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Take a leaf out of Greece's cuisine and make its most popular and versatile pastry. Here are the filo facts.
Note Makes about 16-20 sheets.
It's the papery, leaf-like thinness that gives filo both its
characteristic texture and its name (filo, or phyllo, is Greek for
leaf). As with all other forms of pastry, making your own filo
gives you a far better outcome than buying it. The result is a more
pliable raw pastry that gives a flakier finish. The downside is
that it's labour-intensive and can be tricky to work with if the
dough isn't just right.
There are two main components to filo: flour and water. Some traditional recipes call for the addition of a little oil and vinegar in the dough, but this isn't absolutely necessary. You can make any quantity of dough by using the simple ratio of two parts (by weight) flour to one part water, plus a pinch of salt.
You'll need to judge the texture of the dough as you make it, adding more flour or water if necessary to reach the right consistency. You're looking for dough that can be easily stretched, so it needs to be quite soft, but dry enough not to stick to the bench while you work with it. It should not be tough, firm or elastic. You can easily fix a wet dough by dusting it with extra flour as you work to prevent it from sticking, but if it's a very dry dough you may as well throw it out and start again. Trying to fix it with a lot of extra water is difficult, because the gluten strands become overworked.
Once you have the right consistency, the dough needs to be rested for about an hour. Place it into a lightly oiled bowl and cover it with plastic wrap (the dough can stick too much if it is wrapped directly in plastic). Rest it in the fridge or at room temperature; the gluten strands will relax and the dough will soften.
The next step is to roll out your sheets. Greek-born Sydney chef Janni Kyritsis rolls his through a pasta machine, which makes the whole process a lot faster and easier. You'll need extra flour on hand for dusting. The trick is to roll it as thin as you can - this is going to create the flakiness when it is layered and baked. Alternatively, you can use a wooden dowel to roll it out, but this method, while more traditional, is time-consuming and requires a bit of deft technique, and you'll need to work quickly to prevent the dough drying out.
When you have rolled the sheet through the pasta machine as thin as it will go, you can then stretch it even further by gently pulling from the edges with your hands. (This is the same technique used when making strudel dough.) It should be thin enough to read through.
Because fresh filo is so fragile and difficult to store, there are really only two options for working with it. The first is to roll out and layer the sheets of dough (or line your mould if you're making a pie) as you go, brushing each with melted butter or oil. The alternative is to roll out the sheets, brush each one with melted butter, place baking paper in between each sheet and keep them refrigerated, wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, until required. Stored this way, fresh filo keeps for three to four days. Brushing with butter prevents the filo sheets from drying out, but they'll need to be brought to room temperature again before you work with them, otherwise the cold butter could cause the sheets to break.
Once you have your perfect filo layers, all that's left to do is to add your filling and bake the pastry until golden (like we've done in this classic spanakopita recipe) - giving you the delicious flaky result that is so synonymous with Greek food, both savoury and sweet.
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