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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Filo pastry for Greek pita-making (Φύλλο)

UPDATE 08-01-2013: The photos in this post dont always show up (facebook-blogger glitch): they all come from the photos set in my facebook page, which you link to here.

A friend recently showed me a photo of what looked like a perfect Greek pita. The filo pastry had that 'village-style' look which we can buy from the deep freeze in Greek supermarkets (about 3.50 euro for a packet of 6-8 sheets), which is also available at the refrigerator counter (slightly more expensive, because, I suppose, it's 'fresh'), or at the specialty stores where filo pastry is made freshly and sold on the day it's made (a whopping 8 euro a kilo).

Hrisida's pita

Hrisida's pie looked hand-crafted; the layers of the filo were perfectly sized for a round baking tin. Shop-bought filo is always sold in square/rectangular pieces. Her pie reminded me of the qualities of a good νοικοκυρά (noikokira - housewife). "In Macedonia we make quite thick fyllo pies, usually only with two sheets at the bottom and two at the top. My favourite spinach pie was the simplest one, one fyllo either way, with just spinach for the filling, no eggs or cheese. I also tasted these kinds of pites in Turkey; they are like crepes. In the Roumeli region of Greece, they put more emphasis on thinner fyllo pastry and more filling. Some people like the fyllo more than the filling in a pita, others like the filling; it's a case of what you're used to."

"Don't tell me you made all that filo pastry by yourself," I wrote to her jokingly.

"Of course," she replied seriously. "I do all the fyllo myself and I started out as a complete novice."

God help me, I thought, as I imagined her kitchen table covered in flour, her clothes dusted all over and her kitchen looking like a bomb just hit it. Making filo pastry is a form of art and nothing less. The typical Greek housewife of the past made huge pies in 60cm tins called σινί (sini) with low sides. The last time I saw someone making paper-thin filo pastry, all I could imagine was the floury mess it would create in my kitchen. But the end result was well worth it.
The secret to rolling out dough easily, she says, is 'soft' (not all-purpose) flour and niseste (cornflour, without vanilla flavouring, also known as corn starch) for rolling it out, much much easier than rolling it out with flour, a must for a novice. And of course a traditional thin rolling pin (in Crete, this is called ξυλίκι - xiliki), not the thick one we usually buy at home stores. Hrisida's seen Italian women rolling out pastry for pasta using the same technique with a thin rolling pin and not wasting their time with pasta machines. You don't push the dough to stretch it as with a thick rolling pin; instead, you roll the dough round the rolling pin and press it down lightly. Every time it seems that the dough is sticking, you add a bit of niseste; don't expect it to become a mess before you add more, but use niseste sparingly - there is no need to add as much as flour. If you use a lot, it gives a sort of slightly gritty taste to the pie. It's very effective in drying out the fyllo sheets as you roll them out. For pasta making where you add eggs and the pastry gets sticky, the use of niseste makes rolling out the pastry much easier. Hrisida has also used these same techniques for making pita fyllo when she makes ravioli.

Here are Hrisida's instructions for a 40-cm round baking tin (the kind Greeks call 'tapsi'), which I followed as closely as possible, to get the perfect pita, just like hers. You need about a kilogram of pastry per pita.

You need:
4 cups of soft flour
a bit of salt
a drizzle of oil
about 1 cup of water or more to make a soft dough
niseste (corn flour WITHOUT vanilla flavouring) for rolling the dough

Mix the ingredients together and knead the dough until it becomes a firm ball that isn't sticky. Then split the dough into 8 balls, each around 120g. Cover them all with flour or niseste and start rolling out. Don't let the dough rest because it may become very soft and sticky.

One ball is going to be bigger than the rest (about 160g), because it will line both the bottom and the sides of the baking tin, so it needs to be bigger than the other sheets. Hence, you start off with a bigger ball of dough. The other sheets are going to be the same size as the baking tin. The first phyllo sheet needs to be stuck to the sides of the baking tray with a drop of water around the rim so it stays upright. The baking tin is always oiled well before the first pastry sheet is laid on it.


Hrisida warned me that the first ball of dough is the hardest to roll out because the dough is firmer and it needs to be the largest piece. The rest is much easier because they are smaller and the dough becomes softer with time. She's absolutely right - by the time I finished rolling the 8th layer, my dough wasn't breaking. (But I did get stuck a little with the rolling pin - I'm used to using a thicker rolling pin, and found it hard to use the thin one she recommended).

Be aware of the fact that the finished pastry product depends on many factors: apart from how the cook is feeling, the ingredients and the utensils, the atmosphere also plays a large role. If you are rolling out dough in the summer, it may become too soft and could need to be kept in the fridge in between rolling out the layers! I've often found this to be true, and this is also why exact measurements for the ingredients involved in pastry making are not always possible.

Left: Pita in Evritania; Middle: My first attempt at a layered pita with shop-bought filo; Right: Hrisida's marrow pita.

Hrisida places 4 sheets of filo at the bottom, each one brushed with olive oil in between the layers, then she adds the pita filling and another 4 sheets of fyllo at the top, again brushing each pastry sheet with olive oil. I decided to model my pie after my experience at a taverna in Gavros, near Proussos in the prefecture of Evritania in Central Greece. I was served a pita where each pastry sheet was topped with filling, with a final sheet of filo pastry on top. This is the traditional way Greek pita is made in the Pindus region, meaning Roumeli and Epirus. To ensure the pita was cooked to crispy perfection, every fyllo sheet was baked separately (yes, they really went to all this trouble!) and then the pie was assembled. So I placed 2 sheets of filo at the bottom, then a thin layer of filling, and repeated this process twice, before topping the pie with 2 more sheets of filo, with olive oil in between all the layers of course.

Both women in these videos use a thin rolling pin and a specially designed wooden board (called πλαστήρι - plastiri) which allows them to instantly know when they have rolled out the filo to the correct size. I just use the flat surface of my wooden table. Note that the woman below doesn't wear an apron; her clothes remain unfloured. Don't let the Greek language use scare you - all you need to learn is easily understood just by watching the video (I turned the sound off).

Filo pastry has a tendency to dry out. Not that this has any real impact on the taste, but it makes it difficult to work with. So it's best to have your filling ready before you start making the filo. To make the filling Hrisida used for her kolokithopita (zucchini/marrow pie), you need:
1kg of grated zucchini/marrow thoroughly strained (maybe a bit less if you prefer)
4 eggs, beaten
400g feta cheese
salt and pepper to taste (beware: feta cheese is salty)

Hrisida also makes a hortopita (mixed greens pie) using half a kilo each of spinach and Swiss chard, or leek and sping onions, with some dill, parsley and mint (the typical Greek herbs) all very finely chopped, then wilted with a bit of salt and strained; again, 4 eggs and 400g of feta cheese are added to the pie. She prefers not to saute the greens: "If they're simply wilted with the salt, the taste of the filling will be much fresher and not as heavy as when you saute them in olive oil," she told me.

My pie had a less refined look about it: this pretty much sums up all my cooking - real food, cooked up in a rustic style for hungry eaters.

I hardly ever follow a specific recipe for making a pita filling. I use anything at hand. I'm not a fan of eggs in pies - but the recipes that follow can easily have anything from one to three eggs added! That's the beauty of making Greek pitas: they are very versatile. They can be made with leafy greens, cheese or a mixture of these. They never need to taste the same, which is very important in my home to avoid complaints that we are 'eating the same food' too often.

To make my egg-less leek and zucchini filling, you need:
200g of grated zucchini, strained of liquids
5-6 medium whole leeks, chopped small
1 large onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves, finely chopped
500g of feta/mizithra (I use a mixture of whatever I have at hand: in my second attempt at making the same pie, since I didn't have any feta or mizithra in the house, I used a 150g tub of galotiri, which is similar to creamy Philadelphia cheese, and a 250g tetrapak of light cream - the rest of the recipe stays the same)
a handful of semolina (or dry breadcrumbs, to soak up any excess liquids)
salt and pepper

My leek and zucchini pita took just under an hour to brown well in a moderate oven. But when I removed a piece from the tin, I noticed that the pie wasn't well-cooked at the bottom. To get a nice brown crust at the bottom, after the pie looks cooked at the top, switch off the top element in your oven and allow the pie to cook for a further 10 minutes on high heat, using only the bottom element. It will continue to cook without getting burnt.

Saute the zucchini, leeks, onion, garlic and the seasonings in a small saucepan with a little olive oil; I add the tough parts of the leeks (waste not, want not, and they really are tasty), which is why I prefer to soften the greens before adding them to a pie. When the greens have cooled down, add the dairy products and semolina. Mix well.

The extra fyllo round the edges of the pie is rolled around the edge of the pie (or simply folded over on the top of the other filo pastry sheets) at the end to make the κόθρος (kothros); only the bottom fyllo is used to make this. All the other fyllo sheets are the size of the baking tray. The kothros shouldn't be too thick, because it won't bake very well. Finally, make incisions in the pastry according to how you want each piece to look when it is served. It's important to cut the pie before you cook it, because filo pastry gets rather crusty after it's cooked and it isn't easy to slice without cracking it.

Hrisida bakes her pita at the lowest level in the oven at 160C with the air feature on, to make the hot air circulate better, for 1 hour.

In my second attempt at making filo pastry, even though I didn't have any feta or mizithra cheese in the house, I was still able to make a delicious leek and onion pie, using a tub of galotiri and a tetrapak of light cream. Later in the week, I made a small spanakopita (spinach pie) to which I added an aromatic green called akournopodi (Oenanthe pimpinelloides), some local mizithra, onion, salt and pepper. It was the easiest pie I have ever made - it was also the most quickly eaten!

Making filo pastry isn't as difficult as I thought it would be; all you need is the right technique, which I learnt, thanks to Hrisida. My mother also made her own pastry for making Cretan kalitsounia, but never as thin as this, and she never layered filo pastry using the technique described above; it wasn't part of our home's culinary culture. I was surprised that it didn't take me much time and I can't say I got tired in the process: the whole thing took about an hour from start to finish. Not only was it simple to make: it also cost just a fraction of what filo pastry costs at stores. A kilo of fresh home-made filo pastry will set you back by less than 1 euro - compare that to the prices I mentioned at the beginning of the post for store-bought filo. As for the cleaning up afterwards, well, just think of all the money you saved. 

No doubt I'll be making my own filo from now on for all my pie making needs. As my husband pointed out, "θα τρώμε πολλές πίτες από τώρα και πέρα" - and our piece of the pie will be constantly getting smaller.

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