Pie is the most sensible food to bring to a party. Whether savory or sweet, large or small, the combination of a richly flavored filling and crispy, buttery pastry can’t be beat. In every corner of the world, people have been wrapping up delicious food in some form of dough. In Greece, phyllo stands in for the crust.
In Greek, the suffix “pita” signifies pie. Tiropita is a cheese-filled phyllo pie, and tiropites are the triangle pies sized more like a hand pie. When serving a crowd, it’s tiropita strifti, a snail-shaped spiral of phyllo wrapped around cheese filling. Add “horto” to pita, and it might be a pie filled with leafy mustard or dandelion greens. Spanakopita is filled with spinach and cheese. These pies are perfectly portable — an ideal bring-along for your next get-together.
Phyllo is hand-stretched to a glorious translucent dough. Success with it is dependent on preparation. Start with the work surface: I like to line the counter with plastic wrap. Not only does it speed cleanup, but it also helps organize the (often torn or split) sheets. Also, use plastic wrap to cover the stack of defrosted, unfurled phyllo, to keep it from drying out. Adding a slightly damp, clean kitchen towel on top of that plastic wrap will hold in the moisture even more. Take time to set up your space, and the process will be a breeze.
If phyllo is the building block, butter is the mortar. The stretched dough is made of nothing more than flour and water, and butter brings it to life. Phyllo tends to split and tear. Just pat it into shape atop the plastic wrap and use a pastry brush lightly dipped in butter to piece the pastry sheet back together. The second sheet will be not quite as challenging to place and butter, and the third will be even easier. Those three sheets, bound by butter, are filled and formed into petite pies.
To make a spectacular pie, filling flavors must be bold and well seasoned. A dull filling will be lost in the layers of translucent dough.
A pinch more salt, a dash of honey, or a squeeze of lemon punctuates the difference between drab and dazzling. At the same time, the fillings must not be watery or the pie will become damp and soggy, overshadowing the crackling buttery layers.
Use a bright, zippy spring stir-fry mix in the savory pies. Keep the colors bright by barely cooking the leaves, then splash them with lemon juice. My first batch, made with new chard leaves, turned a rosy pink. For the sweet pies, roast strawberries until they are syrupy and intensely flavored to keep the filling stiff and not at all wet.
Plop the filling at the bottom edge of the phyllo stack, and, as if folding a flag, lift one corner of the phyllo sheets up and over the filling. It will not cover the filling entirely, but continue to fold it over itself to form a triangular shape and all the open edges will be contained, the filling encased in a phyllo hug. Make it a comfortable, easy fold; too tight and the filling will explode out of the side during baking.
I like to gather a couple of friends (and some appropriate libations) to make a hundred or more little pitas at once. It’s easy, companionable work, and everyone leaves with a freezer stash of appetizers, lunch-with-a-salad, or after-school snacks that can be baked directly from the freezer.
Sure, phyllo pies may be what you carry to your next gathering, but set a few aside, too. They’re kid-friendly and bake in 20 minutes, even in a toaster oven.
Sweet or savory, they’re spectacularly snackable.