Bougatsa originally comes from Constantinople: before the city fell under Turkish rule in 1453 with the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was a Greek city. Sweet foods were deeply rooted in the culinary culture of the Byzantine Empire: there were numerous sweet dishes that were served as dessert after a sumptuous meal. Many of these recipes perished with the fall of the Byzantine Empire – one exception is the bougatsa: a bougatsa is a pastry made of filo dough with a sweet filling of cream or semolina pudding. A bougatsa can also be served with a savory filling – for example, cheese, minced meat or spinach.
What is filo dough? Filo dough, also called yufka, is a thinly rolled dough used mainly for sweet pastries. Sometimes very thin flatbread is baked from yufka.
A filo dough classically consists only of flour, water and salt. During production, the ingredients are kneaded into a smooth dough: The structure of the dough is reminiscent of European strudel dough. The dough is then formed into tangerine-sized dough pieces, which are rolled out very thinly.
The kneading and rolling of filo dough requires a great deal of experience: it is not without reason that machines nowadays take over the processing of filo dough to enable mass production. A few cafés and bakeries on the Greek islands still produce and bake filo pastry dishes such as bougatsa by hand.
Origins of the Bougatsa
Although the basic recipe of a bougatsa is over 500 years old, it was not until the 20th century that bougatsa was rediscovered: In the 1920s, Greek emigrants from Asia Minor and Turkish Cappadocia returned to their homeland, bringing with them centuries-old recipes that had long been forgotten. There are different ways to bake bougatsa: Either one bakes a large bougatsa cake, which is served sliced after baking. However, it is also common to portion dough pieces before baking and fill them individually.
The word bougatsa is said to derive from the Latin foccacia, which means “sweet cake.” However, bougatsa should in no way be confused with the Italian foccacia bread.
Remnant of a lost culture
If you look at a bougatsa, you immediately notice the similarity to European apple strudel: Both doughs require an enormous amount of effort to prepare. When baked, both sweet pastries have a flaky texture and crispy surface that can be pierced with a cake fork. Biggest difference between bougatsa and strudel is the filling – usually a bougatsa is served with cream or semolina spread filling. In apple strudel, a filling of apple and raisins is classic.
After baking, one sprinkles powdered sugar and cinnamon over the bougatsa.
The bougatsa is the remnant of a long-lost culture: little remains of the defunct Byzantine Empire. One of those remnants is the bougatsa, now prized around the world as a sweet dessert cake. With a savory filling, it is almost a dish in its own right.
Cover picture: A baked bougatsa with cream and semolina porridge filling, © Simon von Ludwig.