QUEEN OF PASTRY: Koula Rougas, who chairs the always-ambitious pastry committee for the annual Cranston Greek Festival, doesn’t just coordinate volunteers for the many baking nights; she also does everything from making dough to frying it and turning it into tasty treats like the famous baklava.
The old adage “too many cooks spoil the broth” doesn’t hold water with Koula Rougas.
In fact, the more hands, the more Rougas and company can create those clever and caloric creations the Cranston Greek Festival has become famous for during its long-standing run.
For example, lots of cooks and helpers are needed to make more than 5,000 pieces of baklava, which has become a signature offering at the event’s always-busy Greek Pastry Shoppe.
With all systems go, what has become a “rite of September” will open its 27th annul three-day stay on the grounds of the Cranston-based Church of the Annunciation Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.
Thus, Rougas, who took over as the event’s pastry chairperson nearly three decades ago, will have the Greek Pastry Shoppe well stocked for what people predict could be the largest Cranston Greek Festival in history.
One reason for the festival’s ongoing popularity is the Greek Pastry Shoppe, which this year will have everything from the baklava to grandmother’s classic Greek version of traditional rice pudding with cinnamon.
“Lots of people say we put on a fantastic food fest,” said Theofanis Markos, president of the Church of the Annunciation Parish Council who is again chairing the festival. “The pastry has a lot to do with that reputation and so does our dinner specialties.”
The latter is where Harry Bablenis, who at 81, comes in.
Bablenis, a.k.a. the Cranston Greek Festival’s Master Chef, has been cooking delicious dinners like Arni (roasted lamb) and Hirino (char-broiled pork souvlaki) ever since the Church of the Annunciation launched its annual picnic when it was just a one-day event and everybody brought their own pastry.
It was Bablenis and Arthur Kazianis who actually started the Cranston Greek Festival long before the three-day concept came into being.
“We started with just the one-day picnic,” Bablenis remembers. “Then we had a two-day festival ... for the past 27 years it has been a three-day event with lots and lots of food.”
This year, in fact, Bablenis, who will be joined by kitchen co-chairmen Nick Chacharone and Dennis Sampalis, will prepare their secret recipes and marinade for 2,200 pounds of lamb, 1,000 pounds of pork and 1,000 servings of half-broiled chicken.
And that total doesn’t include the 70 trays of pastitsio or countless pounds of potatoes and rice that Bablenis and company will turn into more tasty treats beginning Friday afternoon and continuing through Sunday night.
While Bablenis, Chacharone and Sampalis are in charge of the kitchen that’s located inside the Mihailides Center on the church grounds at 175 Oaklawn Avenue, other parish members will dedicate much of their spare time to help make sure things run smoothly in the kitchen.
Bablenis said, “We’ll have eight people in the kitchen as well as a bunch of runners who take items out to the food tent.”
Although the kitchen crew is vital to the festival’s success, preparation of the meats isn’t as detailed and as long of a process as the many items that will be sold at the Greek Pastry Shoppe.
“We do the bulk of baking in August,” said Rougas, who not only coordinates the many people who will actually make the pastry but also heads up the parish’s famed Odyssey Dance Troupe that will wear traditional Greek costumes during four different performances this weekend. “There are different steps for each item we make.”
Take, for example, the 140 pans of baklava, which is a creation of chopped walnuts and layers of buttered phyllo dough topped with Greek honey syrup.
“There are about eight steps we take to make the baklava,” Rougas said. “When we make the diples [fried strips of thin dough topped with chopped walnuts, cinnamon and Greek honey syrup], there are five and six steps involved. The process varies from pastry to pastry, but basically, it takes anywhere from three to eight steps to make our pastries.”
While some church parishes and other organizations have fairs and festivals, their food preparation isn’t as intense as it is for the Cranston Greek Festival.
“It’s a lot of work,” Rougas said. “This year we made 1,700 diples. And that’s tiresome ... but we’re different than a lot of groups; we won’t settle for anything less than homemade pastry.”
Rougas said another reason the Cranston Greek Festival has become famous for its pastries is, “We make everything from scratch and we do not use any substitutes. There are no artificial flavorings ... we use real butter, real honey ... and in this economy, walnuts are expensive but we use the real thing.”
The entire process begins in June when parish secretary Elaine Andrade sends out an email announcing the baking schedule for the summer months.
Rougas then sets the timetable as to when each of the 10 or 12 pastry items will be made.
“We have anywhere from 35 to 50 ladies on various baking nights,” Rougas said. “Lots of people have careers, commitments ... but they’re never too busy to dedicate their time to help our church.”
Just how many different pastries will be offered this weekend?
“We made 140 pans of baklava,” Rougas said. “That translates to 5,000 pieces we have to put in separate serving cups. We made 1,100 koulourakia [traditional coffee cookies] and 3,000 kourabiedes [butter cookies blanketed with white confectionary sugar] and 1,800 Macaroons [coconut cookies].”
Rougas, who will also work nonstop this week in getting four dozen or so Odyssey Dance Troupe costumes cleaned and pressed, added, “We’re going to make 70 trays of galaktoboureko [layers of buttered phyllo dough filled with custard and glazed with Greek honey syrup] just before the festival opens. That will result in 3,000 pieces.”
The Greek Pastry Shoppe will also be stocked with 2,000 plastic containers of rizogalo (grandmother’s classic Greek version of traditional rice pudding with cinnamon), 2,000 melomakarona (honey cookies); 1,500 karidopita (Greek walnut cake glazed with honey syrup); and 1,200 kataifi (thread-like dough layered with chopped nuts, cinnamon and topped with Greek honey syrup).
This year’s festival will also offer 3,200 pieces of spinach pie and 1,100 cheese pies.
When asked about her favorite pastry, Rougas simply sat back in a chair and smiled.
“I like them all, of course. But what I really enjoy is having a koulourakia [traditional coffee cookies with or without sesame seeds] and a good cup of coffee.”
Plenty of time to do that once the three-day festival is complete, right?
“Oh no!” Rougas said. “When this festival is over, we’ve got to start thinking about the annual Bazaar. After all, November isn’t all that far away.”
Editor’s Note: The three-day Cranston Greek Festival will celebrate The Nativity of the Virgin Mary from Friday, Sept. 7 to Sunday, Sept. 9 on the Church of the Annunciation grounds at 175 Oaklawn Avenue, Cranston. Hours are: Friday, 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, 12-10 p.m.; and Sunday, 12-9 p.m. Admission is free and parking is also free in the Cranston High School West parking lot, where a nonstop shuttle will run – also for free courtesy of a church parishioner – right onto the festival grounds. Church tours will also be available and festiva- goers will have a chance to win a 2012 Hyundai Sonata or $20,000 cash.