Phyllo dough bakes up to be golden, buttery-crisp and flaky; it’s the reason I love spanakopita and baklava so much. My Greek sister-in-law is a phyllo fanatic and relies on the dough for a wide range of easy, quick tarts.
Translated from Greek, phyllo means leaf, and those papery-thin pastry sheets can seem tricky to work with at first. But trust me, they’re far more flexible than most cookbooks would have you believe. The key is butter, plenty of it, and speed. Better to work quickly than precisely. A tear or rip in the dough is easily patched over as you layer the sheets one on top of the next.
Find phyllo in the freezer section in rolls or flat squares. It’s best to defrost it in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. Do not defrost the phyllo on the counter at room temperature because condensation forms when it is thawed quickly, making the outer layers of the phyllo gummy.
Phyllo contains very little fat, which is why butter or oil is critical as the layers are stacked on top of each other. As the tart bakes up, those layers unite into a sturdy pastry that is airy, delicate and light. I prefer using butter for its flavor, but olive oil works equally well.
As you build the crust, the layers of phyllo may tend to dry, become brittle and break. This is where speed is important. Have everything ready to go — the filling of cheese, vegetables and the melted butter. Place the unwrapped dough on a slightly (very lightly) dampened kitchen towel and cover with another very lightly dampened towel.
Lift up one or two phyllo sheets, lay it on a prepared baking sheet, and brush with butter, layer on the next one or two sheets of phyllo and brush again. Keep the dough on the counter covered with the towel as you work.
Once you get the knack of all this, know that it’s easy to shape the phyllo into different shapes: tarts, cigars, strudels, triangles and more. Here, the free-form phyllo crust makes a pretty presentation for a wide range of fillings from appetizers to desserts.
You can vary this recipe by using a range of seasonal vegetables and different cheeses, or try tossing fresh fruit or a favorite pie filling on the phyllo for a splendid dessert. Effortless is the art of a simple tart.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.