Galaktoboureko – Greek Custard Pie
Crispy layers of phyllo filled with a vanilla semolina custard soaked in a citrus sweet syrup. Do I need to say more? Probably not but you know I am going to! Galaktoboureko is a traditional Greek dessert. It’s made of buttery layers of phyllo and a very creamy custard. It’s rich and definitely a treat. It’s one of those desserts that you make sure to leave room for after dinner. It’s made of three delicious layers – the phyllo, the custard and the syrup. Why don’t we talk a little about each of them.
How to make the phyllo layers
You can definitely make them from scratch but I never do. I can never get the layers thin enough to be as light and fluffy as store bought phyllo. You can get away with thicker phyllo in a savoury pie but not when making Greek custard pie. This pie gets soaked so thicker phyllo sheets would really get weighed down by the syrup and the layers would lose their crispness. Store bought always makes things so much easier and it’s so easy to work with as well.
How to work with phyllo
Phyllo dough is usually found in the frozen food section. Each package usually contains several of paper-thin sheets of phyllo. These sheets can become gummy if too damp, or brittle if too dry. To prevent either of those things from happening, first you must make sure to defrost phyllo in the fridge, not on the counter. This prevents too much condensation from forming and making the outer layers of phyllo gummy, making them want to stick to each other. I usually defrost it overnight. Remember to also place unwrapped phyllo dough on a damp kitchen towel and cover with another damp towel or paper towels. The towels shouldn’t be wet but just damp to the touch. After taking a sheet or two to work with, recover the remaining phyllo. Again, the goal is to keep the dough hydrated and prevent it from drying out. Then you’re ready to start layering! Another important thing when layering phyllo to get those light and crunchy layers, is to try not to touch the phyllo with the pastry brush too much when you are adding the butter in between layers. Drizzle it over instead of brushing it on and if you must brush it on do so very lightly.
How to make the semolina custard
When you are making custard of any kind it’s important to use high quality eggs and butter (no margarine here please) and also use heavy cream not just milk alone. The custard must be rich and flavourful and good quality, full fat milk and cream will give you that wonderful flavour. This is not a creamy custard by any means when you make it and that is ok. It doesn’t need to be pushed though a sieve or anything like that. The mistaken view for the custard in galaktoboureko is that it should be velvety smooth, but getting a texture like that will not create a good end result in your custard after it bakes. It will look smooth but it will be starchy or gelatinous looking, heavy and tight. You want it almost frothy and not eggy tasting or smelling either. The best way that I have learned to make it with those results, is by whipping the eggs into a meringue and slowly folding them into the custard after it cools slightly. I did quite a lot of reading on the subject and this is definitely the method that has yielded the best custard results when it comes to galaktoboureko. Some recipes call for separating the yolks from the whites but I don’t do that. It’s much easier keeping the two together.
How to make the syrup
The syrup is what brings the dessert together. It’s traditionally flavored with cinnamon and lemon but I like to switch things up sometimes and do orange or grapefruit too. Feel free to chose which flavour you would like to infuse it with. It’s so wonderfully fragrant and delicious. The syrup must be completely cool before pouring it over the piping hot pie right out the oven (can easily be made the day before). This will keep the top layers crisp and syrupy at the same time. If the syrup is hot it will just soak the top layers right through and they will loose their crispness. The syrup should be ladled over gently and methodically over the entire pie so it soaks evenly. Here’s where tastes differ though. Some like their pie dripping with syrup. If that is the case then use the full amount of syrup. If you like it less soaked and more on the drier side (not dripping with syrup) just make half the amount. I always like to make the full amount though because I like it between those two - slightly dripping. I gauge how much I am going to use while I’m ladling it on and seeing how much of it gets soaked through.
The hardest part is waiting for it to cool to room temperature for the custard to set and make slicing it easy. I love mine just set and still slightly warm. But that is just me. The pieces shown in this post are just barely set and they was so so good! The cooler the pie gets the firmer the custard gets. Most people including my mom say it’s ok to leave this dessert out at room temperature uncovered or loosely covered for a few days which helps keep the custard stay light and the phyllo crisp, but if you aren’t comfortable doing that than feel free to store it in the fridge. The custard will be firmer and the phyllo may lose a bit of its crunch but the taste will still be delicious. Some actually prefer it cold. Either way I know you will love this traditional Greek pastry recipe. It’s a lot simpler than you think to make and I hope that breaking down each layer of the pie like this helps. It’s perfect for entertaining because it can feed a crowd and everyone loves it. Enjoy! Recipe adapted from BBC Food and Akis Petretzikis
Serves 12-14 depending on how large your slices are.
For the custard filling
- 170 g fine semolina (approx 1 cup)
- 200 g sugar (approx 1 cup), divided in half
- 500 g heavy cream (approx 2 cups)
- 500 g whole milk (approx 2 cups)
- 4 eggs
- 100 g butter (approx 1 stick)
- 1½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 220 g butter (approx 2 sticks), melted for brushing phyllo
- 1 package phyllo dough (approx 10-12 sheets)
- 800 g granulated sugar (approx 4 cups)
- 450 g water (approx 2 cups)
- 75 g honey (approx 3½ tbsp)
- the peel of 1 lemon
- 2 cinnamon sticks
For the syrup
- In a medium pot combine the sugar, water, cinnamon stick and lemon peel.
- Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil
- As soon as it comes to a boil, mix gently to help the sugar dissolve completely.
- Remove from heat and stir in the honey and set aside to cool completely.
For the custard filling
- Beat the eggs along with half the sugar in a standing mixer or using a hand mixer for 3-4 minutes until stiff but not dry peaks form when the whisk is removed.
- Transfer to another bowl and set aside. Clean and dry the mixing bowl.
- In a medium pot, add the heavy cream, milk, the remaining sugar, a pinch of salt, and vanilla extract.
- Place over medium to high heat and bring to a boil.
- As soon as you see that the mixture is bubbling, sprinkle in the semolina a little at a time while whisking and continue to whisk for a couple minutes until it thickens.
- When the whisk leaves streaks in the mixture, it means it has thickened enough and it is ready.
- Remove from heat and add the butter and continue whisking until the butter melts and is completely incorporated.
- Use a spatula and transfer mixture to the clean mixing bowl. Beat for 4-5 minutes, until the mixture cools a little.
- When ready, loosen the semolina custard (also help temper it) by adding and mixing in 1-2 spoonfuls of the whipped eggs and sugar mixture (meringue) and then fold in the rest gently until fully incorporated.
- Preheat oven to 320 ° F
- Melt the butter in the microwave or in a saucepan and then generously brush a 9x13’ baking pan with some of the melted butter.
- Start assembling the pie by spreading a sheet of phyllo dough in the pan and then drizzling it with butter. Do not brush the butter straight on to the phyllo, just drizzle it over it.
- Repeat the same process with approx 5-6 sheets of phyllo dough.
- Spread the custard on top and fold over the phyllo that is hanging over the edges onto the custard and then drizzle those edges with a little butter.
- Start layering the top of the custard with another 5-6 layers of phyllo drizzling each one with melted butter in the same way as the sheets below.
- Once the last sheet is on fold your edges inward, cutting the phyllo if the edges are too long and too thick to fold under and once folded use your pastry brush to help you gently tuck edges inwards, towards the bottom of the pan to seal the custard.
- Drizzle a generous amount of melted butter over the top.
- Score the top of the pie into 10-12 pieces or whatever size piece and slices you would like and then cut into them just until your through the first few layers of phyllo and then pour the remaining butter on top.
- Bake for 1½ hours or until golden brown and crispy
- When ready, remove from oven and immediately ladle the cooled syrup over the galaktoboureko.
- Allow to cool and then slice along the scored parts and serve. (See syrup notes above for more details and how to store it)