 8 ounces Manouri cheese, crumbled
1 (15-ounce) tub ricotta cheese
1 egg and 2 egg yolks
1 pound phyllo dough
1/2 pound (2 sticks) lightly salted butter, melted
1. Blanch spinach (immerse in boiling water just until it wilts) then drain it well and get rid of excess moisture by wrapping it in a cloth towel and squeezing.
2. Film a large skillet with olive oil, add onions, leeks and scallions and saute over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add the dill and parsley and continue to cook until herbs are soft. Add spinach and heat through. Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl, then add cheeses and egg. Mix well.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the phyllo dough remove one sheet. (Cover what you're not using with a damp towel.) Cut the sheet lengthwise into 5 strips; brush with melted butter. For each strip: fold the bottom third of the strip up onto itself; brush with butter. Center 1 tablespoon of filling on the bottom of the strip and fold over 1 corner, making a triangle. Continue folding the strip and wrapping it around the triangle, as if you were folding a flag. Repeat until all filling is used.
4. Arrange triangles, seam side down, 1 inch apart on a buttered baking sheet. Brush both sides with melted butter. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown and puffed. Serve hot. Makes about 70 to 75 pieces.
TIROPITA (CHEESE PASTRIES)
To make tiropita, use this cheese filling in place of the spinach filling in the spanakopita recipe above.
1 pound Feta cheese, crumbled
1 (15-ounce) tub ricotta cheese, crumbled
6 to 8 ounces manouri cheese
1 egg and 2 egg yolks
Pepper to taste
Combine cheeses, then add eggs, yolks and pepper. Stir until smooth.