Think Greek pastry is all just nuts and honey? Think again. There’s a lot more to the Greek pastry plate than meets the eye. In fact, there’s really very little honey in it.
Most of the pastry is drenched in a traditional Greek syrup made of water and sugar, flavored with lemon juice, cinnamon, cloves and just a spoon or two of honey.
While the iconic baklava is layers of flaky phyllo dough with nuts and syrup, there are also koulourakia – simple twists of buttery shortbread – and kourambiethes, plain butter cookies dusted in powdered sugar.
Here’s a primer on the eight most popular Greek pastries, and a few recipes if you want to try your hand at making some at home.
• Baklava – The best-known of all Greek pastries, baklava is made by stacking buttered layers of phyllo dough and filling them with a mixture of ground walnuts and spices. Cooled syrup is poured over the tray of pastry warm from the oven.
• Diples – Sometimes called thiples or theples, or referred to as honey curls, this pastry is flaky dough that has been fried and rolled into jelly roll or other shapes, drizzled with honey or syrup and sprinkled with chopped nuts.
• Finikia – Oval-shaped cookies that are dipped in syrup and topped with chopped nuts.
• Galatoboureko – Egg custard made with farina (Cream of Wheat) is baked inside phyllo dough sheets, and topped with syrup warm from the oven. These typically are made into rolls, but also can be made in a sheet pan and cut into squares.
• Kataifi – While it may look like a shredded wheat biscuit, this pastry is actually made from a specialty dough of pastry strands. The strands are filled with nuts, baked, and then coated in syrup.
• Kourambiethes – A simple butter cookie, sometimes containing ground almonds, which gets a generous coating of confectioner’s sugar before serving.
• Koulourakia – This simple twisted butter cookie is made with plenty of eggs, which give the cookie its yellow color. Not too sweet, it’s the perfect accompaniment to coffee.
• Paximadia – The Greek version of biscotti, this cookie is made by par-baking loaves of cookies, then slicing them and baking them again on a cookie sheet until they are toasted.
2 pounds. walnuts, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1½ pounds phyllo dough
1 pound butter, melted
1 recipe Greek pastry syrup, cooled (recipe follows)
In a bowl, add sugar, walnuts and spices. Butter an 11-by-17-inch pan and layer six sheets of phyllo dough in the pan, brushing the top of each with melted butter as you lay them in the pan. Sprinkle ∑ of the walnut mixture over the dough. Add 6 more sheets of phyllo, again buttering between the layers. Sprinkle with another ∑ of the nut mixture, followed by a layer of 6 more sheets of buttered phyllo. Spread the final ∑ of the nut mixture over, and top with the remaining phyllo sheets, buttering between the layers and buttering the top of the final sheet.
Refrigerate for 15 minutes, then use a sharp knife tip to score the score the top of the pastry into diamond shapes.
Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven. Cut baklava along score marks. Pour cooled syrup onto hot baklava. Let set for several hours or overnight to allow pastry to absorb the syrup.
Makes about 4 dozen pieces, depending on size.
Greek Pastry Syrup
3 cups sugar
2 cups cold water
2 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon whole cloves
Combine sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil; boil for 15 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes more. Set aside to cool. Strain to remove cinnamon stick and cloves before using.
Makes enough for 1 tray of pastry.
– Adapted from Treasures from Our Hope Chest, Elpis/Hope Society, Akron, Ohio
4 cups milk
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup quick Cream of Wheat
4 eggs, beaten
1 pound phyllo dough
1 pound butter, melted
1 recipe Greek pastry syrup (recipe above)
Bring milk, stick of butter and sugar to a boil, stirring constantly. Whisk in Cream of Wheat, and stir until well combined. Add eggs slowly while stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook, stirring, until mixture is thickened.
Remove from heat, cool custard, and set aside.
Unfold phyllo dough, and cut in half, width-wise.
Brush one half-sheet with melted butter. Place 1 tablespoon of custard in the center of the sheet about 2 inches from the bottom. Fold up bottom of sheet over custard and fold in sides. Brush dough again with melted butter, and roll up like a cigar. Brush finished roll with melted butter.
Continue process with remaining half sheets and custard.
Place rolls on baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown. Pour cooled syrup over warm rolls. Let stand for several hours to absorb the syrup completely. Refrigerate when cooled.
Makes about 40 rolls.
–Adapted from Treasures from Our Hope Chest, Elpis/Hope Society, Akron