Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Buying filo pastry (Φύλλο)

Filo pastry will be a big seller this week, being Cheesefare Week, a popular time in Greece for making pita, before Great Lent kicks off on Clean Monday next week. If you find making your own filo pastry too much work, here's a guide to buying it in Greece. The following articles were originally published through Suite101.

pies from karpenisiThe home cook in Greece has a wide variety of filo pastry to choose from. The right kind of pastry depends on the filling and desired texture of the pie. Although I make my own filo pastry, I occassionally buy it when I want very thin sheets of pastry, which I don't have the patience to make these days.

Most (if not all) filo pastry sold in Western countries is of the thin filmy type, nearly always sold frozen, resembling the texture and weight of cigarette paper, and it's quite fragile. In Greece, however, when applied to pastry, the term 'filo' (cf. φυλλο = leaf) denotes a wide range of pastry types, all of which have their own special purpose. The universally well known thin filo pastry is labelled 'kroustas' (κρουστας = crusty), and it is the one usually used in making baklava and galaktoboureko, the traditional Greek custard pie, along with a wide range of other sweet and savoury pies. It can be bought freshly made from a specialist store that makes it on a daily basis; or from the refrigerated goods counter at a supermarket, packaged as fresh; or from the freezer section, where it is bought frozen (once thawed, it cannot be refrozen). Most filo pastry is sold in standard 500g packets containing 12-16 30x40cm or 40x40cm sheets.

Traditional filo pastry

karpenisipie shop karpenisiBut in the motherland of filo pastry, this word denotes a wide variety of pastry types. Filo in Greece has a similar meaning range as that of snow in a place like Canada! There are thicker filo sheets called 'horiatiko' (χωριατικο = village style) or 'paradosiako' (παραδοσιακo = traditional), packaged and sold in the same way as the kroustas sheets, which are used when making 'heavy-duty' pies with dense fillings. This kind of filo pastry resembles traditional home-made pastry that a home cook would make. Traditional Cretan pasties (kalitsounia) are always made with this kind of pastry. Cretan cooks use all varieties of filo pastry discussed here, but the most popular is the thicker horiatiko (paradosiako) type.

Other varieties of filo pastry

Then, there is the pastry labelled 'kourou' (κουρου), commonly known in English as shortcrust pastry, which can be rolled out into any thickness that the user requires to make a dish. I would use this when making a large Cretan meat pie. The 'viritou' (βηρυττου - literally: 'of Beirut') filo is similar to 'kroustas', but contains eggs. It is used in the same way as kroustas, but it would be unsuitable during religious fasting periods (eg Lent). Unlike the thin kroustas, viritou is not suitable for vegans.

tiropsomo makrinitsa pelion
None of the above-mentioned pastries rise when cooked; puff pastry, a buttery dough which expands when heated, is called 'sfoliata' (σφολιατα) in Greece, a word derived from the Italian language, which hints clearly at the foreign origins of this pastry. It's the only one that is not strictly a filo pastry. Sfoliata is often used in the well-known cheese pies sold in bakeries and snack-shops all over Greece. Again, this pastry can substitute all the other pastries mentioned above, according to the preferences of the cook. Puff pastry is used in the traditional tiropita (cheese pie) sold in snack shops all over the country.

mosaic pie
You can get an idea of what these pastries look like and are used for from a well-known Greek pastry-maker's website. Traditional food meets culinary art: spanakopita and tiropita are transformed into impressive sculpted masterpieces, giving them a new lease of life.

In Greece, spanakopita (spinach pie) and tiropita (cheese pie) are very popular street-food snacks, often sold in bakeries, snack shops and cafes. Spanakopita has also passed into the realm of global cuisine, and is now a popular pie all over the world. Both spanakopita and tiropita are made with filo pastry filled with a mixture of spinach and other leafy greens and/or a variety of cheeses. Both are considered vegetarian, while spanakopita can also be vegan, ie made without the addition of dairy products, making it a good choice for Clean Monday and the Greek Orthodox Lenten season, the fasting period before Easter.

You can make delicious spring rolls with filo pastry. A packet of 500g gives me 12 sheets, which I cut in half and get 24 spring rolls; a packet of 8 regular-size Chinese spring roll wrappers costs more than 2 euro at the supermarket, while the filo pastry costs less than 3 euro.

Filo pastry and pie fillings

kalitsounia with honey What makes these savoury pies and pastries unique is the range of shapes they come in. Filo pastry parcels, both big and small, are a form of culinary art in Greece, in similar ways that sushi is in Japan. Using the same filo pastry and pie fillings, a wide range of small and large pastries can be made, all of different shapes and sizes. Some shapes are specifically regional and they each have their own special name, while many are recognized throughout the country.

Portion control

galaktoboureko Large spanakopita and tiropita pies are cooked in a baking tin, and then cut up into triangles (if the baking vessel used is round) or squares (if it is rectangular). But the artistic flair of the cook is seen in the small individual pasties. These are preferable to large pies because they hold their shape better (especially useful when packing them for a work lunch or picnic), making the filo pastry less fragile. They also provide a form of portion control which can used in combination with weight control.

filo wontonsOne of the most popular pita shapes often made by home cooks is the simple triangle, a seamless closed pocket made with the thin variety of filo pastry. For the home cooks who make their own phyllo dough, which is often thicker than store-bought filo pastry, the shapes are endless. In the cuisine of the island of Crete, the most common shape is the half-moon called kalitsounia, while in Central and Northern Greece, spiral savoury pies are more common. Once filo pastry is cooked, it sets, making open pasties a possibility, such as the Cretan Easter specialties of lichnarakia and baked kalitsounia. Filo pastry can also be rolled into cigar-like rolls, similar to Asian-style spring rolls, making this shape perfect as an appetizer or cocktail snack.

samosaModern food trends now allow for much more creativity in the traditional Greek kitchen, providing a new lease of life to old favorites. The possibilities are endless for the creatively inclined cook looking to impress. You can buy or make your own filo pastry, and fill it with your own unique blend of spanakopita or tiropita fillings. It's difficult to imagine Greek cuisine without filo pastry, which forms one of the staples of global street food: where would we be without some form of filled pocket-size pastry/bread?

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