Phyllo Report

I know that you all are waiting with bated breath to hear about the outcome of my epic battle with the phyllo dough. Well, probably not, actually, because you don’t know about my sordid phyllo past. Let me assure you that phyllo dough and I are old acquaintances.

It started when I was a wee child, and my father would buy phyllo dough from the Turkish ladies so that we could make spanakopita and baklava and other pastry delights. My father and I were an efficient team, and we brought our phyllo system back to the United States with us, when we transitioned to storebought phyllo dough.

Together, my father and I could lay out a spanakopita in about five minutes, once we assembled all of the ingredients. He would be the dough handler, since he has much more patience than I do, along with the light touch to handle the dough. I would be the pastry brusher, since I can slop butter all over things fairly effectively. Standing side by side, he would whip sheets of phyllo in while I brushed, and then we would pause in the middle to dump the filling before carrying on, sprinkling cinnamon between layers every now and then.

My father taught me several useful things about working with storebought phyllo dough. The first was to always take from the back of the case, rather than the front. The second was to thaw the dough in the fridge overnight, and to take it out about an hour before it was needed. The third was that the dough did not need to be covered, as long as you worked quickly.

When I moved out, my early phyllo dough attempts were uniform disasters. Partially, this was due to mishandling as the dough was in transit, resulting in clumped mats of dough. But it was also due to my impatient nature, my lack of fine motor control, and my inability to recognize that sometimes one must work slowly in order to work quickly. My encounters with phyllo dough usually ended in flakes of dough all over the kitchen, along with tears and pools of once joyous filling.

So when I decided to make spanakopita for shabbat, it was about more than just making the dish. It was also about conquering an old enemy, facing my fears, and moving on with my life. I added a new level of challenge by making it vegan (recipe follows below).

I went to Harvest with Brendan for ingredients, and I told the phyllo dough right then and there, as soon as I opened the case, that I was not going to take any attitude. I put in in the fridge to thaw before I went to bed, set it out to warm up to room temperature in the afternoon the next day, and prepared to do battle, laying out my workspace extremely carefully.

To my astonishment, it was a breeze. Each sheet of phyllo dough pulled lightly and elegantly away from the stack. Not a single crack or misplaced corner flake. The phyllo floated into the pan, rested happily while I slathered in in olive oil, accommodated the slightly moist filling, and the sheet on top of the filling did not even tear when I brushed it. I slipped the spanakopita into the oven, crossing my fingers, and pulled it out 35 minutes later, crisp and glowing. The result was heavenly delicious, and I had gotten over the phyllo hump.

Vegan Spanakopita

Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit (196 Celsius)

1 onion, finely diced
Several cloves of garlic, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach, finely chopped (one box of frozen, if you must)

Add a small amount of olive oil to a large cast iron pan, and fry the garlic and onions until translucent. Add the spinach. Cook until, er, cooked, and then set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, mash one package of silken tofu very finely. Work those chunks out. Add snipped fresh dill, cracked black pepper, plentiful salt, and nutmeg. My father likes to use white pepper because he thinks it is less acrid. I’ll let you decide for yourself. Mix in the veggies.

Laying out your workspace:

I keep my kitchen very clean. This fills me with happiness. Take the time to do the dishes from your first step, which also allows the filling to cool completely. Wipe your counters. Urinate if you need to. Once you open that dough, the clock is ticking! My phyllo set up is for right handed cooks, reverse if you are a lefty.

Set up an oiled 9×13 inch (23×33 cm) pan to the left of your workspace. Position a bowl filled with a lot of olive oil above the pan. I mean a lot. Glug it in there. Place an open container of cinnamon next to the bowl, along with your pastry brush. (I use one with natural bristles. My spanakopita is sometimes hairy. Synthetic might be best for this application, sadly.) Set the filling in a conveniently close location.

Wash your hands, you filthy child. Next, open the phyllo dough. Snip the top of the package off, and gently unroll it, using the plastic outer wrap as a mat to lay the phyllo dough on. The phyllo dough wants to hang out to the right of the pan. Do not hurry. Move slowly, gently, and decisively. Once unrolled, GO! Pull off sheets one at a time, laying them in the pan and quickly brushing them. Hold the brush tucked in your dominant hand while you peel off another sheet, and so on. Every four layers or so, sprinkle cinnamon in. After eight layers, set the pastry brush somewhere handy, pour the filling in, and use the spoon you left in the filling (you left the spoon in, right?) to spread it evenly. Resume phyllo operations. When you have used the last sheet, pop the pan in the oven. Cook for 35-40 minutes, or until golden. Allow to cool a bit before cutting and eating.

Mmmm, spanakopita! And I still have a package left…teropita, anyone?