Phyllo. Filo. Fillo. No matter how you spell it, phyllo (pronounced FEE-low) is fun. Ignore the recipe books that caution inexperienced cooks to steer clear of these packaged tissue-thin sheets of dough. Forget the intimidating knot in your stomach that you get every time you read the lengthy directions about properly storing, peeling, stacking and folding these flaky pastry leaves. The truth of the matter is that working with phyllo is relatively easy -- and a wonderful way to show off the bounty of spring and summer. It offers chefs a unique way to bring different textures to the table and, what's more, is certain to elicit a chorus of compliments from impressed guests -- even for the simplest of fare. "Phyllo is like an elegant woman," says Janice Mary Martin, who teaches the art of phyllo cooking at Bethesda's L'Academie de Cuisine. "It is elegant when it is underdressed in simple rustic casseroles and wonderful when overdressed" in more formal presentations. The paper-thin sheets can be easily folded over, rolled or twisted together to form delectable hors d'oeuvres. Or they can be used to create hearty main-course dishes, dressing up old family casseroles by serving as crusts. Its light texture also affords an alternative way to present the freshest of vegetables or fruit. Before San Francisco chef Marti Sousanis worked with phyllo "all I ever heard was that it was intimidating to work with. But it just isn't," says Sousanis, who has written "The Art of Filo Cookbook" (Addison-Wesley/Aris Books, 1983, $10.95), a detailed guidebook for both the beginner and advanced phyllo student. "It's just like playing with clay. You can make of it what you will. Once you start playing with it you will see how easy it is to work with and you'll create your own fancy shapes," Sousanis adds. Although phyllo has been used primarily in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries for such well-known dishes as baklava and spanakopita, it also can be used for a wide variety of other ethnic dishes as well. "You can substitute {phyllo} for the outer wrapping of any stuffed dish from around the world -- Chinese wonton skins and egg rolls, Mexican tortillas, Indonesian and Philippine lumpia, Russian piroshki, Argentinian empanadas, French cre~pes, Japanese gyoza -- the list is endless," says Sousanis. Phyllo also can be substituted for pie crusts, used for blintzes, wrapped around fish for paupiettes and even placed loosely around a souffle' to enhance its already elegant appearance. Aware of this versatility, many trendy restaurants now are using phyllo in nontraditional dishes. Making phyllo even more attractive is its low cost -- about $2.50 a pound, enough to make at least three strudels or 60 appetizers What's more, phyllo dishes are easy to prepare in advance. Many of the fillings can be made far ahead and wrapped in phyllo, to be refrigerated for a day or frozen for several weeks until baking time. And in spite of the melted butter that's called for in phyllo recipes to provide moisture and taste, phyllo dishes are healthful. Brushing the individual sheets of a strudel, for example, uses relatively little butter, especially when you consider the amount of butter that's called for in other pastry desserts. Additionally, if you are making a savory phyllo dish, olive oil can be substituted -- although it will impart a different flavor. The precise origins of phyllo dough are unclear, with several different cultures staking claim to its inception. Some credit the Greeks, saying it was first mentioned as a bread and walnut sweet in Homer's "Odyssey," written around 800 B.C. In fact, the word phyllo is derived from the Greek word for leaf. Yet, in spite of its etymological derivation, still others credit the Turks with inventing phyllo about 1,000 years ago, noting that at that time the Turks ate a thin unleavened bread, fried on a simple iron sheet, called yufka. According to Sousanis' book, "the Turks served 'yufkas' folded or piled up in stacks with butter or other fillings between the layers." Yet there are other chefs who say that phyllo actually originated in China and worked its way west. Wherever it came from, it has through the centuries been made by hand -- a tedious day-long process in which the dough is stretched by hand to a paper-thin thickness. "My mother used to do it by scratch, but, oh my goodness, I wouldn't today," says Eva Poulos of Potomac. "You have to lay all these layers of thin dough on clean sheets all over the house and let them dry," recalls Poulos. Poulos and other phyllo aficionados now buy machine-made phyllo -- a product that has become increasingly easy to find thanks to its growing popularity. Most major supermarket chains carry commercially made phyllo in their frozen-food sections. But over and over again, phyllo experts advise cooks -- especially beginners -- to buy phyllo at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean specialty food stores, of which there are many in the metropolitan area. This phyllo is refrigerated, not frozen. "At most major supermarkets, the phyllo's been damaged because it's been around a little bit," says Martin. The edges tend to stick together and are hard to pull apart. "Phyllo at an ethnic store is less likely to be bruised." However, if frozen phyllo is the only kind available, cooks should check the package carefully in the store before buying. If it turns out, when the package is opened, that the edges of the sheets are all stuck together, then the edges can be cut off to make it easier to peel off the sheets one by one. If frozen phyllo is the only option, it is recommended that the package be allowed to thaw in the refrigerator overnight. "Never go from the freezer to room temperature because moisture develops and the dough sticks together," says Judy Harris, an Alexandria cooking teacher. If well wrapped, phyllo will keep in the refrigerator for at least three months. Whether previously frozen or fresh, phyllo should be removed from the refrigerator about an hour before using, according to most cooks. But some, such as Poulos, thinks phyllo gets crumbly if left at room temperature so she uses it directly from the refrigerator. When working with phyllo, get all the fillings ready before opening the package of phyllo sheets. The fillings should not have too much liquid because that would make the phyllo too soggy. Nor should they be piping hot; room temperature is perfect. Next to buying fresh phyllo, chefs stress that the most important thing to do is to keep the phyllo sheets you are not immediately working on well covered. "The enemy of phyllo is air," says Martin. "Air dries out the phyllo and makes it brittle and almost impossible to use." Martin keeps her phyllo wrapped between four dish towels. The bottom and the top towels are damp. The phyllo rests between the second and third towels which are dry. Wet towels directly next to the phyllo make the dough soggy, sticky and difficult to use. But other cooks have different methods. Harris, for instance, puts plastic wrap on top of the phyllo and weights that down with a damp towel. Cooking teacher and former caterer Marcia Fox uses wax paper above and below the phyllo with a damp cloth on the very top while Poulos uses only dry paper towels on top. When buttering the phyllo sheets, work quickly. "You do not have to be a perfectionist and get butter on every spot," says Fox. "In fact, if you do, it will be drenched in butter." A 1 1/2-inch or 2-inch pastry brush -- or even a fine nylon paint brush such as Poulos uses -- is recommended. If the phyllo tears in the process of layering or buttering, it is easy to patch. Gently place the torn pieces back together, butter, and then cover with one or two more sheets of phyllo, buttering those as well. Folding the phyllo is easy -- once you've decided the shapes you want. There are an endless variety, from triangles to snake-like spirals to short egg-rolls and then more fanciful butterflies and wreaths. If making a number of different phyllo hors d'oeuvres for a party, make a different shape for each filling. After the phyllo is stuffed, most pastries can be stored in the refrigerator a day or two before baking. Or they can be frozen. Place the pastries on a baking sheet in a single layer, cover well and freeze. Once they are frozen, the pastries can be moved to a freezer container in which they can be stacked, with wax paper between layers. When baking frozen phyllo pastries, do not defrost them first or they will become soggy. Simply cook the frozen pastries five minutes longer than the recipe calls for. However, if deep frying phyllo pastries, Martin recommends thawing them first for an hour on a cloth-lined tray to absorb excess moisture. Here are variety of phyllo recipes that should make even the intimidated unintimidated by phyllo. BLUE CHEESE AND PEAR APPETIZER (30 hors d'oeuvres) This appetizer, made by Janice Mary Martin, blends the sharp edge of blue cheese with the sweet crisp taste of a pear. Instead of making these hors d'oeuvres in the traditional triangle form, they can be made in pouches -- placed on two square sheets of phyllo, with the corners pulled up and twisted. 4 ounces blue cheese 4 ounces ( 1/2 large package) cream cheese 1 egg yolk 1 pear, peeled, cored and cut into chunks 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional) About 10 sheets of phyllo dough 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled Put blue cheese, cream cheese and egg yolk into a food processor or blender. Mix until creamy. Add pear and nuts and blend very briefly until pear is finely chopped. You should still be able to see pear chunks. Prepare phyllo for filling, making sure the sheets are covered until ready for use. Take several sheets of phyllo and cut them lengthwise, into 3-inch strips. Place all but a few strips back between the towels. Lay the remaining strips on a flat surface and working quickly, butter each one with a pastry brush. In the lower left hand corner place a teaspoon of filling and fold the lower right hand corner over the filling to the left edge. Like folding the flag, continue folding the strip, alternating from left to right, to the end, folding the extra phyllo at the end to fit neatly on the bottom of the triangle. Place triangle on cookie sheet, seam-side down. (If freezing, place pan in freezer. When frozen, the appetizers can be removed and put loosely, in layers, in an air-tight container or plastic bag.) Brush with butter when ready to cook, allowing five extra minutes to cook frozen hors d'oeuvres. (Do not thaw first, because they will become too soggy.) Bake in a pre-heated 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until a pale golden color. GARIDOPITES (SHRIMP TRIANGLES) (40 triangles) This is a favorite of Eva Poulos, who learned Greek cooking from her Greek-born mother. Poulos -- who has even made sheets of phyllo herself -- now uses store-bought dough. She is currently writing a Greek cookbook, from which this recipe is adapted. 1 pound shrimp, shelled and chopped to 1/4-inch chunks Salt and pepper 1/2 cup butter 4 scallions, coarsely chopped 1/2 cup fresh parsely, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 tablespoon flour 1 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup dry vermouth 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup grated Romano cheese 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled 1 pound phyllo dough Lightly salt and pepper shrimp and set aside in refrigerator for about an hour to enhance flavor. In a large frying pan, saute' shrimp with butter until the shrimp turn pink. Add scallions, parsley and garlic and saute' lightly until garlic is tender. Add flour and stir quickly. Add cream and vermouth and continue stirring until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat and add egg yolks and cheese. Mix well. Salt and pepper to taste. Cool shrimp mixture before placing on phyllo dough. Prepare phyllo for filling, making sure the sheets are covered until you are ready to use them. Take several sheets of phyllo and cut them into 3-inch strips. Cover all but a few strips. Lay the remaining strips on a flat working surface and working quickly, butter each one. In the lower left hand corner place a teaspoon of filling and fold the lower right hand corner over the filling to the left edge. Like folding the flag, continue folding the strips, alternating from left to right, to the end, folding the extra phyllo at the end to fit neatly on the bottom of the triangle. Place triangle on cookie sheet, seam-side down. (If freezing, place pan in freezer. When frozen, the appetizers can be removed and put loosely in an air-tight container or plastic bag.) When ready to cook, brush them with butter and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 20 minutes or until golden. Allow five extra minutes for frozen hors d'oeuvres (do not thaw or they will become soggy). PHYLLO FILLED WITH CHICKEN, PROSCIUTTO AND PINE NUTS (8 servings) This main course phyllo dish has become a favorite of Marcia Fox's cooking students. It is simple to make -- in fact, it can be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator until ready to bake -- and is very elegant, certain to elicit a chorus of oohs and ahs from admiring guests. 1 tablespoon olive oil 1/3 cup pine nuts 1/2 cup currants or raisins 1/2 cup chicken broth 6 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, finely chopped 1 leek, white part only, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely minced 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry Nutmeg, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste 4 chicken breasts, skinned, boned and halved 8 slices prosciutto 3/4 pound (3 sticks) butter, melted and cooled 16 sheets phyllo dough Heat olive oil, add pine nuts and saute' briefly until light gold. Remove from heat. Soak currants or raisins in chicken broth for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, melt the 6 tablespoons butter. Saute' onion and leek until golden. Add garlic and cook 3 to 4 more minutes. Add spinach and toss well. Cook 1 more minute. Drain pine nuts from oil and currants or raisins from broth. Add to spinach mixture. Season with nutmeg, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste (but remember that the prosciutto is salty so be careful not to oversalt). Set aside. Make a lengthwise slit in each chicken breast half to hold the stuffing. Stuff about 3 tablespoons of the spinach mixture into the slit, then wrap each breast half carefully and tightly with one piece of prosciutto. Prepare phyllo for filling, making sure that the phyllo is kept covered until you are ready to use it. Take two pieces of phyllo from the stack. Quickly brush butter over the first sheet -- with the short edge on the bottom -- then place second sheet on top, brushing it again with butter. Place a chicken breast half on the phyllo, with the long side on the bottom, about 1 inch from the short edge. Fold the bottom edge of the phyllo over the chicken. Then fold up the long edges to meet the sides of the chicken breast. Carefully roll up the pastry around the chicken, stopping halfway to brush with a little more butter. Place seam side down on lightly greased baking sheet and brush again with butter. Repeat with the remaining chicken breast halves. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 15 to 25 minutes, until top is golden. APPLE AND AMARETTI STRUDEL (Makes 2 12-inch-long strudels) This is a favorite of cooking teacher Janice Mary Martin who suggests serving it with either whipped cream or, better still, the creamy Italian cheese mascarpone. 1/2 cup raisins 1/4 cup brandy 1/2 cup dark brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon Juice and finely grated rind from 1 lemon 4 to 5 Granny Smith or other tart apples, peeled and thinly sliced. 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs, dried and finely crumbled 3/4 cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted. 16 sheets phyllo dough 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled 30 Amaretti biscuits, finely crushed Powdered sugar Soak the raisins in the brandy for about one hour. Mix the sugar, cinnamon, and lemon rind together. Place the apples in a large bowl and add the cinnamon mixture and 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs. Drain the raisins and add to the apple mixture, along with the juice from the lemon and 1/4 cup of the almonds. Gently mix and set aside. Get the phyllo ready for folding, making sure to cover tightly the sheets not being used. On the working surface you plan to use to prepare the strudel, place a sheet of parchment paper. Take a single sheet of phyllo and place on parchment paper, with long side on bottom. Brush with melted butter and then sprinkle with some of the crushed Amaretti. Repeat brushing the melted butter with five more sheets of phyllo, sprinkling the Amaretti on every other sheet. After the top sheet is buttered, sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs which will absorb some of the cooked apple juice and prevent the phyllo from becoming soggy. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the almonds on top of the bread crumbs. Take half of the apple mixture and carefully place on the phyllo, leaving about a 1-inch margin on the bottom and sides. Fold up bottom on top of apples and then fold sides to meet the apples. Using the parchment paper, carefully roll the rest of the phyllo around apples, ending with the seam side down. Carefully transfer to baking pan (the parchment paper can remain in the pan). Brush with melted butter. Repeat process with remaining phyllo, Amaretti, bread crumbs, almonds and apple mixture to make another strudel. With razor-sharp knife make about 4 diagonal slashes through all the phyllo sheets on the top layer and then sprinkle very lightly with water. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Check strudels after 20 minutes; if browning too quickly, lower oven to 325 degrees. Allow strudel to rest about one hour before serving. Dust with powdered sugar just before serving. BANANA FRITTERS (4 servings) If intimidated by the idea of paper-thin sheets, try this very easy dish to start experimenting with phyllo. Fresh apple, pineapple or other fruits, except citrus fruits, would work well. And for an even richer dessert, serve with ice cream or whipped cream. 2 peeled bananas, medium ripe 4 sheets phyllo dough 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled 1 egg, lightly beaten Light vegetable oil for frying 3 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon cinnamon Cut the bananas in half crosswise and then cut each piece lengthwise. Get phyllo ready for filling, making sure the sheets are kept covered until they are ready to be used. Cut four phyllo sheets in half, lengthwise. Cover all but one half-sheet. Place the half-sheet of phyllo on a flat surface, with the short side on the bottom. Brush with melted butter. Place one banana piece on the phyllo, horizontally with the bottom edge, leaving about an inch margin. Fold up bottom edge over banana, then sides to meet ends of banana. Roll phyllo over rest of banana. If there seems to be too much phyllo, you may want to cut some off on the top. Seal the edge of the phyllo with a little of the beaten egg to prevent the fritters from coming open when they are deep-fried. Heat oil and gently place fritters in the oil, a few at a time. Deep-fry on both sides until golden brown. Remove and drain excess oil on a towel. Combine the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle liberally over the fritters. Serve immediately. -- Adapted from "The Art of Filo Cookbook" by Marti Sousanis (Addison-Wesley/Aris Books, 1983, $10.95)