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For festival, Greek community rolls out sweet tradition


In the Greek dessert family, galaktoboureko is like baklava's little brother: lighter and lesser known, but still prized for its combination of soft custard and crisp phyllo.

Served in squares or rolls, galaktoboureko (pronounced ga-LA-to-BOUR-eko) is also much trickier to say. Though not well-known outside the Greek community, it is a dessert staple within it. And unlike baklava, it has no nuts.

"Baklava is traditional and nice, but it's also a heavier dessert -- a lot more sweet," said Nora Kefalas, who will share with the public more than 700 of the rolled galaktoboureko she helped make at this weekend's St. Nicholas Greek Folk Festival. "You can have two or three of these and still be comfortable. With baklava, you have one piece. It's heavy. It's very sweet."

Through her own version of galaktoboureko, Kefalas continues the Greek cooking traditions she grew up with. "That's the time you get to showcase your culture, your beliefs -- just show everybody what you're about," Kefalas said.

The flavors and scents of the festival remind Kefalas of her childhood. The 49-year-old lives near Carney now, but as a child on Macon Street in Highlandtown, she learned to speak Greek as a matter of course. Her grandparents spoke little, if any, English. She also joined the church at an early age. St. Nicholas was, and still is, a hub for the nearby Greek community, she said.

She remembers her mother making galaktoboureko. It's a food steeped in Greek history. As far back as ancient times, a barley pudding sweetened with honey was consumed -- much like galaktoboureko's filling, said Susanna Hoffman, author of The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking. The Byzantines were the first to make phyllo dough, she said.

The word galaktoboureko is a combination of two words: galakto, the Greek word for milk (we still say "galaxy" to identify the Milky Way), and boureko, the Turkish word for something stuffed in phyllo, Hoffman said.

Members of the St. Nicholas congregation started serving galaktoboureko at the festival's first incarnation more than 50 years ago, Kefalas said. She's been helping for almost 15 years.

It usually takes about 10 women to prepare the hundreds of cigar-shaped galaktoboureko rolls for the festival. Weeks before the event, Kefalas and others meet at the church in the morning and make the custard, which takes more than two hours.

"The church is what brought everybody together," Kefalas said. "We're all like a family down there. It's like home."

On the stove, the mixture of milk, butter and sugar needs plenty of stirring to keep it from burning. Demonstrating in her kitchen, Kefalas makes it seem effortless.

Then come the lemon extract, rind and farina, followed by the beaten eggs and vanilla, added slowly. The lemon helps cut back the smell of the eggs she'll mix in later (she always thought her mother and grandmother made it too eggy). This is the easy part.

When the large batch of custard is finished, a second group of women arrives to roll up the filling in phyllo dough. They butter the thin, flaky dough sheets with a brush, spread them out, pour a line of custard in the middle, roll it all into neat little cylinders and freeze them.

The syrup, made of lemon juice, water, sugar and cinnamon, is readied closer to festival weekend because it doesn't keep as long, she said.

In the morning of each festival day, the women will bake the rolls, drizzle on the syrup and sprinkle some cinnamon on top. Each roll costs $1.50 and comes in a small wrapper.

Kefalas said galaktoboureko is the second-most popular dessert at the festival. People come asking for it, calling it "that custard-filled dessert," because they can't wrap their tongues around the name, she said.

At home, Kefalas makes Greek food nearly every day, and desserts like galaktoboureko on special occasions. Her daughter Filio, 24, has helped with the rolling before, she said.

"We try to keep the traditions and cultures continued so it's passed down," Kefalas said.

Coming next Wednesday: The African-American Heritage Festival offers a taste of fried catfish.


Serves 16

This recipe for galaktoboureko squares comes from Nora Kefalas, who says any leftovers should be refrigerated uncovered to maintain crispness. Syrup may be made ahead and stored in a refrigerator for up to three weeks. Galaktoboureko also can be made into baked rolls of custard-filled phyllo dough.


4 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 cups milk

2 tablespoons unsalted sweet butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

rind of 1/2 lemon

1 cup semolina or farina


1 tablespoon squeezed lemon juice

1 cup water

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 whole cinnamon stick


1 pound phyllo dough

1 1/2 cups melted butter-flavored Crisco for brushing phyllo

cinnamon to sprinkle on top

honey (optional)

For the custard: In a small bowl, beat the eggs with vanilla extract and set aside. Then, in a pot, add milk, butter and sugar, using a wire whisk. Stir and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and add lemon extract and lemon rind. While continuing to stir with whisk, slowly add farina. Continue to cook and stir until mixture thickens (about 3 to 5 minutes). Remove from stove and mix in the beaten eggs. Let cool for about 10 minutes.

To make syrup: Place all ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil and let cook for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and remove cinnamon stick.

Spread half the phyllo sheets on the bottom of an 11-inch-by-15-inch pan, leaving some hanging over the edges. Coat each sheet with melted Crisco. Then pour the custard in the pan, fold over the sheets and continue to coat with Crisco and layer the remaining sheets. Make several slits on top layer - not cutting to the bottom.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes and then, with a ladle, pour syrup on top. Sprinkle with cinnamon. (If your custard is warm, your syrup must be cold.) Cut into squares and serve warm or cold. If desired, you may also drizzle honey on top.

Per serving (square version): 515 calories, 8 grams protein, 25 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 65 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 64 milligrams cholesterol, 200 milligrams sodium

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