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Phyllo, Fillo, or Filo, which means "leaf" in Greek, is tissue paper-thin like sheets of dough made from flour, water and a bit of oil. However, Phyllo dough was not born in Greece rather in Istanbul during the Ottoman reign. The name "Phyllo" is Greek but the dough technique itself is Turkish. Strudel dough is thought to be a variant, although made somehwhat differently.
Of all Turkey's delicious sweet confections, the most famous is baklava. This exquisite flavored pastry has been made in Anatolia for many centuries, and its ancestor is widely believed to be a dish made by the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. They were the first people who put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts, dried fruit in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, historically, baklava was considered a food for the rich until mid-19th century.
Phyllo has been incorporated into American cuisine with open arms. It is used here in traditional recipes, as well as in new and innovative desserts. It can also stand in for its difficult cousin’s strudel dough and puff pastry, although Phyllo is flour and water dough. In fact Strudel and Baklava dough making are very similar in technique. Like strudel dough, Phyllo sheets are layered and brushed lightly in between with melted butter or oil that result in a puffed-up height and are crisp, light and flavorful.
Phyllo can enclose a huge variety of fillings, both savory and sweet. It can be assembled in a variety of shapes and sizes such as cones, tubes, pie shells, pizza crusts, pouches, roles, strudels, or triangles. Phyllo can be twisted, folded, rolled and pressed into pie, tart and even muffin pans as a substitute for pie and pastry dough. It can be shredded and used for making "nests" filled with fresh fruit or ice cream. Phyllo can be cut easily to make bite-sized appetizers or left large to make a strudel. It can play a supporting role in Venetian Napoleons, separating layers of mascarpone cheese and sweetened strawberries that are laced with port and balsamic vinegar.
Phyllo dough can be used in a lot of new recipes, such as chocolate phyllo. It is made by sprinkling sifted cocoa powder and confectioner's sugar (25:75) in between the buttered layers or on top. Because they contain little fat and can be brushed in between with small amounts of butter, low-fat dessert recipes, such as the Apple Phyllo Tart Recipe, are quite delicious.
Sold in 1-pound packages containing about 20 sheets of dough, Phyllo is almost always frozen. It is found frozen in the freezer section of the grocery store. Grocery store brands such as Athens, Apollo, and Pepperidge Farms are all good. Sizes vary from brand to brand, and the sheets may need to be trimmed to fit the pan.
Fresh phyllo is available in some Greek, Middle Eastern, upscale and international markets in large cities and through direct factory shipment. Fresh dough offers big advantages. Since the pliable sheets have been refrigerated but never frozen, they have a superior texture and are easier to handle while buttering and shaping. Fresh phyllo dough and prebaked phyllo shells are available.
SARAH SAYS: You can also make you own phyllo dough, which I have done and it's truly an incredible experience. It's an enormous amount of work to make: a regular-sized ball of dough is stretched thinner and thinner by the backs of many hands into a thin sheet of dough as long and wide as a dining room table cloth. You won't believe how thin you make the sheets; like tissue paper, so thin and transparent that you wonder how it stays together without tearing.
The tricky part is when you stretch the phyllo dough when you make your own -- you don't want to puncture it when it becomes paper thin. Remove all hand and wrist jewelry and turn rings stone side into palm when stretching. Use the back of your hands, particularly your knuckles, to stretch it. And be sure to place the stretched dough over a dry towel on the table so that you can roll it up easily.
HOW PHYLLO DOUGH SHEET STRETCHES AND STAYS TOGETHER: It's the gluten formed in the dough from wheat flour and moisture, mixed together that holds it together. Because there is oil in the recipe, it's not an effective as a classical shortener, such as stick butter or shortening, so long strands of gluten are formed in the dough. These strands are then stretched thinner and thinner until the sheets are as thin as tissue paper!
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Always buy the "freshest" frozen dough possible. If your grocer does not sell a lot of phyllo dough, you may be buying a package of dough that has sat in a freezer case for too many months. Similarly, replace any packages that have sat too long in your own freezer. Almost any phyllo recipe can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen. Although a layered dish such as baklava needs to cool several hours, most pastries are baked just before serving to be the freshest, and flakiest.
Assemble everything before unwrapping the thawed or fresh phyllo dough -- have the butter melted and cooled, baking sheets and equipment ready to use.
The challenges of working with phyllo dough are threefold:
First, if not defrosted properly, the pastry sheets can stick together from too much moisture.
Frozen phyllo dough must be thawed at least 12 to 24 hours before you start the recipe. For best results, remove the dough, still in its package, from the freezer and place directly in the refrigerator to thaw; do not open the box because the sheets won't thaw properly. Also, do not thaw at room temperature because the sheets tend to stick together. If thawed too quickly or if the sheets are cold when you unfold them, they will crack.
Secondly, the pastry dries out rapidly and cracks because it is so thin and has almost no fat.
When ready to use the phyllo dough, unwrap it from its box and unfold it carefully. Take what you need and then some extra; do not separate the sheets when counting -- just estimate. Phyllo dough dries out quickly and can crack when exposed to air, which takes only a couple of minutes. Place immediately onto a large piece of plastic wrap on a smooth, clean surface. Cover right away with a large piece of plastic wrap. Place a damp kitchen towel (wet it, then wring it out) on top of the plastic. Rewrap the extra dough tightly in plastic wrap, set it aside until finished. When done, you will return it to its original box and place in the freezer or refrigerator for longer storage.
Finally, the sheets are paper-thin and tear easily. But, proper handling and some practice will make these problems manageable.
Traditionally, every phyllo sheet is brushed with melted butter or oil. One by one, each phyllo sheet is removed from the stack and placed in a pan or work surface. The removed sheet must be prepped immediately by buttering, otherwise it will dry out quickly. Then, another one is placed on top and then buttered, again up to multiple layers depending on the recipe. The result is a puffed-up height and the baked sheets become a flaky, delicate and golden brown pastry.
Don’t panic if a sheet tears, splits, or develops a hole. Trim or patch any bad spots, or cover the damage with another sheet of dough. Once it’s baked, no one will notice. Phyllo dough can be forgiving that way.
Storage: Keep the box because unused phyllo dough can be refrigerated or refrozen. You can wrap any leftover phyllo tightly with plastic wrap, place in its original box and keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. For longer storage of up to 2 - 4 months, refreeze phyllo. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and overlay with foil, place in original box.
BUTTER THE PHYLLO LAYERS
Begin buttering the dough in between each layer or as directed by the recipe. Do not overdo it, since too much butter yields greasy pastries. To apply: dip a soft pastry brush in the liquid butter or oil and brush lightly, starting with the edges first so they won't dry out and crack. Quickly move to the middle and then work back towards the edges, brushing any part of the dough that hasn't been previously buttered.
SARAH SAYS: Spray the butter through a clean plastic bottle! Fill it with a 3-to-1 ratio of melted butter to vegetable oil. You need the oil to keep the fat fluid, best for spraying. Should the butter congeal, microwave the plastic bottle for a few seconds. Let cool slightly before using.
Always replace the plastic wrap and towels over the remainder so it won’t dry out: When removing a phyllo sheet, the key is to be gentle. If all the sheets seem stuck, then the dough may have partially defrosted at some point and the dough may be unusable. A damaged portion can usually be trimmed and discarded. You can still use the good parts.
After buttering, place the next sheet on top, using both hands to hold it. Immediately butter again. Small wrinkles and cracks are common. If the sheets crack, you can always patch and piece phyllo dough on whatever you're making, but make sure you always butter in between any layer or patching piece. To prevent weak spots and further tearing, butter any cracks carefully, and try not to position tears on top of each other.
Butter or oil options: There are several.
Clarified butter: Clarified butter is traditionally used in phyllo recipes, which is simply melted butter with all the milk solids removed; it also creates an extra crisp and flaky pastry.
SARAH SAYS: Use approximately 1/2 cup butter (or oil) for 16 sheets of phyllo dough, or 1/2 Tbsp. of butter per phyllo sheet. (8 Tbsp. = 1/2 cup = 1 stick butter). However, I usually make a couple of tablespoons more than the recipe calls for, which has never been wasted.
Browning the butter first will give the baked dough a much deeper buttery flavor:
SARAH SAYS: For 2 tablespoons brown butter, place 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a small or heavy saucepan or skillet over moderately low heat. Cook slowly until the butter smells like roasting nuts and the solids in the bottom of the pan are golden brown. Tilt the pan, carefully skim off the white residue on the surface of the butter and discard. Spoon the clear butter into a small bowl, leaving the solids behind.
Oil: Some savory recipes specify brushing the dough with olive, flavored or vegetable oil instead of with butter. You can also combine fats; try use melted butter with as small amount of walnut oil for a nuttier taste.
Pre-cooked or baked fillings: Make sure your filling is prepared and completely cooled before beginning to use the phyllo sheets because the dough has little fat and moisture can make it soggy. It should also be chilled and not excessively moist, as in the Apple Phyllo Tart Recipe. A filling that is even slightly warm will wilt the pastry and make breaking and tearing more likely to happen.
SARAH SAYS: To seal in the fillings, lightly brush egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 - 2 tablespoons water) in between the sheets just on the edges. You can then twist or fold the ends. The wash will bake and seal the ends.
Sprinkles: are fillings. They are put in between the layers for a different effect. Examples are sugar or confectioner's sugar, chopped nuts, toasted coconut, bread crumbs, and ground almonds.
For sweet recipes, sugar or confectioner's sugar can be sprinkled over the butter before the next sheet of phyllo is placed on top. The last sheet can have sugar sprinkled on top of the butter. The baked phyllo will be sweet and crunchy and will get less soggy when used with creamy fillings and fruit compotes.
Chopped nuts, toasted coconut, bread crumbs, and ground almonds can be used on top of the butter in between the layers or just sprinkled on top for additional flavor and texture. Bread crumbs are good to use to prevent a too-wet filling from making your Phyllo dish soggy. Bread crumbs or chopped nuts add more body to strudel rolls and result in a nicer finished appearance.
End each recipe with a good coating of oil or butter. This will prevent drying and ensure a golden crust.
If you are planning to slice the recipe after baking, score phyllo before putting into oven. This will allow you to slice through cleanly after baking. Electric knives work wonderfully when slicing through phyllo, even when they aren't scored before baking. If making baklava, cut in the traditional triangles before baking or freezing.
HOW TO SERVE / STORE A PHYLLO RECIPE
Almost any Phyllo recipe can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated and/or frozen. For best results, bake the Phyllo and optionally fill before serving to be the freshest, and most flaky. Do not microwave anything made with phyllo dough, as it becomes limp and soggy. Heat and humidity and the texture of some fillings may cause the phyllo to become soggy if it isn’t served promptly. Serve baked pastries warm, or at room temperature.
Shaped: You can bake Phyllo shapes in advance. Store in an airtight container until ready to assemble the recipes.
Freeze already baked and cooled Phyllo shapes, well wrapped for at least a month. If you have many, pack in layers, separated by waxed paper and wrapped tightly. To thaw, place in a 325 degrees F oven until warm. If they are defrosted, reheat at 350 degrees.
Shaped and Filled: Place the filled pieces on baking sheets sprayed with nonstick spray, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to bake for several days, depending on the filling. If the filling is soggy, it is best baked right away.
To refrigerate, wrap well in plastic wrap or if freezing also place in an airtight freezer bag. Before baking, filled phyllo pastry can be frozen for up to one month, depending on the filling, but allow extra time in the oven.
If frozen, to bake, do not thaw as the filled phyllo dough will become soggy; simply place in a well preheated oven straight from the freezer or after filling. Reheat previously baked dough on a baking sheet in a 350-degree F oven, until crisp and the filling is warm.
Suggested equipment needed
One or more packages of frozen phyllo dough. If you need all the sheets in one package, buy a second for extra insurance.
Chilled filling and other ingredients
Kitchen shears or scissors for trimming any excess phyllo dough. Be careful when using a sharp knife because if pulled, it tears the phyllo sheet. I have also successfully used a pizza cutting wheel when the Phyllo is flat and I am cutting into strips.
Pastry brush - Use a soft bristle brush to spread butter over Phyllo, not a hard bristle brush. A 1-1/2 - or 2-inch flat brush is large enough to cover a sheet of dough quickly, but not too big to use when buttering small pastry shapes. Oil can be sprayed with a refillable spray bottle.
Ruler to measure the phyllo before cutting
Light, cotton dish towel for covering unused phyllo sheets with.
Plastic wrap. Parchment paper, waxed or aluminum foil -- is the primary tool for rolling when making fragile strudel. It comes in sheets or rolls about 12–15" wide. Check the width of the phyllo before buying paper—it should be at least as wide as the phyllo dough. If you don’t have parchment paper, wide foil is a distant second choice. It can work in a pinch, but it’s stiffer and not as helpful in the rolling process.
Baking sheets - Like most baked goods, Phyllo must be baked on a flat surface — I like to use a cookie sheet (the kind with only one raised side) so I can slide the unbaked and filled shapes from the counter to the cookie sheet.
Large metal spatula