Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Stretching Your (Filo) Dough

October 5th, 2008 · No Comments

Long ago and far away — on the island of Rhodes, to be exact — housewives would spend the better part of a day making filo dough — the parchment-like dough of flour, water and oil that turns into a crisp pastry that melts in your mouth. It’s a pride of Greek cookery. It surrounds meat, cheese and spinach fillings to make traditional hand-pies. It gets shredded into kataifi — to be filled with almond cream and pistachios — and the most popular dessert from the region: baklava.

Today, labor being what it is and traditions fading every moment, it’s rare to find a hands-on bakery anywhere — most doughs are turned out by machines in “factory” bakeries. Certainly few take the effort to make filo by hand.

It was with no small surprise I happened on the Greek Tasty Corner Bakery in Lantana, where I found tradition lives, even if aided by modern machines.

Nikolas Kirhatzis

Nikolas Kirhatzis

First, meet the baker: Nikolas Kirhatzis — who works with his son Michael and his daughter-in-law, Joy. Nikolas has been baking, mostly in Rhodes, for 33 years. “I supplied all the restaurants in Rhodes, the hotels all the people with the filo,” he says in his lilting Greek accent.

He and his son Michael agreed to let me come in and watch as they made the every-other-day filo batch, which would wind up as meat and cheese pies at my visit.

They had premixed the dough — the easy part. Flour, hot water, oil, sometimes lemon juice or vinegar. Making the elastic dough in the quantity they use requires a large bakery mixer. Once the dough is made, then comes the hands-on tricky part.

First the dough is rolled to a paper thinness. For this, they use a dough-rolling machine. It’s a long belt-like cloth that’s heavily floured (think pastry cloth). This belt is passed back and forth, with the dough on it, through the heavy rollers.

It goes through the rollers eight times — floured and pulled every other time to help make it thinner.

The goal is a paper-thin, very elastic dough. Traditionally, bakers created this by hand with large, heavy rolling pins, and used a floured cloth stretched over a long kitchen table. Rolling it out the required number of times built up muscles.
Once it’s as thin as it can get and still be manageable on the machine, Michael uses a large pin and rolls up the dough to transfer it to the oiled table.  They’ll repeat this four or six times.
The surface of the table has been well greased — that’s a crucial step in making filo; keeping it well oiled.

Next, the dough gets spread with melted butter to soften it, and give it even more flexibility. The four or six layers of the dough become one layer on the table, but it flakes back into individual parchment-like layers in the oven. (They asked me not to show how they apply the melted butter they get from Greece; most bakers use a wide pastry brush, or a mister to spray it on; Nikolas has a unique method with a common tool that speeds the process while applying it evenly.)

Careful handling means fine dough

The pulling and stretching by hand then begins. This will take almost an hour and both men working carefully so as not to tear the ever-thinning dough.
Once the dough has stretched to completely cover the table evenly, Michael uses a tool called an expandable dough-wheel to mark off the squares for precise cutting — no waste. The rollers are sharp; deftness is required.
Prepared fillings (meat and cheese in this instance) are piped onto the center of the cut squares, and the dough folded to make a packet. The various pies or pastries are then chilled — the dough will not separate in the oven unless chilled before hand.
The result is fabulously thin, crispy layers that surround sumptious fillings.Spanakopita
Here’s a slideshow I shot of the process. (Roll your cursor over the photo and arrows guide you through it.)
That’s Michael and Joy, who run the bakery, at the end.

Handmade filo


 Don’t try this at home

You probably won’t want to make your own filo…and so long as you can buy such good quality in the store, I’d recommend concentrating on making great fillings instead. (You can buy frozen Athenos filo at The Greek Grocer directly next door to the bakery. )

The bakery has a variety of filo-wrapped goods every day: You can get the premade spinach pies (spanakopita), meat pies (kreatopita), cheese pies (tiropita), and the sweets, baklava and kaitafi. They’re friendly and helpful about the products as well, so you can learn more about them when you visit.

Greek Grocer and Greek Tasty Corner

  •   640-650 S. Dixie Highway, Lantana
  •   (561) 585-2626 (grocery); (561) 540-4009 (bakery)

Tags: Recipes: What's Cooking!

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