If you have ever had baklava, I’m sure you appreciated the ultrathin and crispy layers of dough interspersed with nuts and soaked in sweet syrup. If you have been brave enough to try and make it yourself, you have surely wrestled with the sheets of filo - or phyllo - dough and wondered how it was made. Store bought filo is made by machine but here is your chance to make a more primitive version. It wasn’t too difficult to make, once I found the right recipe in Diane Kochilas’s “My Greek Table” cookbook. She has the right ingredients that miraculously work to make the dough roll out easily unlike other recipes I have tried that took a lot of patience and muscle. “Phyllo” is the Greek word for leaf and the dough is rolled out to leaf thinness.
Wheat was first cultivated over 11,000 years ago around the Tigris and Euphrates River region, now Iraq, in what was one of the first examples of humans living in a civilization. Later, the Byzantines, whose empire roughly spanned from 395 to 1453 ACE, became experts at inventing technological devices that expanded the production of wheat, like the watermill that ground it into flour, and an ancient dough mixer that was driven by oxen. Their empire, at its largest, extended from southern Spain in the east to around the northern, southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean including what is now called Egypt, Turkey and Greece. Breads they developed like filo and pita, are still common to this entire area today.
In case this recipe sounds familiar, over a year ago, I presented similar spinach pie but the dough in that recipe was a yeast bread. It was Jordanian, which was also part of the Byzantine Empire. I combined Diane Kochilas’s filo recipe with a spinach filling from David Tanis’s New York Time’s City Kitchen column. The pumpkin filling is my invention, made with one from my garden that was left over from last Halloween. Both fillings have a savory taste, freeze well and are easy to heat up in a toaster oven for a quick lunch or snack.
Old style phyllo dough:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup plain whole milk yogurt
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ cup cold water, more if necessary
Cornstarch or rice flour for rolling out - about 1 cup
1 pound bag frozen spinach or other greens (about 1 1/2 pounds fresh, washed, chopped and steamed)
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill or 1/3 cup dried
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried red chili pepper flakes
2/3 cup chopped sun dried tomatoes, optional
1 cup crumbled feta
Salt and pepper
olive oil for brushing, about 2/3 cup
2 cups cooked pumpkin
1 cup fresh sage leaves, washed and dried
½ cup fresh oregano leaves, washed and dried
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup crumbled feta
Salt and pepper
Olive oil for frying pies
Make the phyllo by thoroughly combining the flour and salt in a bowl or stand mixer. In another smaller bowl, mix olive oil, yogurt, vinegar and 1/2 cup of cold water. Add to the flour mixture and mix well. Add more water if necessary. It is easier to add more water now rather than later. Mixture should form a shape when pinched. In a stand mixer, mix for 5 minutes. The dough should be very pliable and more like pie crust dough. When the dough is well combined, cover with plastic wrap and let sit 30 minutes.
Make the spinach filling. If you are using fresh greens, wash well and dry. Steam or plunge into a pot of boiling water and cook just enough to turn the greens dark green. Drain. Chop parsley and dill. Mix the greens, oregano, chili pepper, tomatoes and feta. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the pumpkin filling, put the pumpkin pulp in a bowl and mix until smooth. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a small frying pan and heat over medium heat. Add the leaves and fry until crispy. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add to the pumpkin with the feta cheese and mix. Adjust flavors. Do not overmix.
Knead the dough a bit and cut into 6 pieces. Roll into balls and dust with cornstarch or rice flour.
On a board, roll out each ball of dough in the cornstarch or rice flour until it is about 14-16 inches across. This takes a little patience. When you get to the desired diameter, dust the dough with the cornstarch or rice flour and set aside. Continue with your workout until all 6 are rolled out and pile them on top of each other. You can make them even thinner by rolling them as a stack but make sure they don’t stick together.
Take the stack of dough and cut them down the middle so you now have 12 halves. Get out the filling. Brush some olive oil on the half leaving 1/2 inch around the edges. Take about 1/4 cup of filling and spread it on half the dough then fold over. Pinch and press the edges, dust with rice flour or cornstarch and set aside.
When you have made 12 pies, heat a griddle over medium heat. Take a pie and brush one side with olive oil. Put that side on the hot griddle and cook for about 2-4 minutes. Brush the top with olive oil and when the bottom is brown, flip and cook about the same time. Cook that side until brown. Continue until you have cooked all 12. Serve warm. Pie freeze well and reheat easily in a toaster oven on in a frying pan.