Yeah, I know. Almost three weeks since my last post. But you must forgive me! Why? Because I have bougatsa!! Trust me, bougatsa fixes everything. These little soul-soothing capsules of sweet Greekness filled with custard love and wrapped in paper-thin buttery crisp fillo pastry will make you forget that even a day has gone by since my last post. (Is it working yet?)
And thanks to a simple custard-making technique that my friend George Calombaris shares with us in his book Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart, bougatsa is one of the easiest Greek sweets to make. Thanks George :)
On a mission with my dad back in 2004, we took a trip to the island of Limnos to assess the condition of an old family house that was in desperate need of some TLC, and it was on this trip that I discovered bougatsa and its "amazing healing powers".
More than 30 family members had shares in the house but none was prepared to contribute to the repair and maintenance of the collapsing building. Except my dad.
Passionate and committed, my dad took on the huge responsibility over the next nine years to acquire everyone’s shares and spend his life savings on fixing up the house.
Our visit to Limnos back in 2004 was just the beginning of this process and at the time involved a lot of emotional negotiation (and even permanent fall-outs) with greedy relatives. Added to this was a good five weeks of hard physical labour to clear out the mountains of squalor inside the house and the dense jungle of overgrowth and rubbish out in the garden.
Physically and emotionally taxing as this Greek island visit might have been, we were on a Greek island, and with any Greek island comes the reprieve of gorgeous weather, pristine beaches, and a joyous village atmosphere. When our hands and minds were at rest, it wasn’t difficult to turn our awareness to the relaxed and easy lifestyle that the Limnian locals embrace, and nothing assists that better than a morning tea break with frappes and bougatsa.
Taking a stroll down the main market promenade of Limnos known as the "Agora" can bring peace to any troubled mind, and when the work around the house got a bit much, it was a relief to be amongst the happy locals.
Lined with an endless array of shops and speciality stores from artisan bakeries and designer boutiques, to vibrant fruit and vegetable markets and tacky souvenir shops, the Agora air is filled with the seductive aromas of freshly ground coffee beans, roasted nuts and sweet pastries.
Perfectly positioned half-way down the Agora is a leafy square where people take a break to catch up with friends for coffee and bougatsa. Under the shade of enormous plane trees the tables are always full at the popular Axni & Kanella (“icing & cinnamon”) cafe where they make the best bougatsa I've ever eaten.
Thought to have originated in Macedonia, it’s not surprising that bougatsa is now popular in the northern parts of Greece around Thesaloniki and the north Aegean islands such as Limnos and Lesvos.
There is also a savoury version of bougatsa that is filled with cheese, and another variety with minced meat. But it is the sweet custard bougatsa that brings a smile to my face, and the recipe for which I’ll be sharing with you today.
If (unlike me) you can master the art of making your own fillo pastry, your bougatsa will reach heavenly levels of melt-in-the-mouth delectability (see video below). Using commercial fillo pastry certainly doesn’t disappoint though. As long as your custard filling is smooth and creamy with just the right balance of sweetness, you can’t go wrong.
(Video filmed in Athens by Michi's Videos)
Bougatsa me Krema (Greek custard-filled pastry)
Recipe for custard filling adapted slightly from Greek Cookery from the Hellenic Heart by George Calombaris.
- 3 tablespoons cornflour
- 4 tablespoons semolina
- 2/3 cup castor sugar
- 2 eggs
- 650ml full-cream milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
- 16 sheets filo pastry
- 250g melted butter
- Icing sugar to dust
- Cinnamon to dust
- Place cornflour, semolina, sugar, eggs, milk and vanilla essence in a large bowl and whisk until smooth.
- Transfer to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, until mixture thickens. Remove saucepan from heat and whisk custard to smooth out any lumps.
- Place lid on saucepan and allow to cool.
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius.
- Lay four buttered sheets of fillo pastry on top of each other, brushing between each layer with melted butter.
- Pour around half a cup of the custard mixture into the centre of the pastry.
- Lift the corners of the pastry and fold over the custard to form a squarish parcel. Make sure the pastry is sufficiently folded over and the custard is sealed well within the pastry. See the video above to get a rough idea of how this is done (Note: Commercial fillo pastry isn't as pliable as the pastry in the video (and the sheets won't be as big) so you might want to go easy on the wrapping technique. Unless of course you've made your own fillo pastry.)
- Repeat with the rest of the fillo pastry sheets to make four parcels.
- Using a large spatula to lift the parcels, place them, sealed-side face down, on a baking tray lined with greased baking paper and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden.
- Using a large, sharp knife, cut each parcel into small squares around 4cm x 4cm and dust with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Bougatsa can be kept in the fridge for around 3 days in an air-tight container, but must be reheated on an oven tray (preheated oven at 180 degrees celsius for 5 minutes) before serving.