I spent the week sitting in a large air-conditioned room watching too many powerpoint presentations. On Monday I was fully engaged, still riding the end-of-semester high; Tuesday I did well, too. But by Wednesday my attention span was decidedly fragmented. I'd focus for awhile, then find myself restless, and my mind would wander. Then I'd resurface for a few minutes, then lose myself in some thought or in doing what I so often criticize my own students for doing: checking e-mail compulsively on my iPod. Drat that WiFi access. By Thursday I was feeling grumpy about the air-conditioned room, and the aching glare of the light bouncing off the white walls and tablecloths. I was tired of the plastic chairs and the kink in my neck from trying to see the projection screen. I sent my mind elsewhere for most of the day.
I sent it to Greece.
When I was a child one of my favorite things to do was to accompany my grandmother when she did her shopping. She'd change out of her house dress, and put on her floppy straw hat. We'd leave the apartment early, when the sun still wasn't strong enough to do damage. Shopping with my grandmother back then meant stopping at several shops: the green grocer for fruit, the butcher for meat, the crowded little general market for essentials like paper towels, napkins, or coffee. On the way back we'd stop at my favorite place at all: the bakery and I'd step inside, breathe in the sweet-doughy smells, and my stomach would do happy swirling flips at the sight of the fillo pies steaming from their metal trays. Every bakery had an assortment of these pies: cheese, or spinach, or meat, or custard-filled, known as bougatsa. My favorite was always the cheese pie, with its tangy-sweet filling, but I also loved bougatsa--my brother's favorite. Fillo pies were always standard beach food for us when we were in Greece, because no matter where we were vacationing--even on the most remote Cycladic island, or undiscovered cove, we'd always find a bakery and then lunch was assured. And for me, the best way still to eat at a cheese pie is on a rocky beach, where you don't care how much of the fillo dough flakes to the ground when you bite into it, there on your damp towel, with the sun hot on your back and the salt drying quickly into lacy trails along your legs and arms.
And a Cycladic beach was JUST where I wanted to be all week long.
While I've made cheese pies often over the years, and I pride myself on my spinach pie, which I've brought to many potluck dinners, I've never tried to make bougatsa. A few weeks ago, I told T. and L. about bougatsa--I'm not sure what brought the topic up, but I tried to describe the creamy, custardy goodness of it and T. licked her lips and L. gave a little jump of excitement. It sounded good to them both, I knew, and I vowed to try my hand at making bougatsa. I was daunted by one thing, though: true bougatsa--the bougatsa of my childhood--involves cooking the semolina custard with eggs, and ever since my Great Vegan Experiment of a few months ago, I just haven't felt the same about eggs. I don't use them in my baking anymore, and I seem to have developed an aversion to them in baked goods. Most of the time I can taste the egg and am turned off by it. I wanted to make sure that once I made the bougatsa, I could eat it, too.
Vegan Bougatsa (pretty loosely adapted from here)
Here's what you'll need:
2 tablespoons Earth Balance, and some reserved (melted) for spreading on the phyllo sheets.
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Ener-G egg replace, enough for 2 eggs
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups original flavored coconut milk (I use this in my baking)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup semolina flour (I used this brand, which I found at Whole Foods. You can also substitute Cream of Wheat for the semolina, and I know this is pretty comparable)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt
1/2 cup to 1 cup confectioner's sugar, for sifting over the top of the pastries
You'll need 8-10 sheets of fillo pastry. Don't be afraid of phyllo dough. Here's my tip. Keep the sheets covered with a slightly damp paper towel or two until you're ready to use them, since fillo dough dries out quickly and can crumble.
Beat the Ener-G egg replacer until well-mixed. Beat in the sugar until thick and slightly foamy.
Set aside. Heat the coconut milk in a medium size pan until hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat. Pour the Ener-G/sugar mixture into the hot milk, whisking quickly and constantly. Return to a medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Gradually sprinkle in the semolina and add a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to very low and cook, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in two tablespoons of Earth Balance. Bring to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Stir in the lemon juice, vanilla and cinnamon. Set the custard aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Now it's time to fill and fold into triangles. Unroll one sheet of fillo pastry and place it on a tea-towel or pastry board for easy folding. Brush lightly with melted Earth Balance. Place three tablespoons of custard on the lower third of the pastry. Spread evenly nearly covering the lower third of the pastry. Fold the right and left sides of pastry towards centre so that edges just meet. Lightly brush the folded sides with Earth Balance. Fold the lower third up and brush again. Fold the upper third down, to form an envelope and brush with Earth Balance. Lightly brush the top and bottom of the custard filled envelope with Earth Balance and place it on an ungreased baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining fillo pastry and filling. Bake until golden-brown for about 15 minutes. Serve warm, lightly dusted with confectioner's sugar.
I couldn't quite get my fillo pockets to look like triangles, so they came out square-shaped.
But oh, were they delicious! Melt-in-your-mouth, carry-me-away-to-my-childhood delicious!
I thought about my grandmother when I ate mine; I saw myself standing next to her, as we paused to look in a shop window, she straight-backed and so elegant, beautiful as she was, inside and out.
I thought about my mother, too.
Happy Mother's Day weekend to all!