Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cooking: Greek Delights

During these difficult times, a reasonable person's thoughts might turn to comfort food.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that reason and I have a somewhat love/hate relationship, but, hey.

For some reason, I've been thinking lately of galatoboureko, a Greek dessert that I used to make long ago when I worked in the kitchen of a faux-Mediterranean restaurant. The dish, as most folks agree, is a type of custard made with semolina, mixed with eggs, and baked in phyllo pastry, then drenched in a syrup of some kind (think baklava). I decided to make some.

As long as I was going to make a Greek dessert, I thought, why not make a Greek main dish as well? I decided on pastitsio, mainly because I love it, but also because I wanted leftovers that might actually taste better the second night. My research revealed that there seems to be as many versions of this dish as there are Greek cooks, but they all pretty much involve ground meat cooked with onions, spices, and tomato, sometimes mixed with pasta and sometimes layered with it, with the whole thing topped with bechamel sauce before baking. I wanted to use lamb, so I looked for a recipe that called for that and sounded like something that would be tasty to eat.

First, the galatoboureko, though, because it needed to bake and cool before dinner. Here's the recipe I used.

serves 12

4 cups whole milk
3/4 cup organic raw sugar (use whatever granulated sugar you prefer)
3/4 cup semolina flour (fine ground)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
grated zest of 1/2 organic lemon
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of salt
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
10-12 phyllo pastry sheets (I used organic whole wheat ones)
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Mix the milk, 3/4 cup sugar, semolina, 1/4 butter, lemon zest, cinnamon stick and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat until thickened, stirring constantly. This will take a little while, but once the mixture approaches a boil, it will thicken quickly. Reduce heat and let mixture bubble gently for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and take out the cinnamon stick. Cover surface with a piece of parchment paper to prevent a skin from forming and let cool. When cool, blend in eggs and vanilla; set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13 x 9in baking dish. Place half of the phyllo sheets in the dish, one at a time, brushing generously with the melted butter. Pour in custard and smooth out. Top with remaining phyllo sheets, again brushing each with melted butter. You will need all of the melted butter if you are brushing enough on. Trim overhanging edges of phyllo sheets with scissors; this will make a big mess. Deal with it.

Score the top layers of phyllo with a sharp knife, dividing the pan into 12 portions. Bake for about 45 minutes, until pastry is golden brown and the custard is set when tested with a knife.

Remove from oven and let cool in the pan. Meanwhile, make the syrup.

1 cup organic raw sugar
3/4 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Combine the sugar and water and stir to dissolve. Bring to a boil, then add cinnamon stick and lemon juice; boil for 10 minutes. Cool syrup to lukewarm before straining it.

When the galatoboureko has cooled, pour all of the syrup over the top. Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow the syrup to be absorbed.

serves 5—6

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into 1/4in dice
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup dry red wine (I used white because that's what I had)
1/2 a 6oz can of tomato paste
1 dried bay leaf
1 cup water

In a large deep skillet or sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, and cook about 3 minutes. Add lamb, salt, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. Cook, breaking up lamb, until it is no longer pink. Add wine and cook until liquid almost evaporates, then stir in tomato paste, bay leaf and water. Cover, lower heat, and let simmer about 30 minutes, skimming fat from time to time if it forms. Remove from heat and set aside.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I used white)
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 small pinch cayenne pepper

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. When it bubbles, whisk in the flour and baking powder. Cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, then pour in milk while continuing to whisk. Continue cooking and whisking until the mixture bubbles and becomes thick. Remove pan from heat and whisk in the Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne. Set aside while the pasta cooks.

Unsalted butter, for baking dish
1/2 pound pasta (I used organic Italian conchiglie; penne works well also)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a medium-sized oval baking dish (or whatever shape you have—if you double this recipe, it fits into a 13 x 9in baker). Bring a large pot of water to boil, then add some salt. Add pasta and cook for 2-3 minutes less than the package directions indicate. It should be very al dente, because it's going to continue to cook in the oven. Drain the pasta and add it to the lamb mixture in the skillet; stir to combine, then pour into prepared baking dish.

Give the bechamel sauce a final stir, then pour it over the top. Bake until top is set and golden brown, about 30-40 minutes (watch it after 25 so it doesn't get too brown). I found I needed a rimmed baking sheet on the rack underneath because the bechamel became exuberant in the oven. Let the pastitsio rest for 1o minutes before serving.

Final scorecard: The pastitsio was delicious, with slightly exotic flavors coming from the cinnamon and nutmeg and a perfect meat/pasta ratio. The bechamel, as I knew because I took a rubber scraper to the pan before washing it, licking up each and every bit, was heavenly and added just enough creamy richness.

The galatoboureko was also fantastic, with hints of cinnamon and lemon and was eggy without being heavy. We had it with some fresh raspberries, which elevated the entire thing to sublime.

Best of all: leftovers!

No comments:

Post a Comment