Treats in Thessaloniki
When most travelers think of Greece, they usually focus on its capital city of Athens and the many islands dotting the Mediterranean. They tend to forget about the smaller locales up to the north. It is a shame, as there is much more to this beautiful country than just those two factors.
For me, no visit to Greece is complete unless I stop in the gorgeous port city of Thessaloniki. It’s Greece’s second-largest municipality, more known for its history as the capital of the Macedonian region.
Thessaloniki to me has been more a love affair. Back in 2006 I had gone to Greece for the first time as an adult. My visits to Athens and Patras were nice, but I felt the cities were lacking in that “European beauty” I had longed to see. I was blown away when I stopped in Thessaloniki. It was just gorgeous, everything I had imagined a European city looking like. The buildings, statues, coast, and especially outdoor cafes made for some lifelong memories.
If you happen to be in this scenic port, definitely partake in the cafe culture. The centrally-located Aristotelous Square is the ideal scenic hangout lined with gorgeous cafes offering lush outdoor seating. I swear you go here and you’ll never want to leave. While the perfect drink is the Greek frappé, the ideal treat to complement is bougatsa (“boo-gats-ah”).
Bougatsa is a pastry with a rich history in Northern Greece. While some schools of thought treat bougatsa as a variety of sweet and savory pies, in modern days we only know it as a sweet custard surrounded with flaky layers of phyllo, topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
The pastry dates back to the 15th century Byzantine Empire, as the practice of phyllo-based pies was being cultivated. Even when the Ottomans took over, the culinary tradition survived, even finding love by Greece's new rulers. When Greece finally gained its independence in the 20th century, bougatsa remained popular in the north, especially in cities like Serres and Thessaloniki.
What I found interesting is how many Greeks treat bougatsa as a breakfast item. It surprised me mainly because of how sweet this treat is. I usually assumed many Greeks kept it more savory or simple in the morning. Maybe those Greeks eat a variety of the pastry as opposed to the one I'm going to show you today.
While bougatsa is more known as a warm treat ideal for the summer, I'll actually make them at Christmastime. Not an actual custom, but it was nice to surprise my family with them. If you have ever made Galaktobouerko ("gah-la-to-boor-e-ko"), then this process will feel familiar, only you're not dousing the final pastry in syrup. Give this a try either for a holiday treat or a summertime indulgence.
- 1 1/2 cups of semolina
- 1 1/2 cups of sugar
- 3 eggs
- 6 cups of milk
- Zest of one lemon
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
- 1 box of #4 phyllo
- Powdered sugar
- Ground cinnamon
Making the filling
- In a medium saucepan, whisk together the semolina with the eggs and sugar.
- Add in the milk.
- Place the pan on the stove over medium-high heat.
- Using your whisk, continuously stir the mixture until it thickens to a consistency similar to Cream of Wheat (porridge) cereal.
- Mix in the lemon zest, then remove the pan from the stove when the zest is dissolved.
- Leave the filling aside to cool down to a manageable temperature.
Folding the pies
Before you begin, melt the butter down to a liquid, and keep it close with a brush.
You’re not obligated to fold the pies like this, but this is how we do it at home. Be sure to brush the phyllo with butter before laying in filling and then after you fold them. This will help make a nice crispy crust:
- Pre-heat oven to 350º.
- Bake the pies for twenty minutes, or until pastry is golden brown
- Cool slightly, then top with powdered sugar and cinnamon
The easiest mistake you can make in bougatsa is to not continuously stir the filling in the initial run, thus you burn the sugar and make your filling a light gray as opposed to its yellowish tone. If you happen to do this, don't worry. I did this my first time and the pies still tasted perfect.
When working with phyllo, its important to keep things slightly moist. You can’t let phyllo sit for too long because it will dry up and become brittle. The best way to keep it moist is to lay it on the table, then place a layer of plastic wrap over it, then a layer of damp cloth or damp paper towels. Keep the phyllo you’re not using covered until you need it.
How you want to fold/prepare the final pie is up to you. I personally like to wrap them up into individual servings the way I do spanakopita. An easier method would be to butter a large tart pan or pie pan, lay in a few layers of phyllo, pour in the filling, then cover with more phyllo and brush with butter. You'll cut it into slices when serving. You could even go a long form similar to a strudel. There is no right or wrong, but I would not load up too high on filling, or else the pie will fall apart.
Bougatsa is best served warm. Usually I'll wait on baking the pies until the day I plan on serving them. If you have leftovers, then you can heat them up in the oven (or a toaster oven). I'd also suggest not sprinking them with powdered sugar and cinnamon until you're ready to serve them. A good cup of coffee is the ideal beverage to accompany bougatsa.