“You should try this dessert at this Greek bakery around the corner by the train station,” my friend Geoff said to me one day.
“What’s it called?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but it has this really long name…I can’t remember it. But it’s really good!”
About a month after that little exchange, Geoff and I had brunch in our neighborhood one Saturday afternoon. After brunch, I had a few errands to run and since we were headed in the same direction, Geoff and I walked down 30th Avenue together. When we reached the corner of 31st St. and 30th Avenue, just under the train tracks, Geoff spotted the Greek bakery in question (Yaya’s Bakery, on 31st St. in Astoria) and said, “Oh we have to get dessert at this place…This is where they have that dessert I was talking about…” Of course by then I’d already forgotten any mention of any particular dessert, but vaguely remembered him saying something a while back. Intrigued, I went along.
As soon as we came in, we were greeted with shelves of baked goods and breads, the cashier counter to our left. On that same counter stood this famous dessert-with-the-really-long-name, looking like any other Greek dessert featuring Filo pastry as its outer covering. Looked like Baklava from the outside to me. Still not remembering its name, Geoff points it out to me and orders a slice for us to share, each slice a generous helping, roughly 4″ x 4″ in size (it seemed that big, anyway). Since the bakery didn’t really have seating, we stepped outside to eat from the little styrofoam container they put it in. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. Sweet (very sweet!), creamy, milky/eggy custard on the inside, flaky, delicate Filo on the outside. And tying everything together? Butter. Butter, butter, and more butter… I was immediately taken with this Greek pastry, of which I had never heard. I ran back inside and asked the lady behind the counter the name.
“Galaktoboureko,” she said.
“Galak…to…boure…ko? Do you mind writing it down? I’d like to look it up online and see what’s in it…” I said.
She takes a business card out of the holder on the counter and writes the name down. “It’s just milk, eggs, sugar…We have it available everyday, always on this counter if you ever want to have it again…”
“Thanks!” I smile and take the card. I go back outside and show Geoff.
I had found my next baking conquest. I was particularly excited because I had never, never heard of this dessert before, having only known of baklava as far as Greek desserts are concerned. “You mean there’s other Greek desserts besides baklava???” I thought. This foreign pastry presented a challenge because I had never heard of it before, and obviously, I had never made it before. Even my mom, whom I consider the baking authority, had never heard of it before.
Fast forward a couple of Sundays later and I finally get around to making it. I Googled for a recipe and found Cat Cora’s recipe on The Food Network’s web site. See below…
Galaktoboureko (Cat Cora recipe, from The Food Network web site)
- 4 cups milk
- 1/2 cup fine semolina
- 1 cup sugar
- 2/3 cup unsalted butter
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pound thick, commercial phyllo dough
- 2/3 cup clarified butter, to brush dough
- 3 cups water
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 lemon
In a heavy pot, bring the milk to a boil. Sprinkle in the semolina, whisking constantly over very low heat. Add the sugar, then simmer for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring from time to time. Remove from the heat and add the butter and the eggs, 1 by 1, stirring. Blend in the vanilla. The mixture will be thick but pourable, like a sauce.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Butter a deep 10-inch baking pan. In the bottom of the pan, layer 8 sheets of phyllo, leaving the edges hanging over the sides of the pan. Brush each sheet generously with clarified butter. Pour the milk mixture over the phyllo layers.
Cut the remaining sheets of phyllo about the size of the pan and brush each sheet with clarified butter. Place the buttered sheets on top of the filling, then brush the hanging bottom sheets with clarified butter and roll them up to seal.
With a very sharp knife, score the top diagonally in 2 directions to make diamond-shaped slits on the surface. (This makes it easier to cut later, and also allows the syrup to penetrate the pie.) Sprinkle with a little water and bake about 1 hour, or until top is light brown and filling has set.
The minute you start baking the pie, begin to make the syrup. Simmer the water with sugar and the 1/2 of lemon for about 1 hour. Remove the lemon half and squeeze the juice into the syrup. Discard the lemon. Pour the syrup over the pie the minute you take it out of the oven. Be careful, syrup will bubble vigorously and can burn you.
Let cool, and serve, cutting pieces along the slits that you made before baking the pie.
My work table…
Sheets of Filo buttered and layered and lovingly placed into the pan. After 4 sheets in, the process of laying and buttering the sheets gets really old. I was over it by sheet 4.
The egg/milk/sugar custard, poured into the pan. Almost ready for the oven!
Custardy goodness, hidden underneath the layers of Filo…
I pretty much followed the recipe except I had used a medium, rectangular Pyrex baking dish, and I didn’t pour all of the lemony sugar syrup over the pie when it was done. I ladled moderate amounts, just enough to coat the top and have the pie absorb some of it. I also didn’t use all of the remaining Filo sheets to cover the top. Just enough to layer over the custard, and then folded and buttered the overhanging flaps over the whole thing. It’s really your call how much flaky goodness you want on the top. I also didn’t bother to clarify the butter, just melting it for brushing is good enough.
Making the custard wasn’t really difficult, it was mostly the layering and buttering of the Filo sheets that was time-consuming. I was exhausted when I finally put the little guy in the oven. The custard was so ridiculously good, I was scraping the leftover drops that remained behind in the pot. So buttery, so rich…Mmmm.
After one hour exactly, the pie was ready and I did the syrup thing. I didn’t want to drown the pie in syrup, and I was afraid that it was going to be too lemony (I am not wild about lemon flavors in my baked goods), so I used a ladle to control the amount I put on.
Cross section…see the flaky vs. the creamy?
The pie sat cooling until my friend Debbie came and had dinner with me (I was so exhausted from the pie that I didn’t end up making dinner, so we ordered out) and she was the first to sample it. She loved it so much, she had 2 slices. On the first day, fresh from baking, you can taste the eggy-ness of the custard. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t dislike it. On the second day, however, the flavors have had a chance to settle, the custard is a little more firm, and the eggy-ness is a little less obvious. The contrast between the thin, delicate flakiness of the Filo and the creamy softness of the custard is just absolute heaven. I should know, I just finished up the last two slices tonight. I had to bring a large majority of the pie to work because if I had all of it sitting in my apartment, forget it. There’s two slices also ready for Geoff to pick up. I think he’ll like it. It’s not as sweet as the galaktoboureko at Yaya’s Bakery (though Yaya’s is very good!), and it’s a little more manageable. But I know how much butter went into it and sometimes, it’s better not to know… When it comes to the amount of butter, ignorance is bliss.