Koula Kordonis, Frances Caroll, and Barbara Rigas are in the kitchen singing. I can't understand the words. It's quite literally Greek to me. "Platho koulourakia/ Me ta theeo herakia/ Koulourakia, koulourakia," they sing as their hands act out the lyrics to what they tell me is a nursery rhyme. It's about how to make koulourakia — butter cookies.
"That's the song you learn as a child in Greece," Judy Papadimitriou, affectionately known as Judy Pop, explains. The reason the women are singing? To teach Judy, a pastry chef and owner of Johns Island pastry company Pies, Cakes, and S'more, the recipe. Even though the chef is a Johnson & Wales grad and the daughter of a local culinary legend — Kyriakos Papdimitriou (known as Mike Pappas) who opened The Colony House, The Harbor House, Poogan's Porch, The Variety Store, and Pier 61 — there's one type of cuisine that's stymied her: her own.
"I always get asked, 'Do you make Greek pastries,'" says Judy. "It's because of my last name." Even though Judy grew up at her father's side working in kitchens throughout Charleston, she didn't learn Greek. "I was the youngest of all the cousins, so I didn't go to Greek school like my sister," she explains. And while one would think it wouldn't take fluency in the language to learn to prepare Hellenic food, Judy just shakes her head. "The recipes are all different," she says. "My theía — that means aunt in Greek — makes her koulourakia with seven cups of flour. But does that mean seven cups in an actual measuring cup or a tea cup? It varies from recipe to recipe."
So the enterprising chef decided to ask the experts, the Yia-Yias: Kordonis, Caroll, and Rigas.
The three women are all members of downtown's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, home of the Greek Festival and center of the local Greek community since 1911. And not only are the women master bakers but they're the keepers of the recipes, living connections to the homeland.
"My theía, Koula, grew up in Athens," Judy explains introducing me to a beautiful woman in a sweater and apron. "I came to Charleston," she says annunciating every vowel, "in 1956." Moving around the table, Judy turns to a tiny lady with a thick Greek accent. "Mrs. Barbara," she asks, "When did you come here?"
Kneading a handful of cookie dough the woman thinks. "I was born in Athens and spent 45 years in Illinois before I came here," she says.
Mrs. Caroll, on the other hand, has a classic Charleston lilt where words like Cooper come out "cuppah," the kind of voice that's vanishing a bit more each year. "My family was from Eperos, the north part of Greece," she says. "I'm first generation."
The women stand around a steel table working balls of dough into skinny strips. "Feel," Kordonis says, handing me a pinch. It's clay-like yet a bit oily. "See, you have to feel it to know it's right," she says, as if by some Grecian wizardry the dough would speak to me. The women twist the balls into tiny loaves.
"That's not big enough," Caroll says, showing Judy the correct cookie technique. "This is the kind of cookie you have with coffee," she explains. "My son would come home from school and sit on the floor with a glass of milk and eat these. He'd say, 'Mmm, bless you, mama.' He loved them."
It's those memories of childhood that the women reflect on every time they make koulourakia. "When you sing the song, you talk about the smell filling the house," says Kordonis waving her arms out. By the time the cookie sheet is in the oven, I understand what she means. The cozy kitchen is filled with a warm buttery fragrance. I breathe in and suddenly feel a sharp pang. Inexplicably, I miss my grandmother.
Kordonis automatically starts washing dishes when Judy's sister Kathy enters the kitchen. "Why is Theía doing the dishes?" she says looking at her sister. "Theía, why are you doing that?"
"I don't know, it's just what I do," Kordonis responds scrubbing. Judy rolls her eyes. The Yia-Yias do things their own way.
Judy leads me over to the oven. "Shall we check them?" she asks Rigas. The little woman gazes into the oven window which is just at her eye level and gives the OK. The cookies have a toasted top. Rigas picks one up to inspect the bottom. "Yes, those are done," she says and wanders back to the kitchen table confidently.
But not so fast. Kordonis steps up. "Those are not done," she says examining a cookie between two fingers. "They need to be much darker." Obediently, Judy places the sheets back in the oven giving me a "see what I'm talking about?" look. Finally, another 10 minutes later, Kordonis deems the cookies done.
"Eat, eat," the women say.
"Greeks are food pushers," Judy explains. "They're always telling you to eat more."
A koulourakia crumbles against my teeth with a satisfying crunch. It's mildly sweet and would be perfect with a hot chocolate. Judy looks pleased. "We have tons of cookbooks and versions of the recipes that have been passed down and although I can follow the recipes and puzzle together the 'mistranslations', this is an honor to work alongside the older generations," Judy says. "I feel like I am living our heritage."Koulourakia
8 oz. unsalted butter
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups of sugar
4 medium eggs
1 Tbs. vanilla
4 tsp. Baking powder
1/4 tsp. Baking soda
7 cups of all purpose flour, sifted
Note: The name means round because the traditional cookie was made round in shape. Commonly now people twist the dough upon shaping for baking.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Cream the butter and vegetable oil for five minutes in a large mixing bowl. Add sugar to the mixture and beat another five to seven minutes. Add eggs and beat until blended. Add the vanilla extract.
In a large bowl combine the baking powder and baking soda with about 1 cup of flour and stir in the egg mixture slowly. Add the remaining cups of flour gradually.
Twist cookies and place on baking sheet.
Wash cookies before baking with egg wash (egg and milk).
Bake in an oven for 15-20 minutes.