Galaktoboureko, a Greek classic dessert filled with phyllo and a custard filling.
You know how sometimes things sound much more complicated than they actually are? This may be the case with this recipe. We tried our best, but making this phyllo-encased, custard-filled, syrup-soaked dessert may read as though it would be very difficult, but fear not! In reality it is super easy….and oh, so worth it! We have added some extra pictures and videos to help illustrate the technique in case the words alone were too unclear.
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What is galaktoboureko?
Galaktoboureko is a milk based dessert (gala means milk in Greek) which usually finds it’s way on any Greek dessert table, and always sweetens the end of our parents’ gatherings. For those of you who do not speak Greek, this dessert’s name can be a mouthful, which is okay because you likely won’t be pronouncing it correctly anyways. The Greek alphabet does not have a letter which makes the exact sound of an English “g”, and so the hard “g”used in galaktoboureko is the closest sound there is. The Greek letter gamma ( Γ γ) is a throaty sound, and similar to the noise you might make when trying to clear your throat of … okay, forget it. This is a cooking blog that risks becoming a little gross. Pronounce it anyway you like…no one will mind, especially if you’re the one making it!
Galaktoboureko is a perfect dessert for a crowd because one recipe will feed many sweet-teeth (we’ve decided that’s a word). If you are not making this for a gang of people, that’s okay too. Galaktoboureko will keep in the fridge for several days. Some people prefer to eat it cold, straight from the refrigerator, others at room temperature, and others like it warmed up for a few seconds in the microwave.
Working with phyllo dough
Phyllo dough (sometimes referred to as filo dough) has a bad reputation as being a finicky ingredient which is difficult to work with. Many recipes warn against the fact that it dries out quickly, tears easily and should therefore be handled with extreme caution. We say, hogwash! Sure, phyllo can dry up when exposed to air for a long time…but it has to be a pretty long time, longer than it will take for you to prepare this dessert, even for the first time. To help avoid the horror of dried phyllo however you can always cover, with a clean cloth, the phyllo you are not yet working with. And yes, it tears…but you know what…who cares? You will have to use several layers of phyllo dough for both the bottom and top of this dessert. If you have a few tears, no one will notice and it won’t effect your end product in the least. Just try to make sure that your top-most layers remain intact, for pretty purposes.
You can find phyllo dough in pretty much any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean grocer, or any well stocked supermarket. It is often available both frozen and fresh. We prefer the fresh variety because we find the frozen phyllo sometimes gets a bit soggy after it has thawed. If the frozen phyllo is all you can find however, go for it!
Our parents have used vanilla powder for as long as we can remember, so this is what we use here. If you cannot find vanilla powder, or prefer to use vanilla extract, use the same amount called for in the recipe. Keep in mind that most vanilla extracts are brown in colour and that this may slightly change the colour of your custard. If you don’t want to affect the colour you can purchase clear vanilla extract, usually found at baking supply stores.
The type of semolina used in this dessert will affect the outcome (as we have found out). When recreating this dessert in our own kitchen, the end result looked a little darker and was just a little thick than our parents’ galaktoboureko. After speaking with our folks and showing them our end result, their first question was, “What brand of semolina did you use?”. Seriously!? It seems that the brand, along with the type of semolina used, makes a difference. Our parents only use the Monastiri brand of fine semolina, a product of Greece. If you can find this where you are, we suggest you use it. If not, then experiment with what you have on hand until you come up with a sweet which you love.
This is a very dairy rich dessert, which some people may have a hard time digesting. You can easily substitute lactose-free milk if that helps, and perhaps you can even substitute the butter for margarine…but we’ve never actually tried that. If you do, let us know how it turns out!
Our parents make their galaktoboureko using a glass baking pan (lasagna pan). It is really helpful to use a glass pan as you can easily keep an eye on the bottom layer of your phyllo dough during the cooking process.
A note about the custard: As you will see when you are reading the recipe, preparing the custard filling involves mixing beaten eggs into a hot milk mixture. When you pour the eggs in it may appear that they are not blending into the milk mixture properly. You may see, for example, egg white which is not fully incorporated into milk. If this is the case, don’t worry…it will all work out! Just keep stirring. However, if your eggs curdle (that is, if they cook and it looks like scrambled eggs) it IS a problem! This can sometimes happen if your milk mixture is too hot when you pour the eggs in, or if you do not stir continuously once the eggs are added. Don’t be too upset if this happens. As our mother says, if you don’t ruin stuff, you’ll never learn. In Greek this piece of kitchen wisdom and motherly advice rhymes (αν δεν χαλάσεις, δεν θα μάθεις), making it much lovelier.
If you’re looking for more classic Greek desserts, try these:
- 1/2 cup (115 grams) melted, unsalted butter meaning you should end up with 1/2 cup (125 mL) after it is melted
- 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 liters (2,000 mL, or 64 oz) 2% milk we actually use lactose free milk
- 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon (total is 175 grams) fine ground durum wheat semolina we like to use the Monastiri brand
- 6 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon powdered vanilla
- 1 pound phyllo (filo)
- 1/2 cup (115 grams) approximately melted butter for brushing onto the phyllo
For the syrup
- 2 1/2 cups (500 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (500 mL) water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 slices lemon
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- In a large pot, over medium-high heat, combine melted butter and sugar. Mix until combined and then slowly pour in milk. Add semolina and vanilla. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- In a bowl beat together 6 eggs using a fork. Once thoroughly beaten slowly add them to the pot. At this point you must continuously stir the contents of the pot. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes. The custard filling is done when it has the consistency of a pudding. You can get a sense of what it looks like here.
- If you are making this dessert with someone else, while you are stirring the custard, they could be preparing the phyllo dough. If you are doing this alone, simply remove the custard off of the heat and proceed to prepare your phyllo.
- Butter the bottom of a 9 1/2 x 13 inch rectangular baking pan. Place 2 sheets of phyllo on the bottom of pan. Your sheets of phyllo will be too large to line the bottom of the pan perfectly. This is good. Leave one end of the phyllo sheets hanging over the long end of your pan. Using a pastry brush, brush on some melted butter. When brushing the butter on the phyllo sheet do so lightly. The goal is not to saturate the phyllo with butter. Then, add two more phyllo sheets, this time letting the phyllo overlap on the opposite end of your pan. Brush on more melted butter. Repeat this entire process 3 more times so that you end up with eight times 2-layer phyllo sections. (So, to summarize, your bottom layer of galaktoboureko will be 16 sheets, with butter being applied between every 2 sheets, and with phyllo hanging over the two long sides of your pan).
- Pour the custard mixture into the phyllo-lined pan. Spread it out evenly by using the back of a spoon. Now, take those overlapping sheets of phyllo, two at a time, and cover the custard with them, alternating sides. Remember to butter each set of two phyllo sheets before covering it with another layer of phyllo, as you can see here. When you have used up all of the overlapping phyllo sheets, take the phyllo that is still in the packaging, one sheet at a time, and fold it in half (or fold it in such a way that it fits the baking pan perfectly). Then, add this to the top of the galaktoboureko. Repeat this with at least 4 more sheets of phyllo, buttering between each sheet.
- Using a sharp knife score the top phyllo layers of the galaktoboureko 3 times lengthwise. Then, working along the 1st and 3rd lengthwise scores, create a bit of a herringbone pattern. This is not an exact science and in fact, the only thing you really need to know is that the vents you will create by scoring the phyllo will help it to bake properly and will be your guides when it comes to cutting out serving pieces.
- Place the pan in the middle rack of the oven and bake the galaktoboureko for approximately 45 minutes. You may need to rotate the pan mid-way through the cooking process depending upon how heat is distributed in your oven. You will know that your galaktoboureko is done when the phyllo is a lovely golden brown and slightly puffed up. Your custard filling will appear very loose when you remove it from the oven. This is normal and it will set as it cools.
For the syrup
- While your galaktoboureko is baking you can prepare the syrup. In a medium saucepan combine the water, sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon slices. Bring to a boil and once the sugar has dissolved reduce the heat and simmer for approximately 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- When your galaktoboureko is done remove it from the oven and slowly spoon the prepared and cooled syrup onto it, while in the pan, letting each ladle of syrup to be absorbed. You can let your galaktoboureko cool slightly before doing so, but if you pour the syrup over it while it is still hot, you get this cool (but slightly messy) effect.
- You may find that you may not use all of the syrup. Use only as much as can be absorbed by the galaktoboureko.
- Allow your galaktoboureko to cool fully at room temperature before serving. Serving it while too warm, before the custard has set, will be messy (but still delicious).
- To store it, allow it to cool fully or overnight, before placing it in the fridge, where it will keep fresh (with the help of the excess syrup) for 4-5 days.