Yotam Ottolenghi baking recipes: the challenge of making perfect filo pastry

A slice of feta and herb filo tart.
A slice of feta and herb filo tart. Photo: The New York Times

You think you're pretty good at something until you meet someone who has been doing it for 41 years. Such was my experience, at least, with the apparently simple act of rolling out pastry very, very thin.

My first steps into the world of food were, as I've written here before, as a pastry chef. And even when I focused on the savoury side of things, the fact that I'd cut my teeth in the pastry kitchen had instilled a base-level confidence. I was delighted with the cherry-and-almond strudels I made from scratch in cooking school, for example, accentuating the folds and creases in the paper-thin pastry with bits of intentionally burned icing sugar and butter. Later, when I became a pastry chef and often used commercial strudel pastry and filo rather than making my own, I thought the process was like riding a bike: Once you've learned, you never forget.

Or do you? Three snapshots from a television series I made in 2012, Mediterranean Feast, might prove otherwise.

The first is from Le Saf Saf, a restaurant in the coastal town of La Marsa, near Tunis, that was home to a friendly camel and was known for its brik parcels. Here, tissue-paper-thin warka pastry – like filo but a bit more robust – was filled with harissa, egg and tuna before being quickly folded and fried. The result was so crisp and thin you could see the egg through the skin. "There's nothing to it," I made the mistake of saying after watching a few being made.

But translating those words into action was one of my many reminders that if you want to get good at something, you have to put in the hours. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell set the magic number for true expertise at 10,000 hours. Assuming an eight-hour work day, that might look like 1,250 days, or, give or take a few weekends and holidays, around four years. Le Saf Saf's brik parcels, like so many throughout the region, have been served for a good 40 years.

My training at cooking school and time as a pastry chef were beginning to look like preschool. After a few failed attempts to fold the pastry without creating a hole, I just pretended that there wasn't one and continued on. The result looked more like a shrivelled roll than the perfectly flat calzone I was aiming for. I patted the camel goodbye and went on my way.

Snapshot No. 2 comes from Istanbul, where a national love of sweets tips into obsession when it comes to baklava, the simple dessert of filo pastry, nuts and syrup or honey. I visited one of the city's most celebrated baklava factories, Karakoy Gulluoglu, where production of the pastry is elevated to an art form.

The master baker, Mustafa, is a fifth-generation baker. I can't remember the last time I was both so in awe (while watching him work) and so terrified (while trying to help him work) of the same person. After a team prayer and cheer, balls of dough were rolled and stretched again and again at a remarkable pace. They became thin enough to see through and so much like a billowy bedsheet that they could be flapped up in the air as if a bed were indeed being made.

Folding a sheet of phyllo dough for a feta and herb phyllo tart, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) CREDIT LINE MUST READ: NEW YORK TIMES MAKING PASTRY 8 May 9 2017, at 01:09 PM ?BC-MAKING-PASTRY-ART-(TRIMS)-NYT. The bundle contains the text and xml versions of the story, as well as all of the bundled photos. Folding a sheet of phyllo dough for a feta and herb phyllo tart, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) - XNYT54

Making perfect, paper-thin filo pastry can take years of practice. Photo: The New York Times

Making pastry like this requires "hard work, attention, meticulous care and love," Mustafa told me. Check, check, check and check, I thought, reassuring myself. He had failed to mention that 41 years of experience would also help. What followed was nothing short of comedy as I got lost in the clouds of flour resulting from my trying to "help" and to roll out the pastry at a pace that would keep it from drying out.

In the third and final snapshot, I'm in Marrakech, trying my hand at warka sheets, used throughout Morocco in all sorts of savoury and sweet stuffed parcels: an egg-filled brik like the one I'd had at Le Saf Saf, cheese- or meat-packed triangles, cinnamon and nut-filled "cigars".

To stay with the cycling analogy: It's one thing to be overtaken by someone who has been pedalling for many years. It's quite another to be whizzed past by someone who looks barely old enough to own a bike. I was told this pastry maker was 15, but to me he didn't look a day over nine. He flipped and swirled his pastry with the sort of blind confidence I could only (and will only ever) dream of.

Rather than being rolled and stretched, as with filo and strudel, the warka pastry at this bakery was made round, like a crepe, by holding the sticky ball of dough in one hand and tapping it, bit by bit, around the flat surface of a hot iron pan. I'd never seen anything like it and found it impossible to get it right the first, second or 10th time around. "Five months," I was told, was how long it would take me to be able to make warka.

So I went to someone who, very kindly, reassured me it was not quite time to hang up my apron. Fouzia took me into her home kitchen and showed me the "cheats' way". Setting a frying pan atop a pot of boiling water, we brushed the runny batter onto the base of the pan. The crepe that soon appeared was, thankfully, magically easy to peel off the pan. At last, I was able to focus on making something with the pastry, rather than humiliating myself with making the pastry in the first place.

My hope with these snapshots is to reassure you that, compared with the experts, we're all on training wheels when it comes to making thin laminated pastry. Don't be scared. Take delight in the fact that it isn't necessary for home cooks to make their own. There is enough good ready-made filo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. Scrunch a sheet in one hand: If it's brittle and falls apart, it won't be a dream to work with. If it springs open, the quality is excellent. From there, just be liberal with the melted butter (this allows the sheets to separate and rise in the oven) and work quickly when brushing the sheets to prevent their drying out.

A feta and herb filo tart, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) CREDIT LINE MUST READ: NEW YORK TIMES MAKING PASTRY 5 May 9 2017, at 01:11 PM BC-MAKING-PASTRY-ART-(TRIMS)-NYT. The bundle contains the text and xml versions of the story, as well as all of the bundled photos. A feta and herb phyllo tart, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) - XNYT51

Coiled filo tart with feta and herbs. Photo: The New York Times

Feta and herb filo tart

8 sheets of thin 40-by-30-centimetre filo pastry (about 200g)

45g unsalted butter, melted

100g finely crumbled feta

50g finely grated pecorino

5g roughly chopped parsley

5g roughly chopped tarragon leaves

5g roughly chopped mint leaves

4 eggs

180ml heavy cream (double cream)

120ml milk

Salt and black pepper

1. Heat the oven to 200C.

2. Brush one of the filo sheets lightly with melted butter and place, butter side-up, in a 25-centimetre round tart pan. Press the pastry into the corners and then brush another sheet of filo in the same way, pressing it into the pan at a 45-degree angle to the first sheet. Continue twice more (using four sheets total), covering the base and sides of the pan with a uniformly thick layer of filo. Trim the overhanging pastry, but not completely, leaving one centimetre of filo over the edges of the tart. Set both the pan and pastry scraps aside.

3. Take another sheet of filo (unbuttered this time) and position the long side in front of you. Fold the bottom edge up to form a fold three centimetres wide. Continue folding the pastry in alternating directions (as if you were making a concertina fan) until you end up with one long pleated strip. Repeat with the remaining sheets of pastry in the same way. (If the pastry breaks or tears, pat it back into place and continue as if the torn pieces were still connected.)

4. Starting from the middle of the tart tin, coil one folded strip from the middle outward to start forming a rough snail, spreading the strips roughly three quarters of a centimetre apart. (You want visible gaps between the filo strips, so you can fill them with chunks of feta and the custard, see image below.) Meet the end of the pastry with the second strip and continue the snail in the same way until the four sheets have been used. You may still have some space around the edge, which you can fill with the scrap trimmings, folding them in the same way as best you can.

A pie pan with swirled layers of phyllo dough in place and ready to receive the filling for a feta and herb phyllo tart, in New York, April 27, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) CREDIT LINE MUST READ: NEW YORK TIMES MAKING PASTRY 3 May 9 2017, at 01:10 PM BC-MAKING-PASTRY-ART-(TRIMS)-NYT. The bundle contains the text and xml versions of the story, as well as all of the bundled photos. A pie pan with swirled layers of phyllo dough in place and ready to receive the filling for a feta and herb phyllo tart, in New York, April 27, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) - XNYT49

Swirled layers of filo dough in place and ready to receive the filling. Photo: The New York Times

5. Brush the pastry carefully with remaining butter and set any pastry coils upright if they've fallen over. Place tart pan on a baking sheet and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the pastry is a dark golden brown. Remove from oven and set aside to cool for 20 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, mix feta, pecorino and herbs until blended and set aside.

7. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together eggs, cream and milk with half a teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper.

8. Gently press cheese and herbs in between the gaps of the filo pastry, being careful not to break the pastry base. Pour the custard over evenly, drizzling in just a little at a time and allowing it to soak evenly into all the gaps in the pastry. Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, until the custard has set and the cheese has browned. Remove from the oven and serve warm, cut into slices.

Serves: 8

Total time: About 1½ hours

Squares of baklava, the simple dessert of phyllo pastry, nuts and syrup or honey, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) CREDIT LINE MUST READ: NEW YORK TIMES MAKING PASTRY 1 May 9 2017, at 01:09 PM ?BC-MAKING-PASTRY-ART-(TRIMS)-NYT. The bundle contains the text and xml versions of the story, as well as all of the bundled photos. Squares of baklava, the simple dessert of phyllo pastry, nuts and syrup or honey, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) - XNYT47

Baklava with haloumi cheese. Photo: The New York Times

Walnut, cinnamon and haloumi baklava

For the filling

30g unsalted butter, melted

130g walnut halves, roasted and finely chopped into three-millimetre pieces

¾ tsp ground cinnamon

¾ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

20g castor sugar

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tsp)

For the pastry sheets

16 sheets of 23-by-23 centimetre filo pastry (about 200g; filo sheets come in different sizes, so just cut them down accordingly)

70g unsalted butter, melted

130g coarsely grated haloumi cheese

For the rose water syrup

150g castor sugar

1½ tbsp lemon juice

4½ tsp rosewater

1 tsp dried rose petals, to garnish

1. Heat oven to 240C. Mix together all the ingredients for the filling and set aside.

2. Place one sheet of pastry in an 20-by-20-centimetre baking pan, preferably one with low edges, arranging the pastry so the sides of the sheet rise up the sides of the pan. Brush with a little butter and continue in the same way with seven more sheets of pastry, brushing each with butter, until you have layered eight sheets of pastry.

3. Scatter the grated haloumi on top of the pastry and then sprinkle all of the walnut mixture over evenly. Place another layer of pastry on top, pressing down securely. Brush with more butter and continue with the remaining seven layers of pastry in the same way. Brush the final layer with butter and use your fingers to gently tuck the pastry edges underneath the baklava so you get a neat edge (a bit like making a bed).

4. Using a small sharp knife, cut the baklava into nine or 16 pieces, allowing the knife almost to reach the bottom, but not quite. Transfer to oven and bake for 18 minutes, turning the pan around halfway through baking until baklava is dark golden-brown and crisp on top.

5. While the baklava is baking, make the rosewater syrup: Heat sugar and 90ml water in a small saucepan on a medium-high heat for two to three minutes, swirling every once in a while until the sugar has dissolved and started to boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add lemon juice and rosewater and let simmer gently for six to seven minutes, until you have about 180ml of slightly thickened syrup left. Remove from the heat and set aside.

6. As soon as the baklava has been removed from the oven, pour two-thirds of the syrup over it and sprinkle with rose petals, crushing them slightly as you go. Set aside for five minutes to cool slightly, and then serve each slice warm, with an extra one or two teaspoons of syrup drizzled on top.

Makes: 9 large or 16 small pieces

Total time: 45 minutes

Squares of baklava, the simple dessert of phyllo pastry, nuts and syrup or honey, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) CREDIT LINE MUST READ: NEW YORK TIMES MAKING PASTRY 7 May 9 2017, at 01:12 PM BC-MAKING-PASTRY-ART-(TRIMS)-NYT. The bundle contains the text and xml versions of the story, as well as all of the bundled photos. Squares of baklava, the simple dessert of phyllo pastry, nuts and syrup or honey, in New York, April 28, 2017. Making perfect, paper-thin phyllo can take years of practice: Fortunately for home cooks there is plenty of ready-made phyllo available. Brands do vary, though, so make sure that what you start with is of good quality. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times) - XNYT53

Drizzle the baklava squares with reserved syrup and scatter with rose petals. Photo: The New York Times

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