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'Yiayias' teach culinary tricks to teens
Greek WEB 1
South Forsyth High culinary student Caitlyn Reeves, left, listens to “yiayia” Angie Andropoulos while making the Greek dessert baklava. Andropoulos and others were at the school to teach the students how to make Greek treats. - photo by Autumn Vetter

If you go

What: Cumming Greek Festival

Where: Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Greek Orthodox Church, 3074 Bethelview Road

When: Oct. 15, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Oct. 16, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Contact: Online at or by calling (770) 781-5250

Students gathered around, watching closely as Ginny Kostulakos carefully peeled away paper-thin sheets of fillo dough and laid them in the bottom of a baking pan.

She then took a pastry brush, covered in clarified butter, and coated the sheets before topping them with a crumbly mix of finely chopped walnuts, sugar and spices.

“The fillo is very, very thin. Don’t let it dry out or it will tear,” she said. “And be generous with the butter.”

Her fellow teacher Helen McCart was quick to add: “Don’t be scared of the butter. That’s what makes it very moist.

“Of course it’s still diet food, no calories,” she joked.

Kostulakos, McCart and Angie Andropoulos joined 20 South Forsyth High culinary arts students Sept. 30 to teach them the art of baklava-making.

The traditional Greek pastry is made by layering sweetened, chopped walnuts between flaky fillo. After it’s baked, the dessert is covered in a syrup made of sugar and honey, flavored with citrus fruits, cinnamon and cloves.

David Roberts, chairman of this year’s Cumming Greek Festival, invited the Greek grandmas, or “yiayias,” to teach the culinary students how to make the traditional dessert.

The students’ baklava will be frozen until the festival Oct. 15-16.

“Each student will make at least one tray, so we’ll have 20 to 24 for the festival,” Roberts said, noting that each pan yields about 20 individual servings.

He added that many of the culinary arts students will also volunteer at the festival, helping to make and serve other Greek traditional dishes as well.

Dawn Martin, South’s culinary arts instructor, said the yiayias’ visit was a perfect fit for the program.

“We do regional, but also international foods,” she said. “Working with people in the community is so great because the kids get to see it’s not just recipes, but also different cultures and traditions.”

Martin said the students were eager for the yiayias’ visit.

“First of all they got to learn some Greek words — they didn’t know what a yiayia was — and they’re always excited to have outside guests come in,” she said.

Student Savannah Nunley agreed.

“It’s really cool. I like it when we have guests to get advice from and see how to make authentic foods,” she said.

All together the students used about 25 pounds of sugar, 37 pounds of honey and 15 pounds of walnuts for their baklava.

The Greek grandmas went from cooking station to cooking station, giving personal tips and advice to the students.

“Those are things you don’t get from a recipe,” Andropoulos said.

Marin Wijma said he picked up some good tips. Most importantly, he said, is to always make sure the fillo dough doesn’t rip.

“You have to be extra gentle with it,” he said, buttering up a sheet.

The yiayias offered plenty of baklava experience, all having baked the pastry for more than 35 years.

They all seemed to relish in passing the recipe and techniques on to young students.

“This is fun, and these are skills that the kids can bank in life, because everybody has to eat,” said Kostulakos.

She said she married into a Greek family and learned all the traditional recipes from her mother-in-law and “church ladies.”

Andropoulos, whose parents came from Greece to the United States before she was born, learned to make baklava from her mother and aunts.

She said she was impressed with the students’ skills. 

“They’re so talented. This is a pretty difficult technique that they had to learn fast and they’re doing a really wonderful job,” she said.

McCart, who still has a distinct Greek accent, said she learned to make the pastry while living in the island nation. She didn’t move to the U.S. until 1966.

“I was a teenager then, just like [these students],” she said. “I came here because I wanted to share my experiences with them.

“It’s important for traditions like these to continue.”