The star attraction at this weekend’s annual St. George Lebanese dinner is a decadent serving of baklawa — a traditional dessert with layers of flavor that’s sweet, syrupy, chewy and crunchy all at the same time.
One thing it’s not, though, is simple to prepare.
The dessert takes a whole team of assemblers, slicers, bakers and syrup-makers days and days to create. The result of their labor each year is 25,685 pieces of baklawa, which are sold by the tray for $16 in the event’s “country kitchen” and distributed by the slice in the pre-made dinners that also include kibbe, salad, pita bread, cabbage rolls and a green bean dish called ruz and yuknee.
Baklawa construction is the most time-consuming element of the dinner, which members of St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, 7515 E. 13th St. North, spend two months preparing.
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The first step happened in the summer, when senior cook (and head slicer) Beulah Farha made the 81 gallons of syrup that gives the dessert its gooey texture. Made out of 600 pounds of sugar, plus lemon juice and orange water, the syrup has a long shelf life, and Farha had vacation plans. So she made it in June.
Next: An order was placed for 600 pounds of nuts and 525 pounds of pre-cut phyllo dough.
Before assembly can begin, another team of cooks spends two days rendering butter by heating more than 1,500 pounds of the stuff in special stoves that separates the pure butter from the unnecessary additives. The finished product is healthier, doesn’t burn as easily and is dumped on nearly every element of the dinner — especially the baklawa.
The nuts are then sugared, and the crews are assembled. During two different two-day baking sessions at the church, a team of 50 volunteers slips on hair nets, aprons and latex gloves and gets to work.
The assemblers, following a grid made with blue tape on a cooking surface, layer four sheets of phyllo dough with lots of butter, which they generously apply using paint brushes. A cup full of nuts is dumped in a straight line at the bottom of the layered dough, then the assemblers roll it into a long tube, brushing it with more butter after every flip.
The rolls are loaded onto giant baking sheets, then transferred to another room, where head slicers Farha and her partner Alice Laham are waiting with specially-made knives. Using a metal pattern custom-made by an engineer congregant, the two slice the rolls into perfect serving sizes, which are transferred back to the kitchen for baking in special convection ovens. Each tray takes nearly two hours and two sets of trained eyes to know when they’re just crispy enough for removal.
If they get to the baklawa while its still hot, the bakers poor cold syrup over it. If they can’t get to it till it’s cooled, they poor hot syrup on it.
A few days later, a team of 10 women gets together to portion out the pieces. It takes two full days to prepare the pans for the country kitchen and insert two servings into containers to be distributed with the meals.
By the time the dinner is done each year, more than 5,500 people have been served, and around $90,000 has been raised for the church.
Debbi Elkouri, one of four overall chairpersons of the dinner, estimates that two thirds of the congregation of 900 plays some role in the dinner, whether it’s cooking, serving, cleaning or working the well-choreographed drive-through lane. Helpers are elementary school-aged all the way up to grandparents in their 90s. Many of the workers have learned their jobs from the generations before them.
The dinner is not only delicious, but it provides a bonding experience for the church members, Elkouri said.
“I think the whole feel of it is everyone coming together and working for the church,” she said. “We love hosting and having people come and partake in the food. We’re proud of our food. And it’s fun when our daughters and our mothers and our dads and our brothers are all working together.”