What is galaktoboúreko?
Galaktoboúreko (γαλακτομπούρεκο) is a traditional festive Greek cake.
It is also called “milk pie” because it is composed of a pastry cream with semolina, scented with cinnamon, lemon and/or vanilla, wrapped in filo dough. The whole cake is covered with syrup. A pure delight! Filo dough, crisp and light, contrasts with the slightly dense but soft filling, that is deliciously flavored.
Traditional Greek pastries
Galaktoboúreko is the kind of pastry that can be eaten after a light meal or snack.
Traditionally, the Greeks do not consume desserts at the end of the meal but they end it with cheese instead. This is not surprising since the delicious Greek delicacies are often very rich and very sweet, composed of dried fruits, and soaked in honey or syrup.
Pastries and other sweets are therefore most often eaten in the afternoon, before the evening meal which is often served late, especially in the summer; or at the end of the evening.
This is often the case in the countries around the Mediterranean and the Balkans where desserts tend to be similar because the influences have been mutual over the centuries, over periods when the Byzantine and Ottoman empires occupied the same territories.
As a few examples, we can mention the baklava, the famous pastry made from filo dough filled with dried fruits, covered with a sweet syrup perfumed with rose or orange blossom water, whose origin remains controversial and claimed by the Greeks, Turks and Cypriots.
This is a similar story for galaktoboúreko whose name derives from both Greek and Turkish. Thus, gala (γάλα) means “milk” in Greek and boúreko comes from the Turkish word börek which describes Turkish pastries made from puff pastry, which can be savory or sweet, and which means “to fill”. It is literally a börek filled with a dairy preparation.
It is also possible that the Central Asian Turks had their flatbread, the yukfa or saç ekmeği, with them during their western migration in the Middle Ages, and that they could be at the origin of the puff pastry that we know today as böreks or Greek pies such as prásopíta or spanakópita.
What are the variants of galaktoboúreko?
According to Véfa Alexiadou, author of an anthology of Greek cuisine cookbooks: “It is claimed that in Greece any edible product can be used in a pie or a pastry. They are the mainstay of Greek culinary tradition and every village in the country has its own specialty.”
Thus, galaktoboúreko should not be confused with bougatsa, which is also composed of semolina pastry cream between 2 layers of filo leaves. The latter is denser, thinner and not soaked with syrup.
Galatopita is another version … ruffled. The filo dough sheets are indeed folded in an accordion fold before being arranged over the cream in a circular pattern starting with the center of the dish. This cake contains no semolina or syrup.
If you take a look outside of Greece, without going too far, you will find the banitsa, the Bulgarian cousin of the galaktoboúreko, in its sweet version called mlechna banitsa or milk banista.
And finally looking a little further, we can find some similarities to the French mille-feuille although the French version is assembled after baking with each element separately.
What is filo dough?
Filo dough comes from the Greek word filo meaning “sheet”. This term, known to Europeans and North Americans, is borrowed from the Greek language although the origin of these sheets is Turkish.
The Turkish nomads of medieval times would have spread their taste of flat breads, which has evolved with the creation of breads made by piling up thin sheets of dough. The idea of making extremely thin sheets probably came later, and today’s modern version of the filo dough probably has a link with the kitchens of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, the residence of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
It has different names depending on the country of origin. For example, in Turkey it is used for böreks and baklava and it is called yufka, just like the flat bread from which it originates. In German, strudelteig is used to prepare pastries called strudel such as apfelstrudel, a traditional Austrian cake made from apples.
The basis for this dough is wheat flour, water and often a little oil, to form an unleavened dough. The idea is then to spread out and stretch this dough as thinly as possible on a large table with a long rolling pin. The result is a paper-thin dough, which requires dexterity and experience.
Since the 70s, the food industry has developed machines to make these sheets available for sale in supermarkets.
The filo sheets are coated with butter or oil, then they can be used in several ways: rolled, folded, crumpled, spread over each other, stuffed, shaped into cups to be garnished, for savory or sweet preparations.
Greek pastries often require long and sometimes delicate preparation times, but this is not the case with galaktoboúreko, one of the simplest to make in this category, assuming you will buy the filo dough, of course!
καλή όρεξη (kali orexi). Bon appetit!
- 12 sheets filo dough (16×12 inches) or 24 smaller ones
- ½ cup butter melted (lukewarm)
- 2 whole eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 5 cups whole milk
- 1 cup caster sugar
- ½ cup durum wheat semolina (extra-fine)
- 3 tablespoons corn flour
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 pinch nutmeg
- Zest and juice of a lemon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1¼ cup caster sugar
- ¾ cup water
- Zest of a lemon
- 1 tablespoon honey
In a saucepan over high heat, bring the water, sugar and lemon zest to a boil until the sugar dissolves.
Add the honey and stir well.
Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the semolina, sugar and corn flour.
Add the eggs and beat again until they whiten. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the milk, cinnamon and nutmeg to a boil.
Pour it gradually into the bowl with the beaten eggs and beat until everything is well mixed.
Using a spatula, transfer to a saucepan and bring to boil (without boiling) while stirring until the cream thickens and can coat a spoon. In case of splashing, lower the heat.
Add the aroma, lemon or vanilla (or both) and mix well.
Cover with plastic wrap making sure that it touches the entire surface of the cream. Set aside.
Preheat the convection oven to 350 F.
Grease the bottom of a 9x12-inch rectangular mold with butter.
Take a sheet of filo dough and keep the others well covered with a moist cloth so as not to dry them.
Lay it on the bottom of the mold, leaving the edges overflow on the outside and brush with butter.
Proceed in the same way with 5 other sheets.
Spread the cream over and cover with 6 other sheets, brushing each of them with butter.
Fold the edges inward.
Using the tip of a sharp knife, pre-cut squares on the surface of the dough, about the thickness of two sheets.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the whole surface is golden and crisp.
As soon as the cake is out of the oven, cut the pieces according to the pre-cut squares while leaving the slices inside the mold.
Pour over half of the syrup. Wait a few minutes until it is well absorbed and then pour the other half.
Let stand for one to two hours before serving.