Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Phyllo Without Fear

I consider myself a humble cook - I don't do fancy, I prefer simple, easy recipes that harken back to how people used to cook before modern conveniences. But I do admit to feeling just slightly superior about cooking with phyllo. Admittedly, I was taught how to cook with it by someone who grew up eating and watching her mother cook with Phyllo dough.

Natasha was my first roommate when I was studying at Purdue University and she was from the Balkans, Belgrade to be exact, the home of phyllo dough. I was so amazed at how nonchalant she was about using phyllo - no recipes, no fear - she just sprayed some oil on each sheet, put in some filing, and baked it. No worries! She taught me to pour an egg and milk mixture over the raw pie which gives it a lovely quiche like consistency without the heaviness of quiche. I owe her a huge debt in cooking gratitude.

Even though I learned at the elbow of a natural, I have developed a secret that I'm willing to pass along that will make you able to cook with phyllo without fear as well. My secret is my Misto.

Misto is the low tech version of an oil spray. You put your own oil in the canister, pump the top which builds pressure and voila, you have an oil spray! I bought mine 10 years ago for $9.99; I shiver to think what they're selling for now. But if you can find one, they're worth it. I also use it to spray on vegetables that I roast or breaded cutlets of chicken or eggplant that I bake (in lieu of frying). But it really pulls it weight when I want to make phyllo pies.

Phyllo pies are basically filled with some sauteed vegetable, a couple of different cheeses, and 1-2 eggs. Once you've prepared the layers with filling, you cut the phyllo into serving size pieces and bake it for 30 minutes at 375 degrees. So simple and leftovers reheat in microwaves in less than a minute. I make it often for an easy lunch to carry into the office.

Phyllo Pie

The great thing about this pie is that the ingredients are so flexible. You can make it with onions and mushrooms plus the cheese. Or greens and onions, plus the cheese. I usually make a mixture of greens and use dill or caraway seeds as seasoning. As for the cheeses, there is no hard and fast rule, but I usually include a 2/1/1 ration of soft cheese, hard cheese, and a flavorful cheese; soft cheeses include goat or yogurt cheese (drained yogurt or sometimes referred to as Greek yogurt), hard cheeses are usually parmesan, and flavorful cheeses can include feta, mozzarella, swiss, or other variations. In general, you want about 1/2 cup of the main cheese, and a quarter cup each of the other cheeses.

1/2 roll phyllo dough, defrosted (I cut the roll in half and just store the other half in a freezer bag in the freezer.)*
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
1 bunch greens, shredded (kale, collards, swiss chard, spinach, arugula)
1 tablespoon dried dill, crumbled
8 oz goat cheese
1/4 cup parmesan, shredded
1/4 cup feta
2 eggs, beaten
olive oil for spraying or oil spray

Preheat oven to 375. Saute onion in olive oil until translucent. Add greens and cook until wilted. Remove from heat and combine with cheeses, dill, and beaten eggs. Add salt and pepper to taste. Unroll Phyllo dough and place clean dish cloth on top of sheets to prevent from drying out. In large baking pan (i.e. 9x13) spray bottom with oil. Lay sheet of phyllo on bottom of pan. Don't allow sheets to overlap up the sides of pan, but you can allow them to overlap within the bottom of the pan. I usually do not try to layer a single sheet at a time, but rather make layers of two sheets. The phyllo is fragile and it is not necessary to have each individual layer sprayed with oil. After you lay down a layer of phyllo, spray with oil and then dab some of the filling in each corner of the dough and in two spots in the center. Place next layer of phyllo, spay with oil and dab filling in "valleys," where no filling was placed on layer below. Continue layering phyllo and filling and end with at least 4 sheets of phyllo on top. Spray top well with oil and then cut pie with very sharp knife into serving size portions. Bake for 30 minutes or until top is brown and crispy. Allow to sit 5 minutes before serving.

This version will produce the typical crispy phyllo crust that most people expect, similar to spanikopita. However, Natasha taught me to mix the two eggs with about 1/2 cup of milk, and instead of adding that to the cheese and vegetable mixture, pour it over the pie AFTER you've cut it into servings. Tamp down the top layer of phyllo so that it is moistened by the liquid and tilt the pan to allow the milk egg mixture to saturate the pie. Cook for the same amount of time and you will have a moister version which I often prefer.

*You can defrost phyllo dough really quickly in a microwave; nuke it for 10 seconds and then allow it to sit wrapped in a clean cloth at room temperature for 20-30 minutes. If you nuke it too long, it will just get kind of soft on the ends and you have to be careful pulling it apart, but it's still good.

P.S. Yesterday the New York Times Food section ran a great article on a phyllo cheese dessert, and check out the title, "Phyllo Torte, Made without Fear." ( Just because, I wanted to note that I wrote this post on Saturday, so technically my "fearless" phyllo approach came first!

Love and hugs!

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