Angelina Alexion gives up few secrets. She's in the dining room of St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church in Lanham, showing the loose-leaf binder that holds recipes for many of the foods that will be available at the church's semi-annual festival, which opens tomorrow. The festivals, which began in 1978 when the church was in Brandywine and have continued at its new location at 7101 Cipriano Road since 1992, are a major source of funds for the church. About half of the 200 families in the congregation are Greek immigrants; others, like Alexion, are American-born, and descendants of recent immigrants.
Alexion, who is in charge of the pastries for this weekend's festival, has been volunteering for pastry duty since 1996. It is her recipe, refined over decades, that was used to make the 30 pans of baklava.
Cooking for the event started more than two months ago and occupied the kitchen in the church's basement at least three days a week. "We work in small groups," Alexion explained, "often, throughout the day, so we don't interfere with one another."
Alexion's pastry group usually began work at 8 a.m., finishing by midday so other groups, such as those preparing moussaka (eggplant, potato and meat sauce casserole) or pastitsio (Greek lasagna) could work in the afternoons.
The women of the church did all of the advance work, though the men will help with cooking throughout the weekend, and nearly every member will pitch in to help serve.
By the time the festival opens at noon tomorrow, Greek specialties will fill the church's walk-in freezer, its walk-in refrigerator and a refrigerated trailer. There also will be: 20 to 24 large pans each of galaktoboureko (a phyllo-dough pastry filled with custard) and karithopita (honey-soaked walnut cake), and thousands of koulourakia (butter cookies), kourabiedes (butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar), melomakarona (honey-soaked spice cookies) and diples (deep-fried dough strips, dipped in honey).
There will be 20 trays of pastitsio, 27 to 30 trays of moussaka, 50 boneless legs of lamb, 1,500 stuffed grape leaves, 1,000 chicken and 1,000 pork tenderloin souvlaki (shish kebabs), and vats of Greek-style green beans (cooked in tomato sauce) and manestra (orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, cooked with tomato sauce).
"It's an overwhelming job," Alexion said, especially in the days just before the festival, because at the last minute many of the pastries must be cooked or given a finishing touch. For example, the diples must be dipped in honey the day they are to be served.
Father Nicholas Voucanos, pastor of St. Theodore, said the church coordinates the dates of its festival with other Greek churches in the area to avoid conflicts. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Bethesda held its annual festival the first weekend of May.
Many attending the festival on Friday will come from NASA's Goddard Space Center, which is nearby. "They will be lined up for lunch before the doors open," Voucanos said.
Alexion, who lives in Lanham, and her crew have spent the past week readying the baklava, one of the premier attractions for many festival-goers.
"I don't like to refrigerate it, so we bake it just several days before," she said. It's a massive job that begins by assembling the layers of butter-brushed phyllo dough and sugared nut mixture, then baking the pans eight at a time.
Alexion's baklava recipe for one large pan (measuring about 18 inches by 13 inches by 3 inches) calls for:
1 3/4 pounds of phyllo dough
1 pound unsalted butter
For the filling:
7 cups of nuts (she uses walnuts)
Unspecified amounts of cinnamon, clove and sugar
For the syrup:
2 cups of sugar
1 cup water
Unspecified amounts of cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and lemon slices
Asked for more specific amounts, Alexion wouldn't say, and as for detailed baking instructions, Alexion replied, "That's a secret!"
But she did offer these insights: There should be three layers of filling (the nuts, sugar and spices mixed together) encased in four layers of phyllo dough, and the bottom layer should be at least eight leaves of phyllo dough thick. The baklava should cook for about one hour to 75 minutes in a 300-degree oven (heat the oven to 325 degrees and then reduce the temperature when you put the pan in the oven).
The syrup can be prepared several days in advance and refrigerated, and must be cold when the baklava is taken from the oven.
Asked how long to cook the syrup, Alexion said, "That's a secret, too." Other recipes call for bringing the syrup to a boil and simmering for at least 20 minutes.
As soon as the pans are removed from the oven, the cold, spiced syrup is poured over the pastry ("very carefully," Alexion advised), and then the baklava must sit for two days to allow the flavors to meld.
Alexion said she cuts the baklava by hand, though others use an electric knife.
St. Theodore Greek Orthodox Church, 7101 Cipriano Rd., Lanham, 301-552-3540, www.sttheodores.org. The Spring Festival runs from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. tomorrow, and noon to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
If you know of a food-related event or restaurant that you think deserves attention, please contact Nancy Lewis at email@example.com.