How to impress a foodie: serve them BOUGATSA creaminess. How to impress a history buff: serve them bougatsa knowledge. Both the history buff and the foodie will wonder where bougatsa have been their whole lives. They say bougatsa originated in Serres, a city north of Thessalonaki where many Greeks immigrated during the Greco-Turkish war that ended in 1922. Making phyllo-wrapped pies and desserts was nothing particularly new, but the sweet pies in this region—filled with thick, rich cream—became a hit. The immigrants in Thessaloniki couldn’t get enough of the affordable, tasty treats.
So, what makes bougatsa so delicious? Creamy semolina custard or soft mizithra cheese, topped with cinnamon and sugar. To taste the best mizithra cheese version, go to Crete. Visit Chania, if you can, sit in the historic limani (port) area, order one or two or three bougatsa and thank me later. And send me one while you’re at it. At home, I make my bougatsa with the semolina filling because quality mizithra is hard to find. Plus, it’s easy to make, not too sweet or too heavy, making it the perfect dish to serve for dessert or breakfast.
When making bougatsa, keep it simple, sweetie. First, create the custard. It’s just milk, sugar, semolina, butter, and a splash of vanilla. There’s no need to add eggs unless you want a firmer custard. I like my bougatsa filling to ooze out of the phyllo. Even the phyllo pastry gets less meticulous attention since bougatsa relies on a rustic texture. Just top your pastry with bits of brown sugar and send it to the oven.
After about five minutes, you’ll get your first wafts of the bougatsa aromas. After twenty-five more minutes of that torture, your dish is ready. Allow to cool—approximately five or ten minutes (depending on your ability to resist diving in). Dust with powdered sugar and ground cinnamon and enjoy one of the easiest dishes in Greek cuisine, redolent with both flavor and history.
- 4 ½ cups whole milk
- 1 cup semolina
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 package of phyllo dough
- ½ cup butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- Ground cinnamon, for dusting
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a medium saucepan, combine milk and sugar and cook over medium heat until milk is warm.
- Slowly add semolina and stir constantly until mixture is smooth and thick.
- When the custard is thick, add butter and vanilla, remove from heat and set aside.
- Butter a baking dish (9” x 13”) and layer 5 sheets of phyllo, lightly drizzling each sheet with melted butter. The edges of the phyllo should come above the top of the pan. Be sure to be light with the butter in between layers, so the pastry comes out crisp.
- Pour the mixture into the pan and smooth out the surface. Turn in the edges of the phyllo dough over the custard to wrap it.
- Cover the custard with another 5 sheets of phyllo dough, again brushing each one lightly with melted butter. Don’t worry about being perfect with the layering; it’s okay if they crumble to give it a more rustic look.
- When you get to the final layer, brush any remaining butter over the top. Top with brown sugar.
- Bake for 30 minutes, or until the bougatsa is golden and crispy.
- Allow to cool 10 minutes before serving. Cut into pieces, dust with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Serve warm.