BY NATHALIE DUPREE
Phyllo pastry requires turning what seems to be a gossamer-thin sheet of paper into a pastry so brown, crisp and flaky it establishes your culinary reputation for life.
At this time of year, phyllo is ideal for bridal parties and baby showers, Spoleto drop-ins or cocktail parties, or even accompanying soup or salad. The dough accommodates itself to many shapes, but my two favorite are cups and triangles. The fillings can vary considerably, according to what’s at hand, from sweet to savory.
Phyllo (also called filo) translates into the word “leaf.” This flour-and-water dough, much like pasta, is rolled so thin it can be seen through. (Some cuisines add vinegar, lemon juice and/or oil to increase its flexibility.) Seen primarily in Greek, Armenian and Turkish recipes, its dough also is used for strudels, pies, tarts, and other dishes.
Phyllo dough is much easier for the novice cook to use than is imagined when first eating one of those layered buttery treats, and is particularly forgiving in hot and humid weather, when everyday pie crusts can be a challenge. The process goes fastest with two people working in tandem.
Every step should be premeditated and anticipated by the baker to guarantee success and glory:
Purchase two packages of dough. The dough is found in most grocery stores, usually frozen, but occasionally “fresh” (never frozen) in the refrigerator case. There are several varieties commonly available, and longtime users have their favorites, including organic.
Package sizes vary. But above all else, if success is the goal, buy two. That way if the first package is damaged, the second one can be called into use. This is inexpensive insurance.
Treat with care. Avoid putting anything heavy on packages of phyllo, and don’t sling them around in your grocery bag. The fragile dough can crack and crumble. If purchased frozen, keep frozen up to six months until ready to use. When purchased fresh and tightly wrapped, it should last two to three weeks in the refrigerator.
Frozen dough must be defrosted in the package in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Defrosting dough at room temperature for a shorter period of time is tricky and I don’t advise it. If the dough is not defrosted properly, it will stick together, or will still be frozen when unwrapped and clump together and break. Fresh dough is ready to unwrap when at room temperature.
Organize a work area that is two to three times the width of the dough. I use three baking sheets, or two baking sheets and mini muffin tins.
Keep the dough covered. Covering the dough with a lightly damp but not wet dish cloth, tea towel or heavy-duty paper towel keeps it moist and prevents crumbling. An overly wet towel will make the layers soggy, so take care. Once it is coated in butter or oil, it is protected until storage.
Saving broken dough. If the dough crumbles it usually can be patched together to make a rugged sheet. An alternative method is to tuck it inside two sheets of dough, giving the final product an extra bit of flakiness.
Clarify butter. Clarifying butter is not crucial, but it improves the final product considerably. It removes any salt and milk solids, so it prevents a soggy dough or one that burns easily. (Oil is used for some recipes, according to preference.) If clarifying butter is not an option, be sure to mix regularly and avoid using any milk solids that settle at the bottom.
Recipes to try
Each of these recipes calls for one-half package of 9x14-inch dough. Larger-size packages will make more pastries. Leftover phyllo dough can be used within a day or two successfully, if tightly wrapped and well-cared for.
Refreezing phyllo dough brings limited success, depending on the skill of the baker. I don’t find it worth the results.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.
Lisa’s Clarified Butter
For 1 pound phyllo
This is how my assistant, Lisa Moore, prepares her clarified butter, which she learned at the Johnson & Wales University culinary school. A microwave also will work, but the skimming will all have to be done at the end.
1 pound butter
Heat butter over very low heat in a heavy saucepan. You will begin to notice white foam along the top of the pan. This is the milk solids and should be skimmed with a spoon. Skim all the white foam and you will be left with very yellow, translucent liquid. This is clarified butter. If white “bubbles” remain, you may strain the butter, using a fine mesh sieve and three layers of cheese cloth. It can be reheated should it coagulate and get cold. Leftover butter will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered.
Lisa’s Sweet & Savory Apple Bites
These versatile bites are good any time guests drop by, but excel when served with tea in the morning, for baby and wedding showers or cocktails in the evening. The apple variety can be changed if the recipe is adjusted for the flavor and tartness of the apple. The filling can be left chunky or processed until smoother in a food processor or blender.
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
3 Golden Delicious apples, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 package phyllo dough (about 20 each 9x14-inch sheets)
To prepare the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan, add the onion and apple and saute until soft, about 10 minutes. Add nutmeg and cinnamon. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper as necessary.
To prepare the phyllo, carefully unroll one package of sheets onto a sheet pan, and cover with a lightly dampened paper towel or lightweight dish cloth. Work with one sheet at a time on the backside of another sheet pan. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the phyllo sheet with clarified butter. Carefully place a second sheet of phyllo on top of the first, and brush completely with butter using a pastry brush.
Using a sharp knife, cut 4 horizontal strips of phyllo 31/2 inches wide.
Place a tablespoon of filling in the top right corner of one strip. Carefully fold that corner down to the opposite side of the strip, like folding a flag, making a triangle. Repeat folding as with a flag until the entire strip is a triangle pocket, with filling inside. Butter again, and place the filled triangle on a third sheet pan. Repeat with the other strips until all the dough is folded into little triangles. This may be done in advance, covered with plastic wrap, refrigerated or frozen.
Bake at 350 degrees 8 minutes until pale golden. If going from freezer to oven, bake 4 to 5 more minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. These will last several days in the refrigerator and can be reheated. They may be frozen and reheated at a later time, but will lose a bit in quality.
Lisa’s Phyllo Cups With a Kick
Although phyllo cups are sold commercially, they usually need additional brushing with butter and further baking to make as delicious a product. Of course, they do in a pinch, but try to make your own. To vary, add a little protein like chopped cooked shrimp, bacon, ham or beef, adjusting quantity accordingly.
11/2 cups white cheddar cheese, finely grated
1/4 cup hot pepper jelly, or more to taste
1/2 package phyllo dough (about 20 each 9x14-inch sheets)
To prepare filling, mix together cheese and hot pepper jelly.
To prepare the phyllo, carefully unroll one package of sheets onto a sheet pan, and cover with a lightly dampened paper towel or lightweight dish cloth. Work with one sheet at a time on the backside of another sheet pan. Using a pastry brush, lightly coat the phyllo sheet with clarified butter. Carefully place another sheet of phyllo on top of the first, and butter with a pastry brush.
Using a sharp knife, cut 4 horizontal strips of phyllo dough 31/2 inches wide.
Take one buttered strip, and gently fold it into thirds, making a square. Then cut this square again horizontally, making two smaller strips. Place one strip into a mini muffin tin. Then place the other strip perpendicular to the first, making a shell for filling. The phyllo will hang over the top of each cup. Repeat with all remaining phyllo.
Butter a final time, if desired, and bake, unfilled, at 350 degrees for 6 minutes.
These may be made ahead a day or two and kept in a sturdy, tightly sealed container or frozen up to three months. They defrost instantly. To reheat, add to a baking sheet and warm through, 2 to 3 minutes.
Scoop 1 tablespoon of filling into each warm cup. Return to the oven for 2 more minutes until the cheese is melted. Serve warm or at room temperature.