Phyllo, otherwise known as fillo, are delicate, gossamer-like pastry sheets that come frozen and must be handled delicately and quickly or they stick together, rip apart, or otherwise become unusable in your food creations. They have to be made supple by brushing with oil or butter, and kept moist with a damp cloth and/or plastic wrap. Sounds daunting? It can be–if you don’t honor the phyllo.
Backstory here. Every Yom Kippur my family breaks the fast with a meal that includes what we call “filla”, flaky triangles enfolding a spinach or cheese mixture. They are, as Cousin Joe recently called it, Sephardic soul food. Two of each filla will fill you up, and there is always a fight to take more home. My 90 year old father-in-law has made filla for years; he learned it from his mother, who was born in Turkey. Wanting to maintain the tradition, I asked him to teach me the secrets of filla-making, which he did, even providing a model for folding it once the filling is put in. This year he agreed to pass the spoon, so to speak, to me, so after a trial run several years ago, this was my official offering of filla for the family. After all, Yom Kippur fasting is easier knowing there’s filla at the end.
It’s easy enough to make: basically you mix defrosted frozen spinach with eggs, various cheeses, a little salt and pepper; then you fold the phyllo sheet by thirds, place a tablespoon or two of the mixture on the sheet, fold into triangles and bake. Simple, yes? But only if the phyllo cooperates.
When I made the spinach filla I defrosted the frozen bricks of spinach on the radiator; it took about an hour. I defrosted a package of pastry sheets the same way. When the mixture was ready I unrolled the sheets, and lo and behold, they were stuck together in the middle at the fold line; despite brushing them with oil to loosen them, they refused to separate in one piece, and it was impossible to fold them properly. I became uptight with frustration–no matter what I did, covering the exposed sheets with a damp dish towel, taking sheets from the bottom–I could not get them to detach properly. I ended up taking little pieces of the doughy sheets and placing them together willy-nilly, spooning the green mixture in and folding it however I could so the filling wouldn’t be exposed, sometimes failing in the attempt. Instead of triangles I created polygons of all shapes and sizes in my efforts to use up all the mixture and pastry sheets. The table and floor were littered with small pieces of dried phyllo, and I needed a drink. I had just finished making spinach filla and needed to repeat the process to make the cheese variety. No way! Filled with dread, I threw up my hands, cleaned up the mess, and called it a night (no, I didn’t have that drink), resolving to have a clearer head and a calmer attitude in the morning.
The following day I put on some soothing music (as opposed to the political rhetoric on TV I was listening to the night before) and mixed the cheese filling. I pulled the remaining box of pastry sheets out of the refrigerator, leaving it on the table for an hour while I had breakfast; then I unrolled it carefully, the damp towel and sheet of plastic wrap at the ready. Carefully I brushed the ends of the phyllo sheets at the corner of one side, slowly lifting one up–and the thin sheet arose in one beautiful 12 x 17 leaf. Then I remembered: the sheets have to be folded into thirds lengthwise and not by width; this makes a long, narrow rectangle that can be folded neatly into a triangle shape. The next sheet pulled up intact, and the next…a little brush of oil and damp towel cover kept things going until I had 26 lovely triangular pillows of pastry cheesy goodness to bake. When a piece got stuck I worked it from the other side, brushing it lightly with oil. It was easy and even fun!
Why was each experience so different? On reflection, I knew what went wrong: I had at first approached the whole enterprise with fear and a weighty sense of obligation. I wanted to impress my father-in-law. I wanted to feel competent. I had made spinach filla before, but not the cheese; I was nervous about the outcome. I felt the weight of tradition and the fear that I’d let everyone down. But I was smug too; I thought I could get away with a quickie defrosting, instead of refrigerating it and bringing it up to room temperature. It’s possible I encountered a bum product, but it’s also possible that it just didn’t defrost properly all the way through.There are no shortcuts with phyllo dough; it’s very unforgiving.
I know that I wasn’t mindful and patiently focused the first time; I wanted to get it done. And yet, as difficult and frustrating the first batch was, the second was all the more effortless, taking less time and mess. This time I accepted that I was doing my best, regardless of the outcome, knowing that my family would appreciate having filla even if it wasn’t perfect. This time I approached the process with love, working with the phyllo and not wrestling with it. Having no expectations, I ended up with everything I was striving for: a feeling of competence, command and enjoyment, and delicious spinach and cheese filla. And you know what? Everyone loved both varieties, and nobody minded the shapes at all.
To make Spinach Filla you need: 1/4 cup olive oil, 4 eggs, 1/2 lb. feta cheese, 4 boxes frozen spinach (thawed and drained), 1/2 lb. farmer cheese, 4 oz. pot (or cottage) cheese, 1/4 cup Romano cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Mix all ingredients. You’ll need a box of Apollo #4 phyllo sheets, defrosted and warmed to room temperature. Take one sheet at a time, fold in thirds, add 1-2 TBSP of mixture to a side and fold at angles until you have a triangle. Brush with egg wash, place on ungreased baking pan; repeat for each sheet. Bake at 375 for 17-20 min until golden brown. Makes 28 filla.
To make Cheese Filla: 4 eggs, 1/2 lb. feta cheese, 1/2 lb farmer cheese, 8 oz. pot or cottage cheese, 1/4 cup Romano cheese, 1 small mashed potato, salt and pepper to taste. Add matzoh meal if very loose. Mix and repeat process with phyllo. Makes 28 filla.