The Dessert That Dare Not Speak Its Name

IMG_4129The dessert in question is called Galaktoboureko and, to be more precise in my titles, it isn’t so much that it dare not but rather cannot speak its name because it is a pastry and therefore does not possess the capability of speech.

Galaktoboureko” also happens to be one of the most challenging words for my restaurant guests to pronounce and the one I love to watch them struggle with the most. Some people call it “galactic burrito” because of its shape and the basic sound of the word. Others more cheekily ask for a “galactic booty call” for reasons I imagine are too personal to ask. But most people just point at the menu and ask for “the custard one with the really long name.”

Galaktoboureko also happens to be my favorite item on our dessert menu. As something which must be eaten on the day it is made, any remaining pieces of this custardy pastry are left out at the end of the night for the staff to devour– usually cold and sometimes beginning to limp and seep. I’ll gladly eat them at any temperature or state of turgidity.

For our guests, galaktoboureko is formed into what is essentially the shape of an egg roll, served warm, two on a plate, with crème fraîche ice cream and a seasonal spoon sweet.  It is a remarkable combination but over the years I’ve become so accustomed to shoveling them into my mouth unadorned that it’s hard for me to think of them served any other way but plain.

I have no idea why I decided to make galaktoboureko at home, given the fact it’s always available to me at work and prepared by people who make them on a daily basis and therefore much better than I do. But the more I thought about making them over the weekend, the more I realized how much I have taken them for granted. They have been an accepted part of my life for longer than I care to remember, but know that one day they won’t be. And that thought made me take pause and consider the other things in my life I might assume would always be there.

I talked to both of my parents over the weekend and found myself missing more than I normally do. Each conversation was longer than usual, which made me happy, but I couldn’t help prevent an acute sadness from seeping in. They’re both essentially fine, but they’re also both in their 80s. I couldn’t help but ask myself if, like the galaktoboureko, I’ve taken them for granted, too.

And the answer was: of course I have. What child hasn’t? I have the bad habit of wanting to believe that all the important things which have been with me since the beginning will be with me forever. But all good things eventually come to an end: relationships, The Dick Cavett Show, decent airline customer service, careers. If you can think of it, it will more than likely disappear sooner or later, whether you want it to or not.

If someone you love, whether it be a grandmother or father or spouse– anyone really– has a recipe they are famous for, or at the very least, one you strongly associate with them, learn it from them now if they’ll let you. Find an excuse to get together and cook. When they are no longer in your life, you can make these things for yourself and feel their presence.

You may find it strange that my premature nostalgia has found me making something from my workplace, but I don’t. After the many years I’ve spent there, it’s become something like a home to me, inhabited by something very much like a family. Dysfunctional at times like any family, but a family just the same. And like any home and family, child that I am, I will leave it someday.

So I figure I’d better start learning to prepare some of these things on my own because I won’t have mommy or daddy or a team of pastry cooks to make them for me forever. And, for lack of a better idea, learning to make galaktoboureko seems like as good a place as any to start. It’s a word I’m much more comfortable pronouncing than the word “goodbye.”




Traditionally, you would find this dessert prepared deep-dish style, with layers of phyllo on the bottom and top and as much semolina custard as you can cram between. But I happen to like the elegance and portability of the rolled version. It is the way I was introduced to the dessert and it’s one thing I prefer not to change.

I also respect galaktoboureko‘s ephemeral qualities. Phyllo dough envelops and protects the custard during baking, but it is fragile. It tears and shatters easily and loses its crispness within hours. It must be eaten the day it is made.

Makes 12 to 16 “galactic burritos”, depending upon how much custard you decide to cram into them. 


For the custard:

• 1 cup whole milk
• 1 cup half and half (you may also use heavy cream, if you like)
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or 1 eviscerated vanilla bean)
• 1/4 cup semolina flour*
• 1 large egg
• A heavy pinch of salt

For the pastry:

• 12 sheets of frozen phyllo dough, thawed
• 1/2 cup clarified butter
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
• 1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
• 1 teaspoon orange flower water


1. Thaw your phyllo in your refrigerator overnight

2.  In a small saucepan, combine milk, half and half,  1/4 cup of sugar, and if you’re using vanilla bean, add it now, scraping the seeds into the milk. Bring to a simmer and make certain the sugar is dissolved.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together the other 1/4 cup of sugar, semolina flours, egg, and salt until it is a uniform mush. Whisk about half of the hot milk into the semolina mixture to temper it, making certain to keep up the motion to prevent curdling. Return this mixture to the milk remaining in the pan, bring to a boil and whisk constantly until the custard is smooth and thick and therefore custardy. When it bubbles like molten lava or those delightful mud pots at Yellowstone National Park, remove it from the heat, place into an awaiting bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap to avoid the creation of a top skin, and let cool.

IMG_41264. To assemble the galaktoboureko, place 1 sheet of phyllo on a large clean work surface with the short side facing your (hopefully) apron-covered crotch. keep the remaining phyllo under plastic wrap covered with a lightly dampened towel to prevent them from drying out. Brush the phyllo with the clarified butter (which I assume you have melted and are not attempting to brush said phyllo with hardened, cold clarified butter), brushing from the center of the sheet toward the edges. Top with two more sheets, brushing each with butter in exactly the same way. Cut the layers of phyllo in half vertically and horizontally to make 4 rectangles.

5. Place the cooled custard into a pastry bag fitted with a plain 1/2-inch tip (or simply dump it into a large freezer bag and cut the correct amount off one of the corners to improvise– it works like a charm). Pipe at least 2 tablespoons of the delicious goo in a more or less straight line parallel to the short side near your nether-regions, leaving a 1 inch border along the sides and top of the phyllo. Fold the short side of the phyllo over the filling, tucking it under the filling, then fold in about 1 inch along each side of the longer sides. In other words, pretend you are making a burrito. Continue rolling until you have a log that is about 4 1/2 inches long. Repeat with the other three awaiting phyllo rectangles. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet and repeat until you have used up all of your custard. Or all of your phyllo. Or until you get tired of doing this. Whichever comes first. Cover the baking sheet and refrigerate until well chilled.

6. To make the syrup, unceremoniously dump the 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon of water, the lemon juice, and orange zest into a small saucepan. Swirl over medium heat until it seems appropriately glaze-like. Let cool and add orange flower water.

7. Pre-heat your oven to 500° F. Pierce each log with the tip of a paring knife in 4 strategic places to allow steam to vent during baking. Otherwise, you will experience undramatic but rather upsetting galactic explosions inside your oven. Bake until golden brown. Start watching them like a hawk after 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately glaze they pastries with syrup while they’re hot.

8. Serve them warm to people you’d prefer not to take for granted, or learn nothing from this exercise and let them stay out all night untouched. Just don’t expect someone else to make them for you the next day.

*Thank you Tony, Memo, and Harry for your kind donations of semolina and orange flower water.

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About Michael Procopio

I write about food and am very fond of Edward Gorey. And gin.
This entry was posted in Sweets and the Like. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Dessert That Dare Not Speak Its Name

  1. Mimi says:

    The dick cavett show?!! Wow. You’re definitely dating yourself!
    Great post, as usual. Great dessert!

  2. Fatemeh says:

    Galaktoboureko: the Socratic cannoli.

  3. “It’s a word I’m much more comfortable pronouncing than the word “goodbye.””

    Beautiful line.

  4. Chris Bryant says:

    Little know facts. Boris & Natasha were famous for their galaktoboureko. Natasha could no longer bear to make it when Boris passed. And galaktoboureko is the only dessert the kitchen serves on the Battlestar Galactica.

    I grew up in the south largely fed by Greeks. My mother didn’t cook much. In Charlotte, Greeks mostly came bearing Italian entrees with salad & garlic bread, or meats with three vegetables. I learned that when galaktoboureko was on the menu it was a special day. Hold onto that baklava, Yiayia is in the kitchen today. I came to love it, possible even more than Boris Badenov.

    I had no idea it’s so simple to make.

  5. Peter Knudsvig says:

    I read with interest your philosophic, filial and phyllo (groan!) attachment to Galaktoboureko. I married into a greek family for a time, together with all the culture that comes with it, back in that part of my youth when nearly all my appetites were well beyond control. The name, Galaktoboureko does not ring a bell (though it does ring my bell, it is almost onomatopoetic-I can hear the phyllo cracking as you eat it), but I am certain I ate a version of it lovingly and carefully prepared by my former wife’s mother. You are oh, so right about emotional attachments through eating, food was one of the most precious things shared in my family when I was growing up. As the old saying goes, “A fish does not know what water is because it is in it all the time”. My own mother prepared german and norwegian ethnic dishes with the same love and attention, to say nothing of skill as my wife’s mother. I took it all for granted because I was in it all the time.

    Though I am a musician by vocation, my domestic passion over the years has slowly become cooking. Who would have thought, certainly I didn’t think about it at the time, nor even, when the cooking bug slowly began to infect my body. Both aforementioned mothers have passed on, so I cannot verify this, but somehow, I believe they knew what they were doing concerning our cultural legacies with them through food and cooking. Not once did either ever say, “Why don’t you try making this dish if you like it so?” I did get a few recipes from both of them over the years, but these were my own solicitation, not theirs. And so, if my emotional attachment to these strong mother figures exists, it has come totally by example, not from instruction. Food and sharing good food can (and usually is) an expression of love and affection. And though I play for pay, I have never cooked for pay and can imagine it to be a potentially precarious and love threatening act, at least over time. All the more reason why I admire great chefs who have kept their passion for cooking ahead of their pocketbook. This recipe looks like a lot of work, especially for a first class cooking private as I am, but I might just try it. Thanks for sharing (and connecting) your world with us.
    Peter K.

    • Peter,

      Thank you for your wonderful, thoughtful comment.

      I have a sneaking suspicion that no one (especially mothers and mothers-in-law) ever says “Why don’t you try making it the dish if you like it so?” because the dish in question os often so closely associated with them and in making it, they are giving a part of themselves to those for whom they make it. To pass the recipe on may not even cross their minds. It is both wonderfully selfish and selfless at the same time.

      I could be totally wrong, but it’s my hunch.

      • How very kind of you to take the time to respond to my post. I think your hunch might be right, they knew when (and what) they were giving to us, but not that they were giving in the same way a dog knows when it is hungry but not that it is hungry. “Uhr Alt” instincts, at least for them. Pondering that for even just a moment, begs the question, what exactly would have been the food dance between them and THEIR parents? Some of us, who knew our grandmothers may have a better sense of the answer to that question, I can certainly remember the food connection between my mother and her mother-in-law (the only grandma I ever knew), it bordered on sacred. One might even say, it was the one thing they could share totally and saw eye to eye. But again, I never asked my mother specifically about that, either. I guess there are quite a few questions I didn’t think of asking her in all the years we were on this earth together. Thanks again for making your blog more than just a recipe stop shop.

  6. Ana Brown says:

    Jason used to call them “Tasty Cigars” when I used to bring the old ones home for him after service 🙂

  7. Adri says:

    I think I must make your Galactic Burritos. They sound, well, heavenly. What a very sweet post, literally and figuratively. I can certainly understand how you would want to learn something from your workplace. Our coworkers really do feel like family. What a compliment to them that you want to learn how to make their specialties.

    About those treasured family recipes themselves, how I wish I had learned a few more from my grandmothers. When those lovely women left this earth, they took many of their specialties with them, so I second your exhortation that people get the goods while the getting is good.

    And by the way, I certainly do miss the Dick Cavett show. My brother Guy and I would sit on the couch and just have a great time watching. Maybe it’s just that I was younger and things were simpler. Maybe it was knowing that I was “staying up late.” From interviews with Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Margot Fonteyn to listening to Grace Bumbrey and Shirley Verrett sing “The Letter Duet” from Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”, there were endless hours of entertainment and brilliant conversation with Mr. Cavett.

  8. Sally Calvin says:

    Just found your recipe on Pinterest…You are an amazing writer and apparently an extremely talented chef. I write as well, did some time at Le Cordon Bleu/London, produce farmer/gourmet food business. I hope will read all of your back postings and hope by providing my email you will send me your updates…WOW! I do so love people that tell it like it is. And, I am off to make Galactic Burritos…oh yeah!

    • Dear Sally,

      What a lovely comment to find on my blog this morning. Thanks you very much. I haven’t felt like an amazing writer as of late, so this bit of encouragement is wonderfully motivating.

      I hope your Galactic Burritos turned out beautifully. Having done time at Le Cordon Bleu in London, I’ll bet they were a cinch for you.



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