Traditional filo is tissue-thin and can be temperamental to work with. Speed is required to get it buttered or oiled, rolled and shaped before it becomes brittle and shatters into flakes. In the last decade or so I have noticed that the brand of filo I use is a tad thicker than previously, which does make it easier to work with. When using filo for the first time, set aside 30 minutes when you will not be uninterrupted. It’s disappointing coming back to the job after taking a phone call to find the pastry has become brittle and unworkable. The following tips will help you produce a gorgeous golden result.
It is easier to work with filo pastry in a cool atmosphere rather than a hot or steamy kitchen. If you get afternoon sun in your kitchen, plan to prepare filo earlier in the day.
101 filo pastry preparation
While filo will shatter if it gets dry, it will stick together and turn into a sodden mass if it becomes damp. The trick is to keep the sheets of unused pastry lightly covered with a damp – not wet – tea-towel as you assemble the dish. Have ready a baking tray (sheet) lined with baking (parchment) paper. Remove filo from packaging and lay it flat on a clean dry cloth. Remove one sheet at a time from the stack of filo and lay it on the lined baking tray, quickly re-cover the stack of filo with the damp cloth, then brush the sheet of filo with butter or oil. Lay the next sheet of filo on top of the buttered one, always re-covering the stack of filo sheets with the damp cloth. And away you go!
Brushing filo with butter or oil makes filo crisp and golden. If there is insufficient brushed over when assembling the layers of filo, the finished dish will be as interesting as eating cardboard! Use a soft pastry brush and let the brush glide over the pastry to avoid tearing it. Use the minimum amount of butter or oil – don’t saturate the pastry. And, here’s a tip, if you want to skimp, skimp by using less butter or oil in the middle of the sheets, not at the edges which dry out first. Oil is probably healthier (oil sprays can be used), but butter has the best flavour, and clarified butter makes the crispest pastry.
For a lighter dish, sprinkle each sheet with crumbled toasted crumbs, grated parmesan or finely chopped nuts. They give flavour as well as trapping a little air in between the layers of filo.
If you do not intend cooking filo pies immediately after rolling and shaping, keep them refrigerated but be aware that any edges of pastry that has not been coated with butter or oil will shatter if it is knocked. Rolled and buttered filo triangles can be stored in a double layer in a shallow container lined with baking (parchment) paper in two layers separated with more paper.
Filo is best cooked in a regular oven, not on fanbake, which can send it flying around the oven, and dry it out and make it darken in colour before the pie is cooked. However, you need to strike the perfect balance: if filo is not sufficiently cooked (pale and only lightly golden) it will collapse and lose its crunch shortly after coming out of the oven and damp uncrunchy parts will become gummy. Cook it to a good deep golden colour. Here’s a great tip if you do burn the top of a pie: scrunch up some extra buttered sheets and cook them on a baking tray, then lay them on top of the pie.
Unused filo can be stored for a week or so. Return it to the plastic bag it came in, seal the end of the bag with tape then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it refrigerated.
Leftover cooked filo pies need to be kept refrigerated if they contain meat. Fruit pies will keep a day or so in a COOL kitchen or pantry and nut pies in sugar syrup will keep a few days at room temperature. The fridge will make filo pastry soggy, but pies can be reheated in a hot oven until piping hot and crisp (do not do this to baklava or pies that have been drizzled with syrup). Reheating pies in a microwave is not recommended.