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Fun With Phylllo

Phyllo pastry is such a versatile ingredient.  It can be used for everything from snacks and appetizers to main dishes and impressive desserts!  Phyllo pastry is made with flour, water and a small amount of oil or white vinegar. Phyllo-based pastries are made by layering many sheets of phyllo pastry brushed with olive oil or melted butter. The pastry is then filled, shaped and baked.  The crisp texture of baked phyllo pastries is achieved by the extreme thinness of the dough and by brushing each sheet lightly with melted butter before using it. The butter helps keep the sheets from sticking together while the recipe bakes and produces separate fragile sheets of pastry.

Did you know?  Phyllo pastry is first mentioned in the late 15th century when Baklava was made with 40 layers of pastry filled with nuts and soaked in a fragrant sweet syrup to commemorate the 40 days of the religious feast Lent.

Phyllo pastry is actually very easy to work with.  There is therefore no reason to be intimidated by it.  Most of the technique involved in working with phyllo pastry is in the assembly of phyllo pastry into a recipe. The good news is that unlike making other types of pastry, there is no science involved in working with phyllo pastry. You do not need to know the proper way to work the fat into the flour or how much liquid to add.  And there is also no rolling involved. Easy peasy!

Here are just a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Thaw phyllo pastry thoroughly. Thaw the pastry in the fridge overnight, and bring to room temperature (about 2 hours) before using. This will ensure that the sheets of pastry will separate easily, without sticking and tearing.
  • As soon as the sealed packet is opened, unroll and remove as many sheets of pastry as is required. Roll up, seal and refrigerate the rest of the pastry for later use or turn into squares and seal airtight and refrigerated for later use or turn into pastry cases and bake to uses within about one month. If not used immediately, place the sheets removed onto a dry cloth, cover with another dry and then only a damp cloth. Dampness in direct contact with the sheets will make it stick together. This method ensures that the pastry will remain soft and pliable without coming into contact with direct moisture. This practice applies for every recipe.
  • Phyllo pastry may be kept frozen in the home freezer for up to 3 months.  To thaw, best results is obtained by leaving the frozen pastry in the refrigerator overnight and then one hour at room temperature. If pressed for time, thaw at room temperature for 3 – 4 hours at room temperature before using.  If the sheets are even slightly frozen they will crack while unrolling and become useless or difficult to work with.
  • Whether sweet or savoury pastries are made, phyllo pastry is always brushed with melted butter or margarine and sometimes combined with sunflower or olive oil. Liquid margarine may also be used. Butter tends to brown quicker and should not be used for pastries which bake for a long time such as large rolls or those that are delicate such as Pastry Cases.  Combine the butter with a little oil or use firm margarine instead.  The amount of butter or margarine used in each recipe is difficult to determine exactly and a little more or less may be applied as preferred.  Using a moderate amount of butter, margarine or oil has the added advantage that the pastry is much lower in kilojoules, compared to all other types of pastry.
  • The same recipe for filling and crust may be devised to make different shapes and sizes of products for instance the Greek Milk Tart can be made into a large tart or individual rolls by adjusting the method of filling and shaping.  If a recipe is given for bundles it may also be turned into triangles.  A little experimenting will lead to creating new phyllo treats.
  • To cut the pastry neatly into squares or strips it is advisable to fold the pastry, press down onto the fold line, unfold and cut through the fold line with a sharp smooth edged knife.  Several sheets may be folded and cut simultaneously.  Do not cut the pastry through the sides while folded – the edges will become untidy.
  • To facilitate easier and neater cutting of large tarts for instance Spanakopita or Baklava after baking, cut through the top layers of pastry only, before baking and  right through once cooked.  Alternatively, if the top layers are too crisp to slice neatly after baking, cover with a cloth for 10 minutes to allow the steam to soften them slightly.
  • If the filling or filling ingredients used are cold and relatively dry and firm the small pastries or large pies may be assembled beforehand and kept refrigerated up to a day before baking.  This method will not be suitable for soft fillings or hot mixtures.
  • Always roll up the pastry lightly or layer without pressing down firmly onto the layers. Air trapped between the layers will ensure lightness and expansion during baking.  If rolled too tightly the rolls will open or crack while baking.
  • Baking at the correct temperature is of great importance. Adjust the oven if it is inclined to bake too warm or too cold.  Products baked in a too hot oven will crack and burst open and brown too soon or too much.  If the oven is to cool, the pastry will not become as light as it should be and will dry out during baking.
  • Phyllo pastry does not take kindly to microwave cooking or reheating – it harms the texture of the pastry and should not be used unless it is a large pie that needs to be partly defrosted or one small little pastry which needs to be warmed quickly.
  • A pastry brush is an essential kitchen tool to have when working with phyllo pastry.  Pastry brushes used to be made only with natural or nylon bristles similar to a paint brush, but modern pastry brushes has silicone bristles, which is recommended seeing that it does not retain the smell of ingredients like a nylon brush would.

Phyllo is one of my favourite ingredients to teach. Students are usually amazed at how easy it is to use and also at the versatility of this ingredient. If you are petrified to work with phyllo, or you would like to expand your culinary repertoire with a few new phyllo recipes, be sure to book a customised cooking lesson for where you specify what you would like to learn to make. The lessons take place in your own kitchen! I also do culinary demonstration and hands-on culinary sessions for groups – either at one of Cooking Up A Storm’s approved venues in Gauteng or at a venue of your choice. Please contact me for more details.

Be sure to check out the chapter on Phyllo Pastry in the Art Of Cooking recipe book. Below are photo’s of a few of recipes made from phyllo pastry created by Carolié de Koster.

Asparagus Phyllo Pie
Lamb & Vegetable Phyllo Pastries
Tuna, Egg & Green-bean Salad
Shrimp Starter
Ricotta Pumpkin & Almond Phyllo Rolls
Phyllo Pizza
Galaktouboureko (Greek Milk Tart)
Phyllo Fantasy
Custard Phyllo Baskets With Cinnamon Sugar
Pear Phyllo Bundles With Chocolate Sauce
Choc Date & Nut Cigars