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Archive for Wednesday, January 13, 1999

FUN WITH PHYLLO: TAKE YOUR TIME

January 13, 1999

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I spent a recent evening playing with phyllo (also fillo), the ultrathin sheets of pastry dough used to layer Greek baklava and spanikopita and Moroccan bisteeya. The result of my efforts was a batch of tiropetes, the triangular hors d'oeuvres pastries, which I filled with the traditional blend of spinach and feta cheese.

It had been at least 10 years since my last phyllo escapade but this experience rekindled my interest -- namely, because the problems with packaged phyllo, which had been so discouraging before, were absent this time.

Phyllo is a testament to the amazing properties of gluten, the ingredient in flour that gives dough its elasticity. Phyllo dough, like that for Hungarian strudel and French puff pastry, is made from the flour of hard wheat, which has a higher gluten content than the soft wheat used in bread and cake flour.

It is gluten that allows the phyllo dough to be stretched into long paper-thin sheets. Although it's possible to make phyllo at home, most bakers consider it such a problematic and delicate operation that they leave the job to the experts. Since Greek bakeries are hard to find in these parts, people who want to use phyllo have been forced to rely on the frozen, commercially prepared phyllo that is available in the freezer sections of larger supermarkets.

I was pleasantly surprised this time with the quality of the phyllo I purchased. The sheets came apart neatly with none of the sticking that had been so difficult to work around in the past. This is probably the result of three things: improvements in the production process; better handling during shipping and stocking; and heightened awareness on my part.

Phyllo becomes gummy when it is allowed to thaw and freeze repeatedly, or when the sheets become moist, as can happen if ice crystals form inside the package. If phyllo is left on a loading dock during shipping or sits in the shopping cart too long, the results can be disheartening.

The general rule is that phyllo purchased frozen can be thawed and refrozen once. There is no guarantee, however, that this sequence hasn't already occurred before you bought the phyllo. To be assured of the best results, it's best to buy phyllo a day before using it, then to let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight and not to expect much from the leftover leaves, if you try to refreeze them.

I also noticed that the phyllo didn't dry out quickly. During the preparation, I left the sheets covered with a barely moist paper towel and sheet of plastic. In fact, I had more trouble with the melted butter I was brushing onto the pastries cooling and gumming up, which necessitated use of the microwave oven.

Somehow the Greeks, who were doing this for centuries before the arrival of plastic wrap and microwaves, found a way around this.

To work with phyllo, you really need a soft-bristled pastry brush. The bristles on that thing you use to paint barbecue sauce onto a chicken will tear the phyllo leaves. You also need patience because assembling anything made with phyllo is time-consuming.

Although the most common dishes made with phyllo are baklava, the nut-and-honey dessert, and spanikopita, the spinach-and-cheese pie, phyllo can be used as a substitute for pastry in just about any circumstance.

For example, I have made a beef Wellington by encasing a cooked tenderloin filet, topped with chopped mushrooms and shallots, red wine and pepper, in four or five sheets of phyllo. I've also used phyllo for the pastry around bierrocks, Eastern Europe's answer to burritos, made with beef, cabbage and onion.

The trick is to have the filling already cooked, because phyllo brushed with Recipes for baklava and spanikopita abound. Less common is bisteeya, possibly because the Moroccans prepare it with squab, or pigeon. The following recipe, which is a compromise among several I found in cookbooks, uses only chicken. The main source is Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' "The New Basics Cookbook."

Chicken Bisteeya

4 cups water

2 teaspoons salt, divided use

2 small onions, chopped

1 cinnamon stick

1 pound uncooked boneless chicken, diced

6 eggs

1pinach-and-cheese pie, phyllo can be used as a substitute for pastry in just about any circumstance.

For example, I have made a beef Wellington by encasing a cooked tenderloin filet, topped with chopped mushrooms and shallots, red wine and pepper, in four or five sheets of phyllo. I've also used phyllo for the pastry around bierrocks, Eastern Europe's answer to burritos, made with beef, cabbage and onion.

The trick is to have the filling already cooked, because phyllo brushed with Recipes for baklava and spanikopita abound. Less common is bisteeya, possibly because the Moroccans prepare it with squab, or pigeon. The following recipe, which is a compromise among sever skillet over low heat, stirring, until it achieves the consistency of scrambled eggs. Drain off any remaining liquid.

Combine the almonds, the remaining lemon juice, sugar, and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon in a food processor until finely chopped. Set aside.

to the dimensions of the dish.

Arrange one sheet of phyllo in the bottom of the dish, brush it with melted butter and sprinkle it with 1 teaspoon of the almond mixture. Repeat with seven more layers of phyllo, buttering and sprinkling the almond mixture between them. Butter the top sheet.

Bake the phyllo layers for 10 minutes. Leave the oven on.

Sprinkle the chicken and onion mixture over the phyllo. Cover it with the egg mixture. Set aside about 3 tablespoons of the almond filling, then sprinkle the remainder over the egg mixture. Sprinkle the shredded cheese over that. Slowly pour a prepare it with squab, or pigeon. The following recipe, which is a compromise among severin brushing with melted butter and sprinkling 1 teaspoon of the almond mixture between the sheets. Brush the top sheet with butter and sprinkle with the remaining almond mixture.

Bake until golden and crisp, about 20 minutes. Let the bisteeya stand for five minutes before cutting it into squares and serving.

Makes six to eight servings.

-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. You can send e-mail to her at mellinger@harvey.bakeru.edu. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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