Have you ever not used a recipe because you were unsure of how to work with a particular ingredient called for in that recipe? I know I have. In my case, my Everest was phyllo dough. No matter how good I had become at baking, for many years phyllo dough was the one ingredient I was afraid to tackle. In retrospect, I realize just how silly my fear was. Afterall, it's only dough. Sure, it has the reputation for being tricky to work with, but as I became a more confident baker, I realized that you can overcome this obstacle by following just a few simple rules.
So why bake with phyllo? Characteristically used in preparing baklava and spanakopita (who can resist those tender, flaky sheets of temptation?), phyllo is a lean dough made only of flour and water and, occasionally, a small amount of oil, which makes it perfect for vegan baking. The Greek translation of phyllo and the French feuille literally means “leaf” and if you've ever worked with phyllo, you understand that this description is spot-on. In the world of pastries, phyllo is like a delicate flower that needs to be treated with tender loving care.
The food historian Charles Perry speculates that phyllo pastry was invented in Istanbul around 1500 during the time of the early Ottoman Empire. Traditionally phyllo is made with a stiff flour-water ratio (about 40 parts water to 100 parts flour). A little tenderizing acid or oil and salt are added, after which it is thoroughly kneaded to develop the gluten and is rested overnight. It is then stretched out into a single sheet or shaped into small balls that are rolled out into thin discs, sprinkled with starch and rolled out again. The result is flimsy, translucent dough that turns into tender, crisp layers upon baking. Because of its silken texture, the dough dries out quickly and becomes brittle to the point of being unusable. Therefore, the keys to successfully working with phyllo is to quickly but gently brush it with oil or butter and keep the unused portion wrapped in plastic wrap and covered with a damp cloth to prevent it from drying out. Once you follow these simple, but vital steps, you can begin to relax and enjoy the process of turning out delectable baked goodies in your own kitchen.
Three Fail-Proof Tips for Working With Phyllo Dough
Work quickly, but gently when handling the dough.
Work with only one sheet at a time and cover remaining sheets with plastic wrap and top with a damp towel to prevent the dough from drying out.
Brush melted butter or oil onto each sheet before baking, for a tender, flaky result.
Phyllo dough image by quinnanya via Flickr
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