Handmade phyllo: The mother of French puff pastry

Close up of two hands kneading dough on a table top

Phyllo dough comes in long packages that you can find in the freezer section of just about any grocery store in America.

It wasn’t always so.

Phyllo boasts a pedigree older than puff pastry and strudel dough.  In fact, expert baker Rose Levy Beranbaum in her The Pie and Pastry Bible speculates that the first phyllo pastry, baklava, which was created in Ottoman Istanbul, traveled to Hungary, where it became the base for strudel, then through the rest of Europe.  Some food historians consider phyllo the mother of French puff pastry.

In Cleveland, in the late 1950s, Jim Kantzios, a baker from northern Greece and his nephew, George Pappas, invented a labor saving device that changed Greek and Middle Eastern cooking forever. Kantzios owned a bakery and Pappas eventually designed a machine that extruded 800 pounds of gossamer thin sheets an hour.  Since their company, Athens Foods, patented their Fully Automated Fillo Dough Machine, home cooks have tossed away their dowels in droves to buy their phyllo from the world’s largest producer.

Phyllo has it all: flavor, texture and beauty.  Ask someone of Greek heritage.  They’ll wax poetic on their grandmother’s handmade fresh phyllo cheese pies, baklava or spanakopita.  A long, narrow, wooden dowel, flour, water, salt, oil and a set of strong arms were all those grandmothers needed to make fresh phyllo dough.

You might wonder why anyone would want to.

If caviar is a gift of the gods, then handmade phyllo is a gift of the fairies.  Its ethereal, crispy nature is something food lovers dream about.  Many cooks avoid it as a disaster in the making. With improper handling it can turn into an annoying, sticky mess that you’ll want to toss into the compost.  And I warn you, after an hour of rolling phyllo, your arms will feel as if you’ve arm-wrestled Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the rewards are great…because, of course, there is nothing that can beat handmade.

I urge you to try these recipes. The dough is simple and straightforward to put together. Most importantly, don’t stress about rolling. A 1/2- to 1-inch diameter long, plain wooden dowel works wonders at rolling out thin sheets of phyllo dough, but you may wish to use a pasta rolling machine instead.

Although phyllo means leaf, most home cooks don’t roll their phyllo super thin, it’s more like two to three paper sheets thick. Greek chef Diane Kochilas is not overly careful when rolling phyllo dough; she’s not afraid to patch holes. Her secret to success: she uses a generous amount of olive oil. After making and baking with handmade phyllo I guarantee that you’ll be hooked and may never look at a box of frozen phyllo again.

Handmade phyllo is most famously used for pies, but not exactly the type Americans make. Nomadic shepherds in the mountainous northern and mainland regions of Greece first developed a choice array of savory pita (phyllo pies) or pites—flat and round, square, triangular or coiled, large or hand-size—designed for easy transport. Now cooks everywhere in Greece make them. You may prepare pites on or in a sheet or cake pan or in a cast-iron skillet, with commercial or handmade dough, in large or individual-size pies.

Tiropita: cheese, usually feta or other local cheese, and egg

Hortopita: cooked and seasoned wild greens and herbs, sometimes with cheese, egg, or breadcrumbs, rice or bulgar

Prasopita: leek and cheese

Kreratopita: meat filled, usually pork, lamb, or occasionally, beef.

Kotopita: chicken

Kremmythopita: onion with bacon or nuts

Spanakopita: spinach, herb, and feta and/or egg

Makaronopita: macaroni and cheese

Kolokithopita: zucchini, feta, eggs, and herb

Manitaropita: mushroom

Melitzanopita: eggplant

Patatopita: potato

Milopita: apple

Kolokithopita: pumpkin

 

Signature Technique: Filling and Rolling Greek Fillo Pies (Pita or Pites)

  1. Prepare dough according to recipe and allow it to rest while preparing the filling.

*For two 9-inch pies, prepare 2 pounds dough.

*For one 14-inch round or 9-inch by 12-inch pie, prepare 1-1/2 pounds dough.

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Divide dough into 3 slightly larger balls and 3 smaller balls. Cover them so they don’t dry and crust over. (One 3-1/2- to 4-ounce ball of dough will roll out to about 15 inches.)
  2. With a 20-inch long, 7/8-inch wooden dowel, roll out 1 larger dough ball to a 6- to 8-inch diameter on a well-floured surface. Cover with plastic wrap and rest dough 5 minutes to relax gluten.
  3. Flour (or use cornstarch) dough well. Wrap nearest edge of dough around pin. Roll with slight pressure until 1/2-inch of far edge is left. Turn pin 90 degrees and unroll, applying slight pressure, onto floured surface. Repeat process of rolling dough onto pin with pressure 1/2 inch up to edge, turning 90 degrees and unrolling with pressure, until dough is 2 inches larger in diameter than the pan you are using. This will take around 10 to 15 turns. Dough will be 1/16-inch thick, about the thickness of 1 to 2 sheets typing paper, and wrinkled.
  4. Oil or butter pan. Roll finished dough around dowel. Brush off excess flour and transfer to pan.
  5. Unroll dough in or onto pan. Brush dough with olive oil. This is the first layer. Repeat rolling and turning process with two larger dough balls. Lay each sheet of dough into pan over first layer of dough and brush with oil.
  6. Toss fine cracked wheat or toasted bread crumbs over bottom to soak up juices. Spread filling evenly over dough, up to 1-inch from edge.
  7. Roll out remaining 3 smaller dough balls. Cut them to fit into inside diameter of pan to cover filling. Brush each layer with olive oil.
  8. Fold up hanging edges of dough or twist edges up decoratively. Brush edges and top of crust with remaining olive oil. Slash a vent into top of pie.
  9. Place pie in oven and bake 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees F and bake pie until golden, 20 minutes to 30 minutes more. Cool pie slightly before cutting.

 

Handmade Fillo Dough

This dough, made with olive oil, is prevalent in most of Greece. Fillo dough is best made with higher-gluten flours (bread flour or King Arthur all-purpose). They result in a dough that is stronger than one made with softer all-purpose flour like White Lily. The softer (lower protein or gluten) the flour, the less water needed, so add the water slowly, as needed.

From Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques

Yields approximately 1-1/2 pounds dough

Enough for 12- to 14-inch round cake pan or half hotel pan and 8 to 10 cups filling.

3 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, about 15 ounces

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 tablespoons olive oil

4-1/2 teaspoons red or white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice

1/2 to 2/3 cup warm water

Flour or cornstarch for rolling

  1. Mix flour and salt together in large bowl.
  2. Mix olive oil and vinegar together and pour into flour. Mix together to a moist dough, adding water as necessary. The dough should come together into a non-sticky ball.
  3. Knead dough in bowl or on work surface until smooth, elastic, and resilient, 10 minutes. Dust with flour or cornstarch as necessary to keep dough from sticking.
  4. Cover dough with damp towel or plastic wrap. Rest 30 minutes to 2 hours in warm place. Refrigerate in airtight zipper baggie up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using.

 

Vary! Improvise!

Northern Greek Macedonians prepare a flaky version of this dough with 1 tablespoon olive oil and water. The slightly rolled dough then is brushed with melted butter, folded, and chilled, similar to puff pastry. It is brought to room temperature before the final rolling.

Greek Pita: Mixed Greens (Hortópita) or Spinach (Spanokopita)

Greeks, especially Cretans, are obsessed with wild greens, called horta. Crete has more than

300 varieties edible wild green “weeds.” Tough greens wilt by half; delicate greens wilt more.

From Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques

Yields 8 to 10 cups

 

Handmade Fillo Dough or 1 pound commercial fillo

1-3/4 to 2 pounds tough greens like kale, about 20 packed cups stemmed and chopped or 4 pounds tender greens like baby spinach, Swiss chard, or arugula

1/2 cup olive oil

About 20 ounces green onions, about 40 large or 7 bunches, 5 cups trimmed and finely sliced or 2 to 2-1/2 pounds leeks, 4 to 5, 5 cups trimmed to white and tender green, finely sliced

2 lemons, zested

3 to 4 ounces trimmed Italian parsley, about 2 cups finely chopped

2 ounces trimmed dill, 1 cup finely chopped

Optional: 8 ounces feta, about 2 cups crumbled

Olive oil for brushing between fillo layers

For constructing pie: 3 to 4 tablespoons fine cracked wheat or toasted breadcrumbs

  1. Prepare Handmade Fillo Dough or thaw commercial fillo overnight.
  2. Chop greens coarsely. Place greens in 2 batches, into large pot with 2 cups water, cover, and, over high heat, toss and cook until wilted and tender, 4 to 5 minutes for tough greens and 2 to 3 minutes for tender greens. Pour greens into colander set over bowl to drain. Press firmly to remove excess liquid. Save liquid for soup or vitamin-rich drink.
  3. Heat large skillet and add olive oil and green onions or leeks. Cook over medium heat until just soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in lemon zest and scrape onion or leek mixture into large mixing bowl.
  4. Fluff greens and stir them, along with parsley, dill, optional feta, into onions or leeks. Juice one zested lemon and stir 2 tablespoons lemon juice into onions or leeks. Season filling with salt and pepper. Cool to room temperature, taste, and re-season before using.

 

About the Author
Nancy Allen

Nancy Allen

Chef-educator Nancy Krcek Allen has traveled extensively, and has worked in kitchens and classrooms for more than 30 years. She graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While living in New York City, Allen worked full-time teaching recreational and professional cooking for the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, and in Viareggio, Italy, for Toscana Saporita.

During her time at ICE and the Natural Gourmet, Allen wrote curriculum for the professional and recreational programs. While living in New York, Allen was a member of the New York Association of Culinary Teachers, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, where she attained a Certified Culinary Professional rating.

International cuisines are Allen’s passion and she has traveled around the world to learn about food and cooking.  Allen owned a restaurant and cooking school, catering business, and has worked as a freelance writer for various publications. In Michigan Allen has taught for a decade at Chateau Chantal Winery Cooking School on Old Mission Peninsula and Michigan and Northwestern Michigan College, both in Traverse City, Michigan. She is the author of the culinary textbook Discovering Global Cuisines: Traditional Flavors and Techniques.

Allen currently works as a cook at an organic farm, and as a cooking teacher and freelance writer. She is working on a cookbook featuring seasonal farm food. Allen lives in Leelanau County in northern Michigan along the glacial moraines of Lake Michigan.