Flashback to 1980: it was a family vacation to Greece. We departed for Toronto on the last day of school, the report card still in my hand as we left for the airport and it was a summer I didn’t want to spend in Greece. Plans to hang-out with friends, we were interested in girls and rock music and the summer was ours to take.
I had to go to Greece and this would be a long trip…we returned to Canada in September (after Labour Day even). My family traveled on CP Air from Toronto to Athens with a stop-over in Amsterdam (without leaving the plane) then we had to transfer from the East airport to the West airport in Athens. Our connecting flight was to take us to our final destination: SKG or Thessaloniki.
Back then air-travel took longer and I think the total flying time was about 14 hours plus stop-vers in airports. We were all pooched from a long trip and I recall riding around with my uncle (Theo Mitso) that evening and dozing-off from a long journey. Travel to distant places always gives one a surreal feeling but when you add sleep deprivation (never could sleep well on planes)…the experience becomes “other worldly).
All I recall is going to bed at my uncle’s and waking up early the next morning so that I could go with him at his store. We drove through the congested, narrow streets of Thessaloniki, the smell of Diesel fumes from buses and the sound of honking horns. The Greek sun peeked through buildings and the days become hot very quickly.
We were almost at my uncle’s shop and he did the Greek thing and double-parked on the street and took me into a shop that smelled of baked goods, cinnamon and Greek coffee. He ordered “mia merida Bougatsa me krema” (an order of Cream Bougatsa) and a “Kakao” (a chocolate milk). Back then, the northern dairy company (Agn0) bottled milk and chocolate milk in these plastic bottles with a foil cap that was simply torn off. If one bought a regular milk (there was no skim, 1% or 2% milk – just whole milk). The lip of the bottle would have butter formed on it and although I didn’t like this heavy milk, I relished this butter bonus.
Off we went for his shop – a store that sold curtain materials, blankets, table cloths, bed sheets, linens, towels. His main customers were Greeks reselling to Panagyria (festivals), gypsies and shoppers from Yugoslavia. He opened the shop, ordered a Greek coffee from the ‘kafetzi’ and plopped the packet of cinnamon scented goodness on his desk along with the chocolate milk.
I opened the packet and found squares pieces of what looked like phyllo with a white filling and dusted with icing sugar and ground cinnamon. I picked up a piece with my fingers and placed in my mouth and the Greek vacation began to warm up to me. Biting into Bougatsa is as much about texture as it is about flavour: crunchy phyllo with some soft layers in some of the bites and a warm semolina cream filling all boosted with the icing sugar and cinnamon topping. A sip of chocolate milk, a bite of Bougatsa. It was all gone and if I was not a polite nephew I would have asked for more. I have to admit, I wanted to go with my uncle to his store knowing that he would treat me to Bougatsa for breakfast each morning.
Soon after my uncle would give me money and allow to go and buy Bougatsa on my own. The shop was called “To Neon” and it was located on Frangkon St. just south of Egnatia. Some would order Bougatsa, milk or coffee and sit down to eat but most would order ‘to go” or ‘paketo”. Bougatsa to this day is a breakfast to be eaten on foot, on public transit, in your car or at your desk. I also learned that Bougatsa was not only filled with custard but that there were also savory offerings filled with ground beef, cheese or spinach and cheese.
Bougatsa is a method of opening phyllo pastry and the filling is wrapped with the phyllo like an envelope. The “center” of Bougatsa in Greece is the northern Greek city of Serres with the old origins of Bougatsa dating back to Byzantine times in Constantinople. Tons of Bougatsa shops can be found scattered throughout Thessaloniki and if you’re lucky, one of these shops will be run by a master baker that makes the dough then opens the phyllo by throwing it in the air about seven times until it’s so thin you can see through it!
These masters can can take a piece of flattened dough the size of a pita bread and toss it in the air until the phyllo covers a whole rectangular table. The phyllo is cut in half folded over once to form another layer then the filling is place diagonally in the center. The four corners of folded inside to envelop the filling then the packet is flipped and place diagonally into the other awaiting sheet of phyllo and once again the packet is enveloped by the four corners.
The phyllo is sprinkled with melted butter in between each step and brushed again before it goes in the oven. Baked until golden then cut-up into those bite-sized squares then dusted with the icing sugar and cinnamon. Gets me every time.
Are you ready to try your hand at opening phyllo? We’re not going to throw the dough in the air but we’ll still open until see-through. The filling for this particular Bougatsa is Lent-friendly so instead of milk I’m using soy milk. There’s also no butter in this version but sunflower oil. The reason sunflower (or vegetable oil) is use here because the olive oil may chill and thereby make your dough stiff and difficult to stretch open.
Making Bougatsa the traditional way is both easy and difficult. I’m not promising you you’re going to “get it right” the first time but if you take care in making the dough, exercise patience in allowing the dough to rest, you will eventually pull-it off and open/stretch homemade phyllo.
Lenten Bougatsa me Krema (Νηστίσιμη Μπουγάτσα)
For the phyllo pastry
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup sunflower oil
1 tsp. of vinegar
2 cups room temp. water
For the custard filling
4 cups unsweetened soy milk
2/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 cup fine semolina
2 Tbsp. vanilla extract
icing sugar and ground cinnamon
- The custard should be make first and it must be cooled to at least room temperature (ideally slightly chilled). Into a pot add your soy milk and sugar and stir over medium heat until just scalded. In the meantime, add the semolina and corn starch in a bowl and stir. Once the milk is scalding, add the semolina/corn starch into the pot and continue to stir until the mixture has thickened. Add the vanilla extract, stir in and remove from the heat. Pour into a bowl to cool faster and place plastic wrap on top of the custard so it doesn’t form a crust. Allow to cool completely or place in the fridge.
- To make the dough, add the flour and salt in a bowl and mix with a fork or place in a food processor and pulse. Add your water, vinegar and oil into another bowl (or large measuring cup) and pour into the running food processor or bowl. Add more flour if too wet or until the dough no longer sticks to walls of the food processor or add flour and knead on your work surface. The dough should be smooth, soft and not tacky.
- Now divide into four equal pieces and roll into balls. Sprinkle some flour on your work surface, place the balls on top and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rest for 1 hour. After an hour, roll each ball into about the diameter of a pita bread with a rolling pin then place on a baking tray brushed with oil. Brush the flat of dough with oil and place the second one on top. You should have two sets of two-stacks. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for another hour.
- To open your phyllo, you will need a long rectangular table or large work surface (ensure either is clean). Drizzle the work surface with oil and place one stack on the work area, use a rolling pin to seal the perimeter (two flats become one) of the dough and then hold on to the edge of the phyllo and begin gently pulling out the dough outwards, trying your best to open the dough in a large rectangle. Your challenge is to open/stretch phyllo that is 1.5 X 2 meters. Trim off any of the thick edges.
- Drizzle butter/oil all over the surface of the phyllo and carefully fold over the phyllo to make it half the size then use a knife to cut it into two equal pieces. Drizzle the surface with oil again and place half of the custard filling diagonally in the middle of one half of the dough. Now pull up each corner of dough towards the center (like an envelope) to seal the filling.
- Now carefully lift the packet and place the fold-side downward onto the remaining phyllo square. Place on a greased baking sheet and brush the top with oil. Repeat with the remaining two-stack of dough and form your second Bougatsa. Brush the top with oil and place in a pre-heated 350F oven for 45-60 minutes (middle rack) or until golden.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool about 20 minutes before serving. Cut up into bite-sized squares and dust with lots of icing sugar and some ground cinnamon. Serve as part of a breakfast, brunch or snack/treat.
© 2012 – 2015,
. All rights reserved.