Happy Birthday to Me!
Today was a turning point for me as I hit the big 4-0. To some of you it might sound like the dawning of old age, and to others you might be wishing you could go back to being 40. I’ll be honest, I don’t feel any different than I did when I turned 30. In fact, my mind still feels more like I’m 20.
In celebration of my birthday, I wanted to share with you a wonderful dessert I had first encountered here in Chicago at the famous Athena Restaurant in Greektown. Zuzana and I have been fans of kataifi (ka-ta-ee-fee) for a while. We generally know it as shredded phyllo rolled with chopped walnuts and soaked in a sweet syrup.
What we were served at Athena seemed much more elegant. A layer of kataifi topped with a layer of sweet custard, and then finished with whipped cream and nuts. I figured the chefs at Athena simply wanted to dress up the simple dessert, but it was when I went to another Greek restaurant in the suburbs that I found the same dessert termed as Ekmek Kataifi.
Believe it or not, both normal kataifi and ekmek kataifi owe their roots to Turkey. It’s another example of cuisine influenced by a past occupying power, in this case the late Ottoman Empire. Known more to Turks as a bread pudding topped with sweetened clotted cream, the Greeks modified it to make their own version using semolina flour, egg yolks, sugar, and milk. In all honesty, the custard portion is very similar to the custard made for bougatsa, which I’ll show you how to make another time.
Needless to say, we love ekmek kataifi and will make it whenever the occasion arises. It’s a light and cool dessert ideal for a hot summer treat. The tricky part of this will be to get your hands on kataifi dough, but if you have a source for phyllo, then chances are they’ll have kataifi sitting on those refrigerated shelves alongside it. The recipe itself isn’t difficult, but it will involve steps and time to cool the dessert, so I’d suggest making it the night before.
For the base:
- 1/2 cup of unsalted butter
- 1 package of kataifi dough
For the syrup:
- 3 cups of sugar
- 1 1/2 cups of water
- 1 tsp of cinnamon
- 4 tsp of lemon juice
For the custard:
- 7 egg yolks
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar
- 6 cups of whole milk
- 7 tbsp of semolina flour
- 2 tbsp of corn flour
- 1 tsp of vanilla extract
- Zest of one lemon
You'll also need:
- Whip cream
- 1 cup of shaved almonds
- Pre-heat your oven to 375°
- In a small saucepan, melt the butter to a liquid.
- In an 11 or 12-inch baking pan, brush some of the butter on the surface.
- Pull apart and spread the kataifi dough all over the bottom to form a layer roughly 1 inch in height (fluffy).
- Generously brush butter all over the top of the of the dough.
- Place the pan into the oven and toast the kataifi for 5-10 minutes until the dough becomes a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- In a saucepan, mix the sugar with the water and cinnamon over medium heat. Stir continuously until it liquifies and thickens into a fine syrup.
- Remove the syrup from the heat and add in the lemon juice.
- Pour the syrup all over the toasted kataifi dough. Let it all soak up.
- Sprinkle 3/4 of the shaved almonds on top of the kataifi.
- Clean your saucepan (if it's your only one) and then add in the custard sugar with the egg yolks. Beat them with a whisk until mixed. Do not place it on any heat yet.
- Stir in the milk.
- While continuously beating with the whisk, slowly add in the semolina flour and the corn flour.
- Continue to stir with the whisk until all ingredients are incorporated.
- Place the pan on medium heat, and cook this custard until it thickens to a hot cereal consistency. Be sure to stir continuously with the whisk so it will not burn.
- Remove the custard from the heat and mix in the vanilla and lemon zest.
- Pour the finished custard over the toasted kataifi and spread it around with a butter knife or spatula.
- Place the custard-topped kataifi into the refrigerator for at least four hours. Overnight is better.
- Before serving, spread a layer of whip cream over the custard and sprinkle the last of the almonds on top.
It's important to watch things you have on the heat as you cook them. With the syrup or the custard later, you do not want to burn either. If you accidentally do, don't worry. Your syrup might end up thicker and more carmelized, or your custard might get a grayer tone. It's up to you if you want to use it or try again.
Be sure to give ample time to chill the dessert. You want it to slice nicely and be a cool, refreshing sweet treat.
Pistachios are a potential idea as opposed to the almonds. You could also use chopped walnuts.
If you cannot find kataifi anywhere in your neck of the woods, then I've read you could use a base made of a walnut or almond cake. If you only have phyllo you could "bastardize" it by ripping it up into smaller pieces. and forming layers...or slicing it very thin.