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There is a certain rite of passage associated with being invited to dinner or coffee at a Greek friend’s house. Not so much because of what you will end up eating or drinking there, but because of what the other guests will be bringing as gifts. To most Western Europeans’ surprise, one of the most popular gifts for the host is a big dessert – the kind of cake that is usually reserved for birthdays or big celebrations in other countries. Greeks often arrive bearing big, rectangular patisserie boxes containing anything from a large cheesecake to ice cream- and sorbet-layered cakes. And of course, very often these boxes contain a pan of the Greek national dessert, galaktoboureko.

The Greek version of the syrupy phyllo desserts popular all over the Middle East, galaktoboureko (gala means “milk,” börek is the Turkish word for filled pastries) is a semolina custard pie that sandwiches a cream made with milk, eggs and semolina flour between layers of thin phyllo, and the whole thing is doused in syrup. The secret to good galaktoboureko is butter – lots of it in the sauce and between the sheets of phyllo – and traditionally ewe’s milk butter, which is also used to make kourabiedes, the sugar-dusted almond Christmas shortbreads. Like most syrupy desserts, galaktoboureko tastes different when it first comes out of the oven as opposed to the next day, when the syrup has been soaked up properly.

Many places in Athens claim to specialize in galaktoboureko, but these are our three favorite places:

This patisserie has become synonymous with galaktoboureko. Agios Nikolaos opened the first shop in 1961, and today there are five branches around Athens selling a number of desserts, with galaktoboureko being a firm favorite. The two downtown addresses offer a nostalgia-tinged atmosphere, with mirrors, a mosaic floor and an intense smell of butter that almost knocks you off your feet. A whole section of each shop is dedicated to galaktoboureko. You can either buy a small pan (€13) or a piece (€1.10). The pie is smooth, with cream oozing from the sides of the phyllo and strong butter and vanilla undertones. There is something quite satisfying in buying a portion here. It’s served in an open box, wrapped first in white paper and then in fancy silver paper with the throwback blue-and-white Kosmikon logo on it. Altogether a fantastic Athenian culinary experience.

The southern suburb of Nea Smyrni was the destination for Greek refugees who were forced to flee the Asia Minor town of Smyrni (Izmir in Turkish) after the Greco-Turkish war in 1922. While densely populated, the area somehow manages to retain the feeling of a village. Under a red sign with large retro lettering, Koutras sits hidden behind an unassuming façade, its tiny interior resembling a parochial Greek patisserie. You can actually see some of the men who work here resting for a little bit inside the kitchen while you get served. Their galaktoboureko are the first thing you see as you walk in the store. (€1.30 per piece, €13 per pan). It’s a lighter, creamier version, with less assertive phyllo and an alluring orange fragrance and flavor. The taste is sweeter but also fresher because of the orange zest in the cream.

A more upmarket-looking place on busy Katehaki street between the Neo Psixiko and Ambelokipoi neighborhoods, Pavlidis serves a more homely galaktoboureko. A syrupy, buttery affair, Pavlidis’s version somehow manages to not be too sweet, and the phyllo is extra crunchy. It’s terrifically balanced, with beguiling caramel and cinnamon undertones. Be warned, though, you can only buy galaktoboureko here by the pan (the smallest pan will set you back €14), so if you want to try this you need to be prepared to eat ten pieces of it. Better yet, put it in a colored cardboard box and carry it to your friend’s place like a true Greek.

Published on May 13, 2014

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