Bougatsa, cream-filled phyllo wrapped parcels sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon
There are some pretty hefty debates which exist in the culinary world. Should peanut butter be creamy, or chunky? Is it best to eat your macaroni and cheese with a fork, or a spoon? Is a hot dog a sandwich? And, is bougatsa just galaktoboureko, minus the syrup? We’ll get to that last one in a minute, but first: peanut butter should be creamy, mac and cheese tastes best with a spoon, and a hot dog is barely food…let alone a sandwich (having said that…we love hot dogs).
The bougatsa versus galaktoboureko debate is a little more complex. Although both are custard desserts encased in phyllo, one of the major differences is that galaktoboureko is soaked in syrup which is often flavoured with citrus. Bougatsa on the other hand is usually dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar, and has no syrup. The other difference is that the layer of custard found in bougatsa is quite a bit thinner than the thick layer of custard which makes up a galaktoboureko. The end result is that when served warm, the bougatsa custard has a beautiful way of remaining creamy, oozy and perfect.
The other difference between these two desserts is in the presentation, at least in the way that our parents make bougatsa. Unlike galaktoboureko which is prepared in a pan from which we cut pieces, they make their bougatsa as individual parcels, perfect for dessert on the go. We love bougatsa this way, which highlights another common difference between it and galaktobourko; the way that the phyllo is folded ensures a larger phyllo to custard ratio than in galaktoboureko, especially around the edges.
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 use a clean cloth to cover the phyllo you are not yet working with.
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, particularly in the colour. 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.
A word about the milk. In the recipe which follows we listed that you use a 2% milk; the truth is we have often made bougatsa with skim milk (0% milk fat) and milk which is lactose free. All of the dairy milks that we have tried over the years have resulted in a beautiful bougatsa, so if you want to save a few calories and use skim milk, go ahead. Your dessert will be just wonderful (and then you can eat more of it!)
The hardest part of this recipe is the creation of the individual bougatsa packets. Correction, the hardest part is describing in the directions how to prepare the individual bougatsa packets. Although we have made the instructions as clear as possible, we’ve also includes photos and videos that will probably be useful.
Looking for more custard-y desserts, try these:
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For the custard:
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) melted, unsalted butter (meaning you should have 1/4 cup after it is melted)
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
- 1 liter (32 fl. oz) milk we use 2% lactose free milk, but regular is fine
- 1/2 cup (90 grams) fine ground durum wheat semolina (we like to use the Monastiri brand)
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon powdered vanilla
For the assembly:
- 1 lb phyllo (filo) dough
- 1/3 cup (75 grams) melted butter for brushing on to phyllo
- Cinnamon for dusting
- 1/2 cup (65 grams) icing sugar for dusting the top of the bougatsa
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- In a large pot, over medium-high heat, combine your 1/4 cup melted butter and 1/2 cup of sugar. Mix until combined and then slowly pour in your 1 liter of milk. Add 1/2 cup of semolina and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly.
- In a bowl beat together 3 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 continuously, 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.
- Set the custard aside and begin to prepare the phyllo.
- Open up your pack of phyllo and unwrap the sheets. Cut the pile of large phyllo sheets in half so that you are left with rectangular pieces which measure approximately 8 X13 inches.
- Lay 3 sheets of phyllo one on top of the other, brushing melted butter between each sheet. As you lay the sheets down, keep the shorter end facing you. Then, place 1/3 cup of custard mixture in the bottom center of your square, leaving approximately 1.5 inches from the edge. Fold that bottom edge of phyllo over the custard and then fold in each of the sides. At this point your custard should be fully covered by phyllo. Flip the phyllo and custard over, using a spatula to help you and brush the top with butter. Next, take the strip of phyllo and fold it over and then under your custard pocket. Brush the top with melted butter. You can watch a video of the process here.
- Carefully, using a spatula, transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with the next packet.
- Bake in middle rack of the oven for approximately 20 minutes.
- Remove from oven; allow to cool on a baking rack. Dust with cinnamon and powdered sugar.