In the early 1920s George Menzelos’ Greek immigrant Grandmother Hrisanthi Androutsos made friends with fellow compatriots— Greek refugee women arriving to Los Angeles from places like Smyrna in Asia Minor, towns and villages known for their unique Greek culinary traditions involving filo pastry dough.
The women were all part of St. Julian Greek Orthodox Church, which would eventually become St. Sophia Cathedral many decades later and they gathered to cook, reminisce and offer support through their philanthropic endeavors.
Although they had a shared Greek heritage, cooking often varied from Hrisanthi’s native region of Corinth and the other women, who were refugees mostly arriving from Asia Minor with nothing but the memories and knowledge inside their heads.
These ladies taught Hrisanthi to roll (or “open” as the Greeks call it) filo pastry for traditional Greek desserts like galatoboureko, baklava and other sweets that contain the thin, delicate dough.
Being new Americans, they also experimented and merged food traditions of their adopted country— more out of appreciation to America and the opportunity it offered them and less out of culinary experimentation.
One such dessert continues to inspire taste buds three generations later.
They created a Baklava with a very American flavor— one filled with pumpkin custard that’s perfect for the Thanksgiving Holiday with strong hints of both homelands, Greece and the United States.
George Menzelos was lucky enough to get to know yiayia Hrisanthi and save numerous recipes— including her pumpkin custard baklava. He also heard numerous stories from the era, including how most of the women arrived on U.S. soil— as picture brides, making the trek across the Atlantic to meet a future husband they only knew by a single photo.
George carries on the family tradition every year, while recalling the trials and tribulations of his grandmother and all of those early immigrants. He was kind enough to share his grandmother’s recipe for pumpkin custard baklava— which even once made its way into the Jerusalem Post in a piece by Faye Levy, author of Feast from the Mideast.
Photos courtesy of Faye Levy, Yakir Levy and George Menzelos
In a way, George’s love for Greek cuisine was instilled early on by his grandmother but has followed him throughout his life both at home— as well as in his professional career. He founded Arianna Trading Company, an importer of some the finest and most unique Greek products available on North American shelves, including olive oil and olives.
Pumpkin Custard Baklava
Baklava, said George Menzelos, is made of equal weights of filo dough, sugar, nuts and butter. He uses salted butter but you can use unsalted butter if you prefer. Whichever you use, George says that clarifying the butter (melting it to remove milk solids and water) is important so that there won’t be spots in the final pastry.
George uses fresh filo dough to make this baklava. If you are using frozen filo dough, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator. He keeps an extra box of filo dough on hand to have perfect filo sheets to finish the top. You can rewrap and refrigerate or freeze the rest of the extra package.
It’s best to use a 7.5-cm (3-inch) deep baking dish. If you use a baking dish of the same dimensions as the filo sheets, you won’t have to fold them.
You can keep the baked baklava at room temperature for serving the same day, or you can refrigerate it for up to 2 days.
Here’s a summary of the layers of this dessert, starting with the bottom layer:
5 layers filo without filling
7 or 8 layers filo with nuts
3 layers of double filo sheets to form the envelope for the custard
7 layers filo with nuts
5 layers filo without filling
Makes about 30 pieces
1 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 whole cloves
Juice of 1/4 lemon
570 grams (1.25 pounds) salted butter
450 grams (1 pound) filo dough, plus 2 or 3 sheets from an extra package of filo dough if necessary, thawed if frozen
450 grams (1 pound) walnuts
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups canned pumpkin or thick cooked pumpkin puree
85 grams (3 ounces) butter, soft
1/2 cup cream of wheat, farina or white semolina
4 cups whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
For the Syrup:
Combine water, sugar, cloves and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until syrup thickens and begins to form large bubbles. To check whether it is thick enough, remove pan from heat and cool for about 5 minutes. Spoon a few drops of syrup onto a saucer and tilt the saucer; the syrup should be thick enough so it doesn’t flow past the center of the saucer. Let syrup cool.
For filo layers:
To clarify the butter, melt it in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Skim the white foam from the surface. Pour remaining clear butter into a bowl, leaving the white sediment behind in the saucepan. Let cool to lukewarm. The butter should be cool but not congealed.
Grind the walnuts with 1 cup sugar in a food processor, scraping mixture down occasionally, until walnut pieces are finely ground to about the size of rice. Stir in the cinnamon.
Divide walnut mixture in two portions. To one portion add 1/2 cup sugar. Reserve this sweeter walnut mixture for the lower layers of the dessert.
For the Pumpkin custard:
Heat pumpkin in a small saucepan until hot. Remove from heat and stir in the soft butter until blended.
Mix cream of wheat with 1 cup milk in a small bowl or cup. Heat remaining 3 cups milk in a medium-large saucepan until warm. Whisk in cream of wheat mixture and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring with whisk. Cook mixture, stirring often, until mixture thickens. Add the salt and sugar. Cook, whisking often, until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat. Add pumpkin mixture.
Beat eggs in mixer or blender. Transfer to a large bowl. Slowly whisk pumpkin mixture into eggs. Return mixture to saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until mixture is warm and slightly thickened; it should be thick enough to coat a spoon. Do not worry if the eggs curdle slightly. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Stir in vanilla. Set aside to cool.
Thoroughly butter a 25- x 33 cm (10- x 13-inch) cake pan or baking dish, 7.5 cm (3 inches) deep. Unroll the filo pastry and spread it out on a piece of plastic wrap. Cover the stack of filo sheets with another piece of plastic wrap to prevent them from drying.
Remove a filo sheet from the pile. Put it in the pan. If it is too large to fit, leave some of it hanging over a side of the dish. Brush the filo sheet inside the pan with clarified butter. Fold overhanging piece inwards so it fits in dish and brush it with butter. Repeat with 4 more sheets of filo dough, smoothing each one carefully to make an even layer in the pan.
Add another sheet of filo dough. Brush sheet in pan with butter and sprinkle it evenly with 1/4 cup of the sweeter nut mixture. Fold the overhanging piece of the filo sheet over the nuts and brush it with butter. Repeat with 6 or 7 more layers of filo dough, buttering each and sprinkling it evenly with nuts.
To make the envelope for the custard: Top the nut layer with another filo sheet, covering only half the layer in the pan, and letting the rest of the filo sheet extend over two sides of the pan. Place another filo sheet, covering the other half of the layer in the pan, meeting the previous sheet in the center and overhanging the other two sides of the pan.
At this point there should be about 5 to 7.5 cm (2 to 3 inches) of filo extending beyond all four sides of the pan. Brush the filo inside the pan (but not the overhanging dough) with butter. Make two more layers in this fashion, using 2 filo sheets each time. Do not butter the top layer.
Pour all of the cooled pumpkin custard into the filo-lined pan. Fold a filo sheet in half and set it on top of the custard, covering the custard. Brush the filo sheet gently with butter.
Gently fold the innermost layer of overhanging filo dough inward toward the center of the pan. Brush this folded piece of filo with butter. Fold another filo sheet in half, place it in the pan and brush it with butter. Fold the second overhanging layer inward toward the center of the pan and brush the folded parts with butter.
Evenly sprinkle the filo layer with 1/4 cup of the second (less sweet) nut mixture. Fold the last overhanging filo dough layer over the nut layer and brush it with butter.
Cover the nuts with a sheet of filo dough, brush it with butter and sprinkle it with 1/4 cup nut mixture; if the sheet extends over the edge of the pan, fold it over the nuts and brush it with butter.
At this point, cut pieces of filo if necessary to add to the edges of the pan so that the baklava has an even height. Add 6 more layers of filo dough, brushing each with butter and sprinkling it with 1/4 cup nut mixture.
Preheat oven to 175C (350F). To finish, make 5 layers of filo dough without filling, buttering each one after you place it in the pan. The filo layers can go higher than the top of the pan. Tuck in the dough at the corners of the pan so the baklava won’t be too low at the corners.
For the top 2 or 3 layers, use whole sheets that are not torn or dried out at the edges; if necessary take them from the extra package of filo. For the last layer, fold or cut a filo sheet so it covers the top of the pan exactly. Brush it with butter.
Using a sharp knife, cut through the filo to form diamond-shaped pieces by cutting parallel diagonal lines, then cutting across them in parallel lines. Cut only as far as the upper nut layers (you should see some nuts when you cut) but not into the pumpkin custard.
Bake the baklava in the preheated oven. After 30 minutes, if the baklava has begun to brown, cover it loosely with foil, leaving the edges uncovered. Continue baking for a total of 1 to 1 1/4 hours, or until the upper layers are separated and golden in color.
Remove from the oven. Gradually pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava. Let the baklava stand for a few hours or until it reaches room temperature.
Use a sharp knife to cut the baklava into pieces through the lines that have been scored.
Run a metal spatula carefully around edges. Use a thin flexible pancake turner to lift out each piece.
FILO DOUGH HANDLING TIPS:
* If the filo package has two rolls of dough, work with one at a time, keeping the second one wrapped.
* Filo sheets vary in size depending on the brand. You can either cut or fold the sheets so they will fit in the pan you are using. When assembling the pastry, you can add cut pieces of filo to keep the baklava level. Once the baklava is baked, you won’t see any patches.
* Keep the stack of filo sheets covered with plastic wrap or a damp towel to prevent them from drying.
* If the butter congeals while you are working with the filo, set the pan of butter over low heat and warm it until it is fluid but not hot.
* If two people work together to assemble the baklava, it takes less time and the filo dough is less likely to dry out.