When I make this traditional Greek custard pie with syrup it’s a unique moment. Because this dessert conquers your heart, your palate, your soul and never ever let you down. A fine, delicate, light and outrageously creamy custard wrapped up by layers of thin, extra crunchy phyllo bathed in delicious, succulent syrup. Crazy, right? Ladies and gentlemen, meet the famous galaktoboureko! Once you taste it, you ask for the whole pan. Not kidding at all! I am going to show you how easy and fun it is to prepare this amazing sweet deliciousness from scratch.
There is a really interesting Greek proverb that goes like this: “Να τρώει η μάνα και του παιδιού να μην δίνει” meaning in free translation “The mother is eating without sharing (the food) with her child”. Got it? When something is that delicious you don’t want to share it even with your own child. Believe me, this custard pie is so tempting that sharing will be a huge challenge.
On the other hand, maybe I am totally wrong. Maybe you enjoy watching your loved ones to devour your culinary masterpiece. Maybe this pie will be the talk of the week (or month or year) of your friend and family entourage, maybe they are going to beg you for the recipe and you will be proud as punch. Maybe your family constantly asks for that Greek sweet pastry with the long, funny name (“Galactica something, I cannot remember”). Just saying. Either way, pat yourself on the back because you own it and you nailed it!
GREEK CUSTARD PIE: THE TRADITION
Not really interested in Greek tradition? No problem ….. Jump to Recipe
The word galaktoboureko takes us back to the time when Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Even though this period of four centuries of occupation wasn’t a pleasant joyride for Greek people, the Ottoman cuisine has influenced in several ways the Byzantine-Greek cuisine and vice versa. The Greek civilization with ancient culinary techniques added more value to the delicious exotic eastern cuisine and this reciprocal influence resulted in the amazing dishes and desserts we are all craving about today.
Personally, I don’t participate in debates about a recipe’s origin. In fact, these debates remind me of kindergarten fights that go like “it’s mine! No, it’s mine, mine, mine…”. So meaningless and boring! It’s totally useless to declare the authenticity of a dish especially in a geographic area like Greece that has been the crossroad of so many civilizations for centuries. How delightful that some of them have left their culinary trace in my country’s national cuisine! So many amazing recipes to show to you and more tasteful food on our table, people!
The Greek custard pie is traditionally (but not exclusively) consumed the last day of the carnival. The following day the Great Lent begins, meaning 40 days of fasting (no meat, backboned fish and animal products) until Easter. Nevertheless, we love this dessert so much that we serve it all year long and it’s the moment everyone anticipates. GALAKTOBOUREKO IS COMING!
Boil sugar, water, cinnamon and one squeezed lemon without its juice. You’ve heard right. Squeeze lightly a lemon, keep its juice for other use because all we want is to add the squeezed lemon into the water-sugar mixture to boil. Squeezed lemon. Crazy, I know. It’s a brilliant tip because the squeezed lemon is going to give a higher amount of limonene meaning even more lemony flavor from the usual lemon zest. Perfect.
The biggest tip when making the syrup is that once the mixture boils, DON’T STIR. Like at all. Don’t even shake it. Otherwise, it is going to form crystals and you really need a runny, smooth syrup to bathe the custard. Ok?
THE SEMOLINA CUSTARD
This custard is not only delicious but this divine smell of cream, lemon and cinnamon will take over your house and your neighborhood. Love it every single time. The kids are going crazy waiting with their tablespoons to taste it and lick the pot clean. Nailed it every single time because to tell you the truth, it is an almost failure-free custard.
Have you noticed the word “almost”? Because if you don’t follow my instructions you may end up with scrambled eggs on a semolina-sugar mixture. Yes. It’s the eggs. You have to be slightly careful about them in this recipe. Nothing too tricky but still it is important to know. Additionally, you should not overboil the milk-semolina mixture because the custard will be thick like cement and you will be put the blame on the poor blogger. Not fair!
Follow the procedure for the best light and flavorful custard cream.
As soon as you pour the egg-sugar-semolina mixture into the warm milk, stir gently but constantly until small bubbles form around the edges. This may take up to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat when the custard looks like this.
The final step is to melt butter over the custard in order to prevent it from crusting.
Finally, make sure that the custard is cool enough to cover the bottom layer sheets. Otherwise, the pastry phyllo will melt down.
Yiayiades (in Greek = cute, kind, super amazing old ladies including your grandma) used to say that galaktoboureko’s phyllo should be so thin that you can read a newspaper through it. Oh my! Who has the skills, the time and the patience to make thin phyllo pastry from scratch? Maybe those who own a pasta machine have better chances to produce thin phyllo sheets otherwise it may be an absolute nightmare. I really enjoy making my own homemade phyllo for spinach pie and other savory pies because the phyllo is usually thicker for savory recipes but Greek sweet pastry calls for the finest phyllo you can find or make. So, instead of losing my time with dubious and time-consuming results, I purchase a store-bought phyllo pastry with the best ingredients I can find.
Even the pre-packaged phyllo dough can be tricky and you need some tips for purchasing and working with such a delicate product:
Purchase the best quality fresh phyllo pastry
Fresh is the best one but if this is not an option for you, you may use frozen as well. The phyllo’s quality is primarily determined by the ingredients and the texture. That being said, the perfect phyllo pastry should contain flour, water, olive oil, vinegar. No vegetable oil or preservatives, additives of any kind, if possible. Prefer a Greek or a Middle East grocery near you over a name brand supermarket fare.
Defrost the phyllo
In case you use frozen phyllo, remove it from the freezer, place it in the refrigerator in its package. No reason to open it yet. DON’T THAW AT ROOM TEMPERATURE. You are going to have gummy phyllo sheets. A disaster. It takes almost 24 hours to thaw completely so you have to be proactive and just move it from the freezer to the fridge.
No moisture at all
You need dry hands and working surface.
Bring to room temperature before using it
One hour before using the phyllo dough (either the fresh or the thawed one), take it out from the fridge and give it the time to adjust to the temperature it is going to face.
Cover it to keep it from cracking
Once you open the packaging, keep the unused sheets covered with a damp cloth (I said damp, not wet) while you are working with it. This fine phyllo is drying out too fast and you need to take your time and have all the fun with the layering. A successful dessert is the product of love and those thin pastry sheets need all your affection and gentle handling.
Brush all sheets with butter
In order to get crispy phyllo, every single phyllo sheet needs butter. Oh, come on! It‘s not that you eat desserts like this every day. Not if you follow the Mediterranean way of eating because this way of eating is all about balance. So, when it is time for a dessert it is going to be epic, sugar and butter included!
Use a soft wide pastry brush (about 2 inches – 5cm). This size is better and it will allow you to work faster.
Oops! Is your phyllo sheet cracked?
No problem. 12 phyllo sheets are more than enough to cover any flaws on the sheets. However, you need to be more careful with the outer layer but it isn’t the end of the world if it is damaged. Your Greek custard pie will be delicious and spectacular no matter what!
ASSEMBLE YOUR GREEK CUSTARD PIE LIKE A PRO
Is the syrup cool and smooth? Checked
Is the semolina custard cool and thicken to perfection? Checked
Is the phyllo pastry thawed and in-room temperature? Checked
Is the melted butter…melted (lol)? Checked
Get your gears rolling, guys! You are about to rock the famous galaktoboureko.
Layer the bottom of the pan with about half of the phyllo (7 sheets recommended) and brush each layer with melted butter.
Place the pan in the fridge and allow it to cool a little bit. That’s how you will score easily the top of the pie. Use a knife and score lightly only the top phyllo layers NOT THE BOTTOM LAYER. Additionally, just before baking sprinkle some water (I repeat sprinkle only) on top and that’s how the top sheet will keep its form and not crumble. Your custard pie will be baked perfectly, and it will be so much easier to cut once baked. The top will be crunchy and perfectly layered.
Remove the pie from the oven and using a big spoon or a small ladle pour the cool syrup evenly and really slowly over the entire pie.
Finally, allow the pie to sit for at least 1 hour before serving so that the syrup is absorbed (sorry, this golden syrup takes its time to be absorbed). Serve warm and store leftover pie in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Final assessment. Do you want to know when a Greek custard pie is well executed? When the syrup has (almost) absorbed. This is the moment you know you nailed it! It should look like in the photo below.
HOW TO PREP YOUR GREEK CUSTARD PIE
Even though it is really easy to make a galaktoboureko, it takes some time and it is absolutely worth every single minute! Consequently, I would suggest being proactive, make your life easier, and prep a little.
Let’s say you want to serve it to a dinner with friends, family, or at a potluck the following day. Great. You may proceed in two ways: halfway and all the way.
Prep your custard pie halfway
Start by placing the frozen phyllo (if frozen) in the refrigerator the day before. Then prepare the syrup, cover the pot and forget it. Don’t touch it. Don’t even shake it. No fridge. Just forget about it somewhere in the kitchen. Meanwhile, you prepare the semolina custard. Cover the pot and forget it too. If it is winter, I don’t place the pot in the fridge but during hot summer days, it’s a risk I don’t want to take. The following day layer the phyllo sheets pour in the semolina custard and bake it. Finally, the syrup bath and done!
Prep your custard pie all the way
It is absolutely fine to make your custard pie ahead of time and keep it in the fridge overnight. I have already tested and if you follow my instructions, it won’t get soggy. In fact, I have the impression that it is even tastier that way. Nevertheless, assemble all your custard pie, cover it and place it in the fridge until the convenient baking time. When ready, just pour the cool syrup while the custard pie is hot. Got it? Easy and fuss-free procedure.
ΜY GREEK CUSTARD PIE IS READY! NOW, WHAT?
Wait until cool down, grab the pan and run like hell! Hide and eat it all by yourself! LOL.
Seriously now. Once you pour the syrup you have to wait at least one hour. I know it’s hard but you have to let the syrup do its thing: to get absorbed. Then you are good to go.
This custard pie is highly recommended to serve HOT. The custard is smoother and so soothing and the combination with the syrup takes you to another level of pleasure. Nevertheless, my hubby likes it, even more, the following day. The syrup is completely absorbed and it enhances the flavor. Personally, I like my custard smooth and my phyllo extra crunchy. Sadly enough once you place it in the fridge the custard gets firm and the phyllo soggy but it remains delicious and pleasing.
This recipe doesn’t come from my family cookbook. It’s from an outstanding Greek chef, an amazing woman called Argiro Barbarigou. Τhis recipe was so perfect that it had overshadowed my family’s recipe forever. Thank you so much, Argiro.
Greek Custard Pie
For the syrup
- 3½ cups (700g) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (500ml) water
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 lemon, squeezed (not the juice. Keep the juice for future use)
For the phyllo pastry
- 1 package phyllo pastry, 12 sheets
- 1 cup (240g) butter, melted, at room temperature
For the custard cream
- 8 cups (2 liters) whole milk, fresh
- 1 cup (200g) fine semolina
- 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
- 4 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 lemon zest
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ cup (60g) butter, cold
Prepare the syrup
- In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, water, cinnamon stick and the squeezed lemon (not the juice. Keep the juice for other use) to a boil. Don’t stir it. Simmer over low heat for 6-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and disregard the squeezed lemon. Cover the pot and set aside.
Prepare the custard
- Keep one cup (250ml) of milk and ½ cup (100g) sugar aside. In a large heavy-bottomed pot heat the remaining milk and sugar along with thezest, the vanilla extract and the cinnamon stick over medium heat.
- In a small bowl using a hand mixer (or in a stand mixer) beat the eggs and the egg yolks for about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ½ cup(100g) sugar and beat until it dissolves. Make sure the sugar is dissolved by rubbing a small amount of mixture in between your fingers. Add the semolina gradually and beat until combined. Finally add the remaining 1 cup (250ml) milk and beat for 2-3 minutes.
- Using a small ladle take some of the warm milk and add it to the egg-sugar-semolina mixture while stirring gently. Repeat until the mixture’s temperature slightly rises. Pour the egg-sugar-semolina mixture into the warm milk and stir gently but constantly until small bubbles form around the edges. This may take up to 15 minutes or so. Remove from the heat.
- Disregard the cinnamon stick. Using a fork or knife melt the cold butter over the surface of the custard. Don’t emerge the butter into the custard. Just brush gently and evenly all over the top with the butter and let the heat melt it. Your purpose is to create a buttered layer and keep the custard’s surface from crusting. Let it aside to cool. When you will be ready to pour thescustard in the baking pan, you will stir well to incorporate the butter intosthe mixture.
Prepare the phyllo
- Melt the butter. Don’t burn it. Let it aside to cool at roomtemperature.
- Follow the instructions in the post above and find out how to handle frozen and fresh phyllo pastry.
- Grease a 13 to 15-inch (35cm to 38cm) round baking dish/pan or a 15x11-inch (38×28 cm) rectangular. Layer the bottom of the pan with thefirst phyllo sheet and lightly press the sheet into the sides and corner andlet the edges hang over the top. Brush it with the melted butter. Place thesecond sheet crossways and brush it with butter as well. Repeat for another 5sheets. We need totally 7 sheets for the bottom, placed crossways and brushedwith melted butter. Don’t worry about the overhanging phyllo because you willfold it over to cover the pie.
- Pour the cool custard over the bottom sheets and spread to the sides. Fold the pastry inwards over the custard. Layer 5 more phyllo sheets on top of the custard as you did the bottom, continuing to brush melted butter between layers. Don’t forget to brush the sides and the overhanging parts too. Using a knife cut the excessive overhanging phyllo. Roll the edges down using your pastry brush to push them underneath the pan. Liberally brush the top and the edge with the rest of the butter.
- Score the top of the pie into pieces. Cut only the top sheets and don’t touch the bottom at all.
- Sprinkle with water and bake at 356°F (180°C) on the bottom rack for about 1 hour, until golden. Remove the pie from the oven and using a big spoon or a small ladle pour the cool syrup evenly and really slowly overthe entire pie*.
- Allow the pie to sit for at least 1 hour before serving so that the syrup is absorbed. Serve warm and store leftover pie in the refrigeratorfor up to 5 days.