It’s no secret I believe pie is the most sensible food to bring to a party. Whether savory or sweet, large or small, the combination of a richly flavored filling and crispy, buttery pastry can’t be beat. I am not alone. In every corner of the world, people have been wrapping up delicious food in some form of dough. In Greece, phyllo stands in for the crust.
In Greek, the suffix “pita” signifies pie. Tiropita is a cheese-filled phyllo pie, and tiropites are the triangle pies sized more like a hand pie. When serving a crowd, it’s tiropita strifti, a snail-shaped spiral of phyllo wrapped around cheese filling. Add “horto” to pita, and it might be a pie filled with leafy mustard or dandelion greens. Spanakopita is filled with spinach and cheese. These pies are perfectly portable — an ideal bring-along for your next get together.
Phyllo is hand-stretched to a glorious translucent dough. Success with it is dependent on preparation. Start with the work surface: I like to line the counter with plastic wrap. Not only does it speed clean up, but it also helps organize the (often torn or split) sheets. Also, use plastic wrap to cover the stack of defrosted, unfurled phyllo, to keep it from drying out. Adding a slightly damp clean kitchen towel on top of that plastic wrap will hold in the moisture even more. Take time to set up your space, and the process will be a breeze.
If phyllo is the building block, butter is the mortar. The stretched dough is made of nothing more than flour and water, and butter brings it to life. Phyllo is wont to split and tear. Just pat it into shape atop the plastic wrap and use a pastry brush lightly dipped in butter to piece the pastry sheet back together. The second sheet will be not quite as challenging to place and butter, and the third will be even easier. Those three sheets, bound by butter, are filled and formed into petite pies.
To make a spectacular pie, filling flavors must be bold and well seasoned. A dull filling will be lost in the layers of translucent dough. A pinch more salt, a dash of honey, or a squeeze of lemon punctuates the difference between drab and dazzling. At the same time, the fillings must not be watery or the pie will become damp and soggy, overshadowing the crackling buttery layers.
Use a bright, zippy spring stir-fry mix in the savory pies. Keep the colors bright by barely cooking the leaves, then splash them with lemon juice. My first batch, made with new chard leaves, turned a rosy pink. For the sweet pies, roast strawberries until they are syrupy and intensely flavored to keep the filling stiff and not at all wet.
Plop the filling at the bottom edge of the phyllo stack, and, as if folding a flag, lift one corner of the phyllo sheets up and over the filling. It will not cover the filling entirely, but continue to fold it over itself to form a triangular shape and all the open edges will be contained, the filling encased in a phyllo hug. Make it a comfortable, easy fold; too tight and the filling will explode out of the side during baking.
I like to gather a couple of friends (and some appropriate libations) to make a hundred or more little pitas at once. It’s easy, companionable work, and everyone leaves with a freezer stash of appetizers, lunch-with-a-salad, or after-school snacks that can be baked directly from the freezer. Sure, phyllo pies may be what you carry to your next gathering, but set a few aside, too. They’re kid-friendly, and bake in 20 minutes, even in a toaster oven. Sweet or savory, they’re spectacularly snackable.
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Makes 24 cookie-size triangles
This recipe works best with the harder, often white-centered grocery store strawberries as locally grown strawberries will be too juicy. Roasting the strawberries prevents a watery filling, honey elevates the fruity flavor, and lemon juice brightens it. Be generous with the buttering of the phyllo sheets. The filling expands when heated, so keep the triangle a little loose when folding.
NOTE: Phyllo sheets are not equally sized. Depending on the brand, the sheets range in size from 9-by-14-inches to 14-by-16-inches. Use your best judgment when cutting the strips of buttered, layered sheets: 3-inches wide is a good goal, but if the phyllo is 14-inches wide, it divides evenly into sections that are 3 ½ -inches.
MAKE AHEAD: The filling may be made up to 3 days ahead. The triangles may be made up to 3 months ahead. Freeze the unbaked triangles on baking sheets and transfer to a freezer container or zip-top bag. Bake directly from the freezer at the same temperature and for the same amount of time.
8 ounces phyllo sheets, see NOTE
8 tablespoons salted butter
1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and chopped, see NOTE
2 tablespoons sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon honey
½ cup farmers cheese
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Defrost the phyllo overnight in the refrigerator.
Melt the butter over medium-high heat until foamy. Pour the melted butter into a glass measuring cup or bowl, and let it sit for a few minutes while the butterfats drop to the bottom. Pour the clear, yellow butter into another measuring cup or bowl and reserve. Discard the butterfats.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
For the filling: Spread the chopped strawberries out on one of the baking sheets and sprinkle with the sugar. Roast on the upper rack of the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the berries have collapsed and the liquids have reduced to syrup. Scrape the berries and syrup into a medium bowl. You should have about ½ cup. Add the lemon juice and honey and stir well. Let the filling cool for a few minutes while setting up the phyllo sheets.
Reline the baking sheet with parchment paper.
Set up an area on the counter to work and line it with one or two generous pieces of plastic wrap, establishing a workspace larger than the phyllo sheet. Unfurl the rolled up phyllo sheets, placing them to one side of the workspace. Cover them with a sheet of plastic wrap and then a clean, slightly damp kitchen towel to keep them from drying out. One at a time, peel off a sheet of phyllo (replacing the plastic and towel each time) and place it on the plastic-wrap-lined counter with the long edge parallel to the edge of the counter. If it splits or tears, just piece it back together atop the plastic wrap.
Use a pastry brush to gently dab some butter here and there on the phyllo sheet and then briskly and lightly brush it across from edge to edge. Do not dismay if the sheet tears. Butter is the glue. Stack the next sheet on top of the last and brush again with the butter. Repeat until three sheets are stacked and buttered. With a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, slice the stacked sheets into six equal sections, each about 3⅓ inches wide and 9 inches long.
Stir the farmers cheese into the filling; the filling should be stiff. Place one firmly packed generous tablespoon of filling at the 3⅓ -inch edge of each section of phyllo. Grasping one corner (use an offset spatula to loosen it from the plastic wrap), fold the phyllo over the filling on an angle, to form a triangle. Continue to fold the triangle over itself, like folding a flag. It should not be tight or snug, but a relaxed fold. Brush the butter over the top and sides of the pastry (if overlooked, they will not brown as well as the top), place it seam-side down on the baking sheet and continue with the remaining phyllo sheets until there are 6 little pies. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets, three at a time, making 6 pies with each 3-sheet stack.
Slide the baking sheets into the oven, rotating and swapping the position of the baking sheets after 10 minutes. Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the little pies are golden brown, flaky and shiny.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
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