Phyllo Without Fear

From Athens to Anatolia to New York, this simple, gossamer-thin pastry dough encloses treats both sweet and savory.

The first time I saw a home cook ”open” phyllo—the papery pastry dough essential to such classic Greek dishes as baklava and spanakopitta (spinach pie), I was visiting a monastery in Metsovo, a scenic mountain village in the Ípiros region of northwestern Greece. Ípiros is pitta country—not pita, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern flat bread, but pitta, which is the word Greeks use to refer to a whole inventory of savory pies, whose ingredients are tucked between buttered or oiled layers of crisp phyllo. There are literally hundreds of variations, with fillings of greens, cheeses, eggs, grains, sometimes meat, and just about anything else the area’s bounty can provide.

The monastery caretaker’s wife was in her kitchen preparing cassiata, a local version of cheese pie made with about twenty layers of phyllo, and invited me to watch. She was so proficient as she ”opened” the dough (this is the term Greeks favor for the process) that it was hard to follow her movements, but both her tools and her technique were deceptively simple: Dividing the dough into small balls, she worked one piece at a time, first flattening each sphere with her palms into a small disk, then gently wrapping the disk around a long, thin dowel. A big, round piece of wood, resembling a giant Ping-Pong paddle permanently coated with flour, was her work surface. With incredible speed and dexterity, she stretched the dough along the length of the dowel, coaxing it with her fingertips from the center towards the ends in order to form a circle about two feet in diameter when rolled out. It was an impressive performance.

Phyllo—yufka to the Turks, strudel to the Hungarians (who learned to make it from the Turks in the 16th century), and brik to the Tunisians—is common throughout the Balkans and the Middle East. It has been known in the Anatolia region of Turkey since at least the 11th century and possibly earlier, and its presence there provokes debate over who invented phyllo (and the many filled and layered dishes based on it) in the first place. Writer Charles Perry, an expert on foods of the Islamic world, believes that phyllo evolved from the stacked thin griddle cakes that were a staple of the Turkish nomads who arrived in Anatolia from Central Asia between the 11th and 15th centuries. The poverty of the migrants’ diet, Perry suggests, might have encouraged them to make layered breads similar in shape to the ”thick breads” found among settled peoples. Speros Vryonis, a scholar of Greek culture, disagrees, arguing that thin layered pastry was just too complicated for a nomadic people to either prepare or develop and asserting that the Greeks were making layered pastry as early as the second century A.D.

In Greece itself and in American cities with large Greek populations, like New York and Chicago, a guild of phyllo makers still exists. Its members, usually men, make and sell the pastry in small, quaintly anachronistic neighborhood workshops like the one at Manhattan’s Poseidon Bakery, whose back room is crowded with huge bags of flour, two eight-foot-square tables for stretching the pastry, the requisite Hobart dough mixer, and a slew of muslin sheets—all covered (as are the phyllo makers) in a fine film of flour.

The phyllo made at commercial bakeries like Poseidon is very similar to the homemade kind: Both are made with flour, salt, water, and a little shortening or oil, though home cooks occasionally add yeast and some vinegar, wine, or lemon juice, which supposedly makes the pastry more elastic (and commercial phyllo usually contains preservatives). Once the commercial dough is mixed and relaxed, it is flattened into large, thin slabs, sometimes with the help of a roller. Next, the phyllo mastoras (master) slaps it onto the center of the table, which is tightly covered with muslin onto which cornflour has been sprinkled to keep the phyllo from sticking. Then the pulling and stretching begins. Working his way very quickly around the table six or seven times, the mastoras pulls the dough outwards towards the edges, stretching it little by little. It doesn’t take him more than a minute to transform the dough into roughly an eight-foot square, an awe-inspiring feat. (Some phyllo makers have a flair for the dramatic. One artisan I know takes a golf ball-size bit of dough, stretches it along the arc of his arm, and turns it into a huge sheet with just a flick of his wrist.) The pastry is then cut into smaller sheets, stacked between muslin to help keep it moist, and packed in plastic bags. It takes two bakers eight to ten hours to turn out about a hundred and fifty pounds of dough.

Old-fashioned phyllo makers are disappearing, unfortunately, threatened (even in Greece) by the growing popularity of frozen phyllo—which, ironically, owes its existence to one such skilled mastoras. Jim Kantzios, a baker from northern Greece who opened a pastry shop in Cleveland in the late 1950s, grew tired of the time and energy it took to make phyllo the traditional way, and with the help of his nephew, George Pappas—a lab technician and inveterate tinkerer—he invented a machine that could turn out the pastry in exquisitely thin sheets at a rate of about a hundred and fifty pounds per hour. Having originated that machine, essentially a sheet roller, Pappas created a second device that produced phyllo by extrusion at a rate of about eight hundred pounds per hour, or 200 feet per minute. He obtained a patent for his Fully Automated Fillo Dough Machine in 1975. That was the competitive edge that turned a company called Athens Foods into what is now the world’s largest producer of the pastry.

Serious cooks in Greece still make their own phyllo, but almost exclusively for savory dishes like spanakopitta. For baklava and other sweets, even home cooks use commercial sheets, fresh or frozen. There is no question that these end up thinner than anything the home cook can produce and thus yield much flakier and crisper pastries.

Consequently, the wooden dowel is becoming all but obsolete in Greece today; the art of making phyllo has been lost to most of the younger generation. That’s a shame, because opening phyllo is fun—and nowhere near as complicated as, say, turning out croissants. Watching the caretaker’s wife in Metsovo, I imagined the making of phyllo to be an incredibly difficult process—the kind of skill one perfects only after years of observation and practice. When I tried it, though, I figured it out after a couple of attempts. Now I’m an ”expert”. I love making phyllo, and I wouldn’t part with my dowel for anything.