There are plenty of times when I’m inspired enough by “The Great British Baking Show” to say, “I want to make that.” (And then I have!) Then there are the challenges that do exactly the opposite. “I will NEVER make that.” As in, phyllo dough.
Watching a bunch of charming Brits struggle to stretch epic sheets of thin pastry over entire counters is entertaining television, but the struggle is not something I’d dare try to replicate in my own kitchen — which, frankly, is probably not large enough to even attempt it.
Thankfully, not wanting to make phyllo (or fillo, as you might see it spelled in some places) does not mean not using it. That’s because this staple, often associated with such Greek fare as baklava or spanakopita, is easy to buy at the grocery store. It’s also quite easy to use, assuming you keep the following tips in mind.
The details. “It’s just a very basic, extremely thin pastry dough,” says Lauren Bellon, creative and media manager for the Fillo Factory, one of the brands you’re likely to see in the supermarket. It’s a pretty simple product, consisting of flour, water, salt, oil and, depending on the specific brand, additional starch or preservatives. Because it’s an unleavened dough, it bakes up thin and crispy.
Prepping. Most phyllo sold at the supermarket is frozen in 18-by-13 sheets that are rolled up into a cylinder and packaged in a thin, long box. It has to be thawed before you use it. Bellon says she often lets the dough thaw on the counter for a few hours, but if you want to be by-the-book, let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. If you come home from the store and know you’ll be using the phyllo in the near future, you can go ahead and put it straight in the fridge. It can hang out there for a few weeks, although some varieties, such as Fillo Factory’s preservative-free organic dough, have to stay in the freezer to keep it from going bad.
Because it’s so lean, phyllo can dry out very quickly. Keep a damp towel draped over the sheets you’re not using while you’re working with it. You can even layer a piece of plastic wrap below the towel for extra insurance. Bellon also suggests having all your other ingredients ready to go “so you don’t have to turn your back on it.” She says extra sheets can be stored in the refrigerator or refrozen, as long as they’re tightly wrapped and kept in a bag with as much air squeezed out as possible.
Cookbook author and Food section contributor Cathy Barrow likes to line her counters with plastic wrap for easy cleanup and organizing the inevitable torn or split (but totally salvageable! see below) sheets.
Working with it. Always brush butter or oil in between your layers. “If phyllo is the building block, butter is the mortar,” Barrow says. “The stretched dough is made of nothing more than flour and water, and butter brings it to life.” It can also bring cracked phyllo back to life. All you have to do is pat the pieces back into shape and use a pastry brush lightly dipped in butter (or oil) to glue them together. The fat brushed in between the sheets of phyllo is also crucial for allowing the sheets to bake up distinct and crisp.
If you are shaping your phyllo into rolls, triangles or other packets (more on that below), Barrow recommends “a comfortable, easy fold.” Too tight and the filling might explode while the pastries bake. The number of sheets you need varies depending on what you’re making, but Bellon says three is a safe minimum for many shapes, keeping in mind the layers on each side will multiply as the pastry is folded onto itself. No matter your shape, cut the dough with a sharp knife or pastry or pizza wheel for neat edges.
Phyllo can easily burn during baking. You don’t want the oven too hot, Bellon says, suggesting 375 degrees as a maximum temp. The color of the finished bake should be a “nice, healthy golden tone,” she says. Frequently check while baking, because even a short amount of extra time can scorch the dough.
Start creating. The possibilities with phyllo are almost limitless. Shape it into rolls, triangles or purses. Try it as the shell for a strudel. Alternate large sheets and filling for a layered pie, use a stack of sheets as the crust for a sweet or savory pie, or include a bottom and top for a potpie. One great example is the Moroccan bistilla, a pie that mixes sweet and savory. Phyllo dough can be turned into a base for tartlets, too. If you don’t want to buy separate phyllo cups, you can make your own by baking stacks of squares in mini or standard muffin tins, as in the Fig Baklava Tartlets above.
Stuff or layer phyllo with just about anything you like, assuming it’s not too wet. Take inspiration from all over the world, whether it’s an Indian samosa, Turkish borek or British beef Wellington. “It’s kind of a cross-cultural product,” Bellon says. Or come up with a creation that’s 100 percent you. Phyllo is just the ticket to jazzing up leftovers — which you may end up liking even more than the original dish.
Need a few ideas? Check out these recipes from our archives.
Creamy Roasted Strawberry Phyllo Triangles. This is a recipe where you actually want less-juicy supermarket strawberries that won’t turn the pastry soggy.
Spring Greens and Herbed Cheese Phyllo Triangles. If you’re looking for a classy little party snack, this one’s a winner.
Baked Halibut on Phyllo With Parm Topping. Here’s a beautiful, elegant dish that works just as well at home as it does in a restaurant.
Honey Baklava Batons. They’re inspired by baklava, but rolling these treats up means much less work.
Any-Nut Tart. There’s no need to stress about pie crust when you have a package of phyllo.
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