LEARNING TO ROLL phyllo was as natural as learning to walk for Susanna Fanourakis. When she was growing up on the Greek island of Symi at the turn of the century, one couldn't simply run to the nearest grocery for pastry. If you wanted holiday baklava, you had to make the dough from scratch.
It was a day-long process of grandmothers, mothers and daughters using broomsticks to roll the stubborn, elastic dough across kitchen tables. But 20 years ago all that changed, as commercially prepared phyllo appeared in the markets. Fanourakis was among the first people to make the switch.
"It was too hard and takes a long time to make," she said of homemade phyllo. Her mother's pastry, as she remembers it, was better than store-bought -- but only by a little, she said.
Even so, Fanourakis considered it necessary to pass on the art of phyllo rolling to her daughter Eva Poulos, a Potomac, Md., teacher of Greek cuisine. "I just wanted her to know how to do it," she said, so recently she undertook to teach the process.
While Fanourakis hadn't made phyllo in years, her techniques, in combination with her daughter's instincts, got them through the day. Along the way they proved a few points -- dough made without eggs is easier to roll; adding cornstarch to the flour helps keep the rolled dough from shrinking back to its original size -- and the major lesson that making your own phyllo is a lot of work.
"It's not difficult, but it's time-consuming." Poulos said, digging her hands into the flour-water-olive oil combination that would soon be the dough. She kneaded the dough for 10 minutes and set it aside to rest. Once it's rolled, it must set out to dry for two or three hours (depending on the weather) before baking or the finished product will not be crisp enough.
"The commercial phyllo has a nice taste," Poulos said, switching to a box she pulled from the half-dozen stacked in her refrigerator. But the thinner commercial dough dries faster, she warned. To prevent the dough from becoming bone-dry and crumbling, she sometimes keeps it between sheets of waxed paper or moist towels even though she has prepared the spinach and feta cheese filling and the melted butter to paint on each layer of dough.
"Butter is very good," her mother said in broken English. "Use lots of it. We render in Greece to get the milk [solids] out." As she let it foam on the stove for almost 10 minutes, she kept a watchful eye on the pan, occasionally lifting it from the flame to prevent the butter from burning.
"Clarifying butter makes the pastry crispier, it helps cook the individual leaves," Poulos explained while brushing butter on each leaf. "Some people use sweet butter, but we don't. I don't know why, we just don't think it has the same effect."
Poulos used a 1 1/2-inch polyester paint brush to butter the leaves; pastry brushes, she said, have hard bristles and tear the pastry. She spooned the thick mixture of feta, spinach and romano cheese over the stack of 12 buttered phyllo layers. While topping the spinach mixture with the remaining buttered pastry, she warned that the first couple of layers on top of any filling tend to move around, so you have to be particularly careful to lay the pastry on straight.
Spinach pie -- spanakopita -- is very special to a Greek holiday dinner, Poulos said. Her recipe was handed down from her mother. The dinner might also include baked lamb, a salad and the Greek cousin of lasagna, pastitsio. But first there is ouzo.
"Ouzo," Fanourakis explained, is served at the beginning of dinner over ice. "It's like a little appetizer. It makes you hungry," she said, showing the bottle of anise-flavored liqueur that she carried home from her two-month visit to Greece this past summer.
"Things have changed in Greece," Fanourakis sighed. "They don't knead dough as long, they skip clarifying butter and are broiling instead of frying -- it's just not quite as good. They're even using a new English butter that's part margarine."
A key ingredient to good Greek food is fresh mint, which Fanourakis grows in the back yard of the house where she lives with her daughter. When she harvests the crop it means two days of drying in the basement followed by two additional hours in the afternoon sun. "This is the most important spice," she said.
In addition to mint, Poulos said, no Greek pantry would be complete without fresh dill and parsley (for spinach pie), oregano (for chicken), cumin (for meat dishes), honey and confectioners' sugar (for sweets), pine nuts (for rice and stuffed grape leaves) and feta and romano cheese (for "lots of dishes"). And garlic. "Tons of garlic," her mother said. "It goes in just about everything."
With the commercial-dough spanakopita in the oven, Poulos took the homemade pastry from the corner where it was resting and divided it into two-inch balls. They were sprinkled with a mixture of cornstarch and flour to coat them well. Then began the rolling. First there were strokes with a long, thin wooden pin. Then a sprinkling of cornstarch. Next a stretching with her hands. Poulos repeated the process eight times, stopping to patch a hole in one end. Thus, with the help of her mother, the single two-inch ball of dough was rolled to a 20-inch, almost-transparent pastry leaf. Ten minutes invested in the single leaf.
"All this really takes is a lot of time and patience," Poulos said, beginning her second leaf. While you get only 15 to 20 leaves from a homemade recipe, compared to the 40 you get with a pound-and-a-half of commercial phyllo (the standard for the larger pies she makes for family and friends), the leaves are thicker; so Poulos uses one leaf of homemade phyllo for every two of the commercial.
"That's the thing about phyllo," she said. "You have to be prepared that you're not going to get it as thin as you're used to having it and you'll do okay. You know, everybody's in such a hurry these days. Maybe it's not such a bad idea after all." PHYLLO DOUGH (Makes about 15 phyllo leaves) 6 cups flour 1/3 cup olive oil 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups lukewarm water Cornstarch mixed with equal amount of flour
Combine flour, oil, salt and water and mix until dough leaves sides of bowl. Knead about 10 minutes until dough is soft and smooth. For easier handling, set aside for 30 minutes after kneading.
Cut off 2-inch pieces of dough and roll in smooth round balls. Sprinkle cornstarch and flour mixture lightly over ball and cover them with a clean tea towel to keep dough soft as each phyllo leaf is being rolled out.
Place a ball of dough on a large, flat surface that has been sprinkled with cornstarch mixture. With palm of hand, flatten ball and sprinkle with cornstarch again. With long, narrow rolling pin, roll phyllo until double in size. Sprinkle with more cornstarch and roll again. Pick up pastry and stretch long. Return to flat surface and roll again. Repeat this procedure until the pastry is transparent. Lay on a clean table-cloth to dry for two hours. (Drying helps prevent phyllo from becoming soggy while baking.) PSAROPITES (Seafood Pastry Triangles) (Makes 30 to 40) 1 pound fresh shrimp, shelled, deveined, washed and chopped (substitute lobster or crab meat) Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup butter 4 scallions, coarsely chopped 1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup milk 1/4 cup dry vermouth 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup grated romano cheese 10 phyllo leaves
Lightly salt and pepper shrimp and set aside in refrigerator for at least 1 hour to enhance flavor. In large frying pan, saute shrimp with butter until lightly browned. Add scallions, parsley and garlic and saute lightly until scallions are tender. Add flour and stir quickly. Add milk and vermouth and continue stirring until liquid thickens. Remove from heat and add egg yolks and cheese and mix well. Cool shrimp mixture to thicken before placing in phyllo pastries. Remove phyllo pastry from refrigerator. Place 1 phyllo leaf on clean flat surface and gently cut horizontally into 4 strips. Brush each strip with melted butter. Place 1 teaspoon shrimp mixture at lower end of strip, folding strip diagonally to form a triangle. Continue rolling into a triangle. At this point pastries may be frozen. Brush frozen or unfrozen pastries with melted butter and place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake in 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden. Serve warm. GALAKTOBOUREKO (Custard in Phyllo) (Makes 45 pieces) Syrup: 1 1/2 cups water 2 1/2 cups sugar 2 cinnamon sticks Juice of 1/2 lemon Custard cake: 2 quarts milk 3/4 cup cream of wheat cereal (quick) 6 extra-large eggs 3 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 cup cold water 2 cups sugar 1/2 cup butter 2 teaspoons vanilla 1 pound phyllo pastry or 1 recipe fresh 1 1/2 cups butter, melted
Combine all syrup ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Continue simmering for 10 minutes over low heat, being careful not to let it darken. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a deep saucepan bring milk to boil, turn off heat. Repeat this 2 more times, being careful to remove from heat so that milk will not boil over. Lower heat and slowly add cream of wheat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon until well-blended. Stir often and cook until slightly thickened, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside. In large bowl beat eggs with wire wisk until light and fluffy and place in a separate large, deep saucepan. Combine cornstarch and water and blend well. Add cornstarch to cream of wheat mixture and blend well. Add cream of wheat mixture to eggs and mix, stirring quickly. Put mixture back on heat and bring to boil and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from heat and add sugar, butter and vanilla. Put lid on pot and set aside.
Take phyllo pastry out of refrigerator. With pastry brush, butter a 15 1/2-by-10 1/2-by-2 1/4-inch baking pan. Butter one leaf fresh or commercial phyllo and lay in pan. Bring edges of phyllo up each side of pan to contain custard mixture. Repeat procedure until there are 12 layers (of commercial or 6 homemade) of buttered phyllo sheets on the bottom of the pan. Pour cream of wheat mixture over phyllo and repeat procedure of buttering 12 layers (commercial or 6 homemade) to top the custard. With a sharp knife, cut 2 or 3 slits through the top of the phyllo. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden. Pour cool syrup over warm pastry, and let stand at least 15 minutes before cutting into diamond-shaped servings. Serve immediately or store in refrigerator. SPANAKOPITA (Spinach Pie) (Makes 30 pieces) 4 10-ounce boxes frozen spinach 2 tablespoons butter plus 1 1/4 cups, melted 1/4 cup olive oil 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine 1 large yellow onion, chopped fine 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine 1/3 bunch fresh parsley, chopped fine 1 pound creamed cottage cheese 1 1/2 pounds feta cheese 8 large eggs 1 pound prepared phyllo or 1 recipe fresh 1/4 cup grated romano cheese 1/2 teaspoon salt
Cook thawed spinach in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, drain and press out the liquid. In a small frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter with 1/4 cup olive oil and add scallions, yellow onion, dill and parsley and saute until golden brown. In a large mixing bowl, combine crumbled feta and cottage cheese, drained spinach, onion mixture and 8 slightly beaten eggs. Mix well.
Melt remaining butter in a small saucepan. With a pastry brush, butter a 17-by-11 1/2-by-2 1/4-inch baking pan. Place 1 phyllo sheet in pan and allow the phyllo to overlap sides of the pan. Add another sheet and, using pastry brush, brush lightly each phyllo sheet with melted butter. Repeat procedure until there are 12 layers (commercial or 6 homemade) of buttered phyllo sheets on the bottom of the pan. Pour spinach/cheese mixture slowly over phyllo sheets in pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle grated cheese and 1/2 teaspoon salt over spinach. Repeat procedure for brushing each phyllo sheet until the remaining phyllo sheets have all been used (about 12 sheets commercial, 6 fresh). Top phyllo sheet should be brushed heavily with butter to assure golden brown color. With a sharp knife gently cut through the layers of the phyllo, making 6 lengthwise cuts. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour. Let cool for 20 minutes, then cut into diamond-shaped pieces.