It’s all about the food. Sometimes the best way to learn about a country and its culture is to learn about its food and its cooking traditions. Lucky for me, my daughter, who was a student in Greece for nearly five months, was not only my tour guide to the ancient sites, but also my culinary guide.
From dining in little tavernas that speckle the narrow side streets of Athens to eating fresh-caught fish off the coast of Santorini, I was introduced to the exquisite textures and flavors of Greek food. Sampling inch-long baby okra cooked in a light tomato and onion sauce, devouring tiny fried whitebait fish – head, tail, spine and all, and spreading pureed dried yellow peas on bread, were just some of the opportunities I used to discover the gastronomic resources available to the Greeks. I learned that some of the varieties of legumes we eat today are the same ones once eaten in ancient times.
And because the sun shines most of the year and very little rain falls, Greek tomatoes and peppers are exceptionally sweet. The freshness of Greek ingredients cannot be denied. Most foods are simply delicious because they are prepared with fresh and few ingredients. Very few over-processed foods ever made it to my table while I was in Greece.
Scorpion fish or grilled octopus, anyone? The seafood in Greece was as good as I had anticipated. The subtle lobster-like flavor of the Scorpion fish and the chewy texture of the fresh octopus were both delicious, but it was the fried calamari that really got my attention. Maybe it was the freshness of the squid or the very lightest dredging of flour or the addition of exactly the right amount of salt, but this Greek version of fried calamari was by far the best I’ve ever tasted!
The Greeks love their sweets. The sweet scent of freshly baked pastries found me following my nose into more than one local bakery. Even before I left home, my daughter had warned me about this temptation. I’d heard her stories about Bougatsa me Krema and was looking forward to my first taste. It did not disappoint. How could warm layers of buttery, thin phyllo sheets filled with creamy custard, and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon be disappointing? Before the introduction of sugar, ancient Greeks used honey to sweeten their food. Thick, creamy, Greek yogurt and honey is a traditional treat and Greeks like to make sweet syrups from honey to pour over their cakes and fried sweets. Many Loukoumades or Greek donut balls coated in a honey-syrup called out to me.
Now back at home, I wanted to try my hand at making the memorable Bougatsa me Krema and I found a recipe online. Flakey, buttery and filled with custard – mine was pretty darn close to the deliciousness I experienced in Greece! I share this temptation with you.
Bougatsa me Krema or Creamy Custard Phyllo Pastry
-Courtesy of Nancy Gaifyllia of About.com with comments by Linnell-
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
* 4 1/4 cups of whole milk
* sliced peel of 1 lemon
* 1 1/4 cups of granulated sugar
* 3/4 cup of semolina (durum wheat flour which I found in my local grocery store)
* 4 eggs
* 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract
* 12 sheets of commercial phyllo dough
* 6 ounces of butter, melted
For the topping:
* confectioner’s sugar
* ground cinnamon
Warm the milk and lemon peel in a saucepan. Stir in semolina with a wooden spoon until the mixture is thoroughly blended and thickened. In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla until light and add to the pan, stirring over medium-low heat until it reaches a creamy custard consistency. Remove from heat, take out and discard lemon peel, and allow it to cool completely. Stir occasionally to keep the custard from forming a skin on top.
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
Lightly brush a baking pan (13 X 9 X 2 or equivalent) with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with 8 sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet well with the melted butter. Add the custard filling. Fold the excess phyllo that overlaps the pan in over the custard. Top with the remaining phyllo, brushing each with butter. Use a scissors to trim the top sheets to the size of the pan. Spray the top lightly with water and bake at 350°F (180°C) for 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden brown.
Remove from oven, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and cinnamon while hot, and serve warm.
Adventures in Greece – to be continued . . .