There are few ingredients more traumatizing to use than the paper-thin sheets of phyllo dough. I’ve been yelled at by more than one older Greek woman to “cover your dough! You’re letting it get dry!!”
Despite the emotional scarring, I’ve continued to use this precious (and persnickety, yes a real word as evidenced by the fact that spell-check didn’t red-line me) ingredient. It’s one of those “practice-makes-perfect” kind of a thing, and in the end, it doesn’t even require that much.
It comes down to knowing how to properly protect the phyllo. It is a dough, and it is really thin (the word phyllo in Greek means leaf, so they are thin like leaves), and there is no turning back once it is dried out (except if you make this cake!).
About the dough:
Phyllo is usually sold in one to two pound packages. The sheets will be enclosed in a sealed, plastic bag on the inside of the box to protect the dough from drying out. It is frequently sold in the freezer section of a deli or grocery store to prolong freshness. If you are not going to be using your phyllo right away, keep it stored in the freezer.
Preparing to use your phyllo:
If your dough is frozen, you must defrost it before hand. Remove the plastic bag(s) from the box but do not open them. Allow the sealed dough to defrost in the refrigerator overnight, then allow to come to room temperature for a couple of hours for best results. Trying to defrost it too rapidly will result in some portions of the dough becoming soggy, which causes sheets to become gummy and stuck together. Don’t try to microwave or use any other heat source to speed up the process, as you will only cook the dough, again making it useless. Don’t try to use it even if only partly frozen, as the sheets will be brittle and will stick together. You just have to plan ahead.
When you’re ready to go:
Have all your other ingredients ready before you open your package of phyllo dough. Lightly mist a clean towel with water. Do not have it soaking, just a very light mist from a spray bottle will do. You could also wet your hands and pat them dry on the towel. Place the towel next to the area where you will be using your phyllo.
Remove only the amount of phyllo you need at that moment from the package. For example, you may only need a few sheets for making tiropitakia, or to put a layer at the bottom of the pan for baklava. Keep the rest wrapped completely in plastic and set aside. Lay the sheets on the towel, and fold the towel over the dough. The moisture from the towel will keep the phyllo from getting brittle and dry, but without making it too wet and gummy.
Remove sheets, one at a time, from the towel and fold the towel back over each time. This may seem excessive, but trust me, it’s worth it. Phyllo is never simply layered, so in the time you are working with each sheet, there is ample time for the dough to get dry, and you want to avoid that.
What to use with your phyllo:
No matter what you want to use your phyllo dough for, it will always need to be coated with a layer of fat. This keeps it flaky and prevents it from turning into a rock-hard piece of cardboard, or into a gummy goo. You cannot use a fat-substitute as they are water based and will ruin the texture of your dish. This goes for “oil sprays” used for coating baking pans, too. This is a “do it right or don’t do it at all” situation.
My preference for both taste and texture is to brush on melted, salted butter, even for sweets. The salt helps overcome the sickly sweet flavor that far too many desserts have. For savory dishes, the salt keeps the dough from being a boring distraction from your filling. Use salted butter.
I don’t clarify my butter, either, which removes the milk solids and moisture. I know many yiayias that will be ready to beat me with a koutala- a large wooden spoon- for saying this. Phyllo is a pastry dough. Pastry is meant to be flaky, right? That flakiness comes from moisture in the butter that turns to steam during baking. The pressure from the steam puffs the layers apart while the fat keeps it from getting dry. This is the same premise for making flaky pie dough and croissants. Clarified butter and other oils, like olive oil, lack that moisture, which will cause the phyllo layers to pack together. The flavor will also suffer, since the salt can’t dissolve in the oil and will be left behind in the milk solids.
Melting the butter will automatically cause the fat and milk solids to separate. To make sure you are coating your layers of phyllo with a proper balance of both, you will need to stir thoroughly with your pastry brush each time you dip into your melted butter. To prepare the butter, heat slowly until completely melted, but do not allow it to boil and foam. As delicious as browned butter is, it also will have lost that precious moisture. Reheat your butter as needed to keep it thin enough to be used with a pastry brush.
It will rip:
It happens even when you have done your best. No worries. Arrange the pieces back together in the layer and carefully butter. No one will notice. The only time to worry is when you are putting your top layer on. Even then, if the pieces are large, it’s still no biggie.
So you have scraps and leftovers:
Make portokalopita! This cake was invented to use up torn chunks, remnants that got too dry to be used, and leftovers that weren’t needed. It’s a wonderful cake filled with citrus-y sweetness, and you might find yourself buying phyllo just to make it. If you’re not ready nor in the mood for additional cooking, put those scraps in a tightly closed container and keep it in the freezer until you are!