Who out there has a food ritual? I have two. The first is eating cheddar cheese and chive potato chips with cottage cheese in front of the TV, which has nothing to do with this post, and the second is whenever I visit my home-town in Canada, I enjoy going to my favourite souvlaki shop and ordering and eating an entire bougatsa.
“Bougatsa” is a Cypriot dessert (well, I think it’s originally Greek, but we make it in Cyprus too). It is an orange-blossom and lemon semolina custard encased in filo and dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar.
When I was 16, I tried “bougatsa” for the first time. It was perfect. Not so sweet that you would feel gross if you finished a large piece, but sweet enough that it left your sweet tooth satisfied.
For someone who loves “bougatsa” so much, I never thought to make it until now. I am convinced part of my not-making-it was because I actually enjoyed looking forward to my little Canadian food ritual so I didn’t want to introduce any rival “bougatsa” to take away from the experience in any way. At the same time, part of it must be because I was convinced that any “bougatsa” I would make at home wouldn’t taste as good.But, last week I had a hankering for “bougatsa”. So I decided to experiment. I went about my experiment like a grade 12 chemistry student, carefully measuring out all my ingredients and adjusting the quantities based on my hypothesis about what the end result would taste like. I prepared all the ingredients. And then I realised I didn’t have enough milk. (Doh). So I decided to add some coconut milk in since I had an open can that was about to go off.
I can’t say that I am a purist when it comes to baking. I try to stick to recipes, but I like experimenting with flavours and trying new things, whether it be out of choice or because I have run out of milk.
Despite being a creature of habit in a lot of areas, this doesn’t seem to be the case when I cook. I enjoy experimenting. So I either make things that are incredibly delicious or fantastically disgusting. My cooking style either results in me and my guests licking our plates or scrambling to find the nearest take-away menu.
As I am a little obsessed with coconut milk at the moment – and because I thought my bougatsa had little to no chance of being as good as my favourite in Victoria on the first try – I afforded myself the opportunity to experiment in this situation. I surprised myself. The bougatsa was perfect. Not too sweet, but filled with flavour. The custard was just right. And the filo flaky. It was perfect.
It’s not hard to make bougatsa at all. The custard came together. And even though I had never made it, and no one showed me how to fold the filo, I just made it up and it came together just like it should. If I can make it, so can you. And not only that, I shared my bougatsa with three people (who are the sort that would tell me if it sucked) and they all loved it. I love this recipe and I will definitely be making it again. It makes for a fantastic end to a meal, and would be wonderful served with a nice mint tea. It is best enjoyed the same day it is made, but simply re-heat it in the oven for 10 minutes if enjoyed 1 to 2 days after it is made.
275ml whole milk
50 ml organic coconut milk (optional, if you want to make traditional “bougatsa”, don’t use coconut milk, and just use whole milk)
1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
1 egg & 1 egg yolk, beaten
50g icing sugar
60g fine semolina
100g unsalted butter, chopped into small cubes
1 tsp orange flower water
finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 2 tsp of its juice
1 pinch of unsweetened coconut flakes (optional)
12 small sheets of filo pastry
ground cinnamon and icing sugar for dusting on top
1. Heat the whole milk and coconut milk in a large pot with the split vanilla pod and seeds. Bring up to a simmering point, at which point the surface will appear shimmering. Remove from heat. (The coconut milk makes the surface “shimmery” to being with, so just make sure to take it off once it starts to boil – that’s what I did and it was fine.)
2. Whisk the egg, yolk and sugar together in a bowl until it is thick and pale. This will take about 5 minutes.
3. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk and pour the hot milk into the egg mixture as you whisk it.
4. Return the mixture to the pot. Place over low-heat and cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes.
5. Sprinkle the semolina into the mixture and slightly increase the heat. Keep stirring until the mixture thickens, it will take about 5-6 minutes.
6. Remove from heat and stir 30g of the cubed butter into the semolina custard. Add the orange flower water, lemon zest, coconut flakes (optional) and juice. Cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming and set aside to completely cool. The custard will thicken further as it cools. It took about 1 hour for my custard to completely cool.
7. Preheat the oven to 190C. Prepare a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Melt the remaining butter.
8. On a flat surface, place one filo sheet. Brush the filo sheet generously with butter. Place another filo sheet on top and brush again with butter. (Ensure the remaining filo is kept to the side, covered with a damp tea towel to prevent the sheets from drying out).
9. With a knife, slice the filo into large strips, about 10-15cm wide. Spoon 3 tbs of cooled custard in the lower third of each filo strip, and spread it flat into a little rectangle about 8 x 6cm. Fold the right and left sides to meet in the middle, then fold the bottom edge up and flip and roll the pastry away from you to enclose the custard completely. See the picture collage for guidance. (Note that I discovered there is no “wrong or right” with respect to the size of the “bougatsa”. You can make smaller or larger “bougatsa”, depending on what you like. I made about 6 medium size “bougatsas” and 4-5 very small ones.)
10. Seal the wedge with melted butter and brush the outside with more butter. Place on the baking sheet and repeat to make six or more pastries.
11. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden and crisp. Serve warm with cinnamon and icing sugar dusted on top (about tsp of cinnamon to 3 tbs of icing sugar). You can keep the “bougatsa” for 1 to 2 days afterwards. If you find that the pastry looks a bit flat, simply place it in the oven at 175C for about 5-10 minutes to make it a bit crispy.