Months have passed since I last came to this space. The garden kept growing until December, and even now there's tuscan kale popping up from the snow. But the winter has me down a bit: no gardening, a dry apartment, and yet another head cold. To think, as a kid winter was my favorite season -- what with christmas and my birthday and snow forts to build outdoors. But these days, I'd be happy to avoid winter altogether. And that, dear readers, is exactly the plan this year.
In just 5 days (!) I'll be off: first to Mexico, then to Arizona, Texas and California. And finally, New Zealand and Australia! All for dissertation research, well, that and a bit of a birthday holiday on the beach.
Of course, the time between now and then feels infinite. We're subletting our apartment so everything is everywhere. Clothes in piles, closets emptied, stuff scattered on all available surfaces. We've barely been cooking at all -- with the lack of a farm box or a garden, it all feels less urgent. And with all the packing, it seems somewhat impossible.
But I carved out a small piece of time this morning, when the snowy light was still good and bright, and baked something I've been meaning to bake for years: bougatsa.
What, do tell, is bougatsa? Why the most delicious of greek desserts made of semolina custard! When dry, the semolina looks like soft, yellow sand. When cooked, it is sweet and nutty.
In Toronto, there is an excellent greek bakery on the Danforth called Athens. I first discovered this flaky, custardy, cinnamony deliciousness while in high school. It's quite simple: you order some bougatsa and sit down to a plate full of little phyllo squares, filled with custard and topped with cinnamon and sugar. About halfway through, your blood sugar levels have spiked and you're starting to feel crappy. But you just can't help yourself! It's too delicious to leave any on the plate.
For my own version, I went a bit more refined and a lot less sweet. I added meyer lemon and half a vanilla bean; substituted in some cream; cut the sugar and didn't bother adding extra egg yolks.
After reading half a dozen recipes, I settled in with one that looked authentic. Unfortunately, it was also inaccurate. Despite stirring and whisking and adding another egg and cooling and stirring some more, the damn custard would not set!
I asked my husband to research what makes custard set, and low and behold, it turns out there's an enzyme in the eggs that needs to be cooked in order for them to bind to the starches in the flour. So after applying some higher heat and stirring quickly with a wooden spoon, miraculously the whole thing came right together. Then out of the pan and into the oven. 30 minutes later, we were having a greek breakfast pastry, albeit at this point it was for lunch.
I can't say if I'll be cooking too much in the coming months, as we live out of suitcases and stay in other people's apartments. Instead, this blog may be more travel snapshots than cooking stories. Less recipes and more tales.
So I leave you with this last one for now. I don't know if any of you have tried out my recipes. But I assure you: bougatsa is worth trying. And given how hard it is to track down (I've tried at every greek restaurant across europe and north america), it's best to make it yourself. Below, is a place to start your own obsession with greek pastry. Happy new year to you! If you're stuck with the winter, I hope you bake yourself something delicious.
Serves 2-4 people
3/4 cup milk + 1/4 cup cream (or 1 cup milk if you don't want to bother with cream)
1/2 meyer lemon peel grated (or just a regular lemon if you prefer)
5 tablespoons butter + more for phyllo
3 tablespoons semolina flour
2-4 tablespoons of sugar, depending on your taste (I did 2.5)
1/3 vanilla bean (spliced pod and paste goes into milk) or 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
phyllo pastry (if frozen, thaw in fridge overnight or put out on warm counter 1+ hour before)
cinnamon and powdered sugar
1) Heat the oven the 350.
2) Combine the milk, cream, lemon zest, vanilla bean in saucepan on low heat. Add the butter when warm and whisk to combine when it melts.
3) While whisking, sprinkle in the semolina.
4) Beat the sugar and 3 eggs in a bowl. If you're using vanilla extract, put it in here.
5) Turn up the heat to medium and slowly add the eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon on medium heat until a custard forms. Turn up the heat more if it's not thickening but make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon as you go so nothing burns. Once it turns to a custard, put aside to cool (or in the fridge if you are impatient like me.) If it's not coming together, you need more heat.
6) Lay out 6 sheets of phyllo on a buttered baking sheet and between each one brush with melted butter. Add the custard in an even spread and then fold the phyllo in half. Butter the top of the phyllo.
7) Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes until lightly browned on top.
8) Chop up into little squares (pizza roller works great!) and sprinkle with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Ideally, eat warm for a delicious breakfast. Supposedly doesn't re-heat well, so if you have leftovers, just eat cold. Ask yourself why you've never tried bougatsa before and promise yourself you'll make it again soon.