The freezer section of your supermarket contains a surprising number of prepared foods and ingredients. Some require relatively little time and effort to make from scratch at home, while others are seldom attempted even by professional cooks and bakers. Phyllo pastry falls into the second category. Frozen phyllo is convenient and simple to use, so it's seldom made at home anymore except by dedicated hobbyists. It's actually a simple dough to prepare, though stretching it to its paper-thin finished form requires a degree of finesse.
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Different Roads to Flakiness
Many treats rely on a flaky pastry for their appeal. The textural contrast between a crisp, flaky crust and a tender interior provides much of the pleasure, in both sweet and savory foods. Most types of pastry, from your grandmother's piecrust to professionals' puff pastry or Danish pastry, layer butter or other solid fats into a dough. Phyllo and its kin, including strudel dough, take another tack. Phyllo is a relatively "lean" pastry, with little or no fat, rolled out to make a single very thin layer. It must be stacked or rolled, with oil or melted butter between the layers, to make a crisp casing for your favorite recipe.
The simplest recipes for phyllo call for just flour and water. Most add at least a bit of oil or lemon juice, which help make the dough elastic and easier to stretch, but other regional variations might call for yogurt or eggs as part of the liquid. Choose a small recipe for your first attempt, using 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups of flour, because a modestly sized batch is easier to work with. Mix the flour and liquids together until they form a soft mass. Knead the dough vigorously for 20 to 30 minutes by hand, or half that time in your stand mixer, until it's very smooth. Oil it lightly and set it aside to rest for at least an hour, and, ideally, for several hours.
Rolling, Rolling, Rolling
Mixing the dough is the easy part; rolling it to the correct thinness requires finesse. Start by placing a tablecloth or sheet over your work surface and dusting it with flour. A small-batch recipe makes a sheet that can stretch to as much as 2 or 3 feet wide by 3 feet long, so you'll need some room. Dust the surface of the dough with more flour, and roll it into a thin circle or oblong. Most rolling pins aren't wide enough for this job, so use a piece of 1-inch wooden dowel to take it from there. Roll the dough around the dowel, stretching it slightly as you go, until the whole sheet of dough is wrapped round the dowel. Unroll it, stretching again as you go. Repeat the process, until your dough is about 1/8 inch thick.
A Nice Stretch
Rolling can make the dough thin, but not thin enough. To finish the phyllo, reach under the dough with your hands facing downward and the dough resting on your knuckles. Lift the dough and stretch it toward you, with the backs of your hands. It helps if you have a helper stretching from the other side as well. Keep stretching until the dough is transparently thin. Trim away the thicker edges with scissors or a knife; then either use the dough immediately or store it to use later. If you're making it for later use, flour the sheets lightly and roll them up; then package them in an airtight plastic bag.
Tips and Usage
If a single large piece of dough is more than you're prepared to wrestle with, separate your dough into pieces the size of a golf ball. You can roll those with a conventional rolling pin, finishing with a piece roughly the size of standard sheets. However you roll the dough, it's handled the same way once it's done. If you've cut it into sheets, brush the sheets with melted butter or spray them with oil and then stack them to the desired number of layers. If you leave the dough in a single piece, as for a strudel, you'll just fold in the sides and then roll the entire pastry into a log. It's easiest to do this by lifting the tablecloth and using it as a tool to roll the pastry.