No Greek appetizer is more ubiquitous here in America than spanakopita, or its simpler cousin tyropita: salty cheeses, wild greens, fresh herbs and occasionally sautéed seasonal vegetables, melded together and wrapped lovingly in a triangle of light, soft, flaky phyllo dough. Phyllo dough is simply flour and water, sometimes combined with a little oil or dash of vinegar. Once combined, the flour is rolled into long, extremely thin, light sheets. These sheets are systematically layered–whether across an entire dish or as small hand pies—each layer held together by no small measure of warm melted butter, making the perfect container for all sorts of flavorings.
Phyllo comes in a long rectangular box in the freezer section of most grocers. It is frequently near the Puff Pastry, which is not a substitute. As my readers know, I prefer fresh whenever possible: I rarely take processed food shortcuts and never choose preservatives or ingredients I can’t pronounce. So while there are a couple of brands (Atheno, Pepperidge Farm) found in typical area grocers, I prefer the organic phyllo at Whole Foods Market. Trader Joe’s used to sell an awesome phyllo, but as with all good things at that store, you have to grab it while you can. Check with Customer Service there as they may have phyllo over the holiday season.
Working with Phyllo
Like many culinary techniques, working with phyllo dough may at first seem intimidating. But with a little practice, it quickly becomes a simple yet elegant offering that can be prepared in very little time and with minimum mess. Early last fall, I excitedly accepted Christine’s offer to teach me some phyllo basics. Working with the dough proved to be quite easy, and the rhythmic motion of layering, buttering and folding became somewhat meditative and even relaxing.
- Defrost the phyllo overnight in the refrigerator. Never microwave to thaw, as the water and flour will just turn to mush. The most important thing to remember about phyllo is that since it is just a thin sheet of flour, it will dry out very quickly, becoming crisp and brittle. In that case, it not only doesn’t taste as it should, but it also is difficult to work with because it tears easily.
- To prevent drying, work with just one roll at a time. Lay a barely damp cotton towel on your work surface. Cover it with a piece of plastic wrap, lay the phyllo dough on top of it, and fold the towel over the phyllo. Work with one or two sheets at a time and keep the rest covered.
Once you have the phyllo thawed and covered, all you need is your filling, a pastry brush, and lots of melted butter.
- The great thing about making phyllo triangles—which by the way make a perfect appetizer, dessert or even light entrée with a salad for your holiday party—is that once you’ve mastered the technique, you can use just about any filling. Keep in mind that the filling needs to be slightly moist, but not too wet which will cause the dough to burst when baking. Think the difference between a sweet potato casserole or apple pie filling versus custardy pumpkin pie filling. Having practiced quite a bit with phyllo, I also suggest finding fillings with interesting and complex flavors that pop in the mouth, surpassing the neutral flavor of the phyllo but not overpowering the delicate nature of the dough.
Mastering the Technique
Remove phyllo from the outer plastic bag. Keeping the log rolled, cut into 3 even pieces (for smaller servings you can cut into 4 pieces). Work with one cut roll at a time; keep the other rolls tightly wrapped in plastic wrap.
Making the phyllo triangles is just like folding a flag: gently unfold the phyllo dough. Lay 1 strip of phyllo on a work surface and gently brush with the melted butter. Place a second phyllo strip on top of the first and brush with butter.
Place 1 heaping tablespoon of a prepared filling at the bottom end of each strip. Spread to the edges of the phyllo. The filling should cover about a 1 by 2 inch strip of the phyllo.
Take the bottom right corner of the strip between your thumb and finger and fold over the filling to the left to make a triangle. Gently pull up the bottom left corner and fold up to make a second triangle. Continue folding until you reach the top. Place the triangle, seam side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Brush the completed triangle lightly with butter.
Repeat with the remaining strips and phyllo sheets until all of the filling is used. Assembled pies can be refrigerated or frozen. No need to defrost prior to baking. Simply arrange the triangles 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake until golden and heated all the way through. Remove from the oven and cool slightly on the baking sheet. (If baking from frozen increase cooking time).
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