Ingredient: Phyllo dough
Dec 13, 2011, Updated Jan 10, 2023
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Perhaps it’s my love of paper that inspires my fascination with phyllo dough. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, phyllo dough is a beautiful, delicate pastry that requires a lot of tender loving care when handled. Made with flour, water, and oil, phyllo is an unleavened (no yeast) paper-thin dough that is typically layered with butter or oil for its various preparations.
We use phyllo to make our prized Lebanese baklawa (sounds like bit-LAY-wah), a pastry of many crisp layers of phyllo with nuts and clarified butter. You may be more accustomed to ‘baklava,’ which is the Greek version. To the casual eater of this pastry, the two types may seem identical, but the differences are there, and each culture considers their own the best. Greeks use honey to flavor their baklava. The Lebanese use simple syrup fragrant with mazaher, orange blossom water.
Phyllo dough is typically store-bought rather than homemade, and comes in various sizes, thicknesses, brands—and almost as many spellings: phyllo, fillo, filo. I asked Aunt Louise the other night about her preferred dough, and she reached in among her cookbooks and pulled out the label from a box of phyllo dough that she cut out some time ago. She keeps it handy so she’ll always remember exactly what brand and type of dough she is looking for, which is #4 (as opposed to #7 which is thicker, or #10 which is ‘country style,’ very thick). The brand she likes is Fillo Factory, a brand I hadn’t seen before. When I looked it up I discovered a family-owned operation, and best of all, their phyllo is organic.
Aunt Louise drives across town in Lansing to get this specific phyllo dough. Online, the Fillo Factory’s zip code store locator turned up no retailers for me in a 75-mile radius of Harbor Springs. The dough can be ordered from them online, but then you have to weigh the cost of shipping, and you clearly have to plan ahead.
I have always just bought any phyllo that is available in my neighborhood grocery store, which means you take what you can get. The dough may come in the long sheets (about 14”x18”) or the short ones (about 9”x14”). Most everyone I know uses the long sheets in a sheet pan, but I started making baklawa in a 9″x13″x2″ when I could find only the smaller phyllo in my city grocery in Chicago. Turns out I really enjoy making a smaller quantity of baklawa, even though that goes directly against the family grain (bigger is better). Whatever size pan you want to bake your baklawa in can be accommodated; phyllo is easily trimmed, with a scissors as you’d cut wrapping paper, to fit your pan.
Phyllo is always sold frozen, and it can be tough to locate in the frozen food aisles. I’ve scoured many a grocery store searching for phyllo until finally I have to ask a store employee to escort me directly to it. Typically the brand grocery stores carry is Athens, and typically there is no option for varying degrees of thickness (the box doesn’t read #4, #7, #10).
Phyllo can’t be left out for long because the layers are so thin they dry out quickly. The dough must be thawed before opening, and then once unrolled it must be covered with a towel to prevent drying. A sheet of phyllo when dry will shatter and crumble over a whisper, when what you want is to keep the sheet flexible and cohesive.
So get your TLC on to make baklawa this week. Our gentle handling of the phyllo might just extend to how we treat others this holiday season. Or even better, how we treat ourselves.