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Little Green Footballs

…and Other Lessons from the Fillo Stratum

cheese and pesto triangles

Two or three weeks ago I got a frantic email from the assistant at my daughter’s Hebrew school: could I lead a cooking session for the 8th graders for an hour that Sunday?

Teens and preteens are not my specialty–I have a friend who’s really terrific with them; she’s an 8th grade and high school teacher and would rather deal with kids than write. I’m the other way around, and my own kid’s turning 13 very soon. Very soon.

Suffice it to say, my answer probably should have been, “Who me? Are you off your nut? Cook with preteens in only an hour?”

And then I thought–but wait. Fillo. It’s inexpensive (a big plus), it’s  easy enough to fold, it’s almost (if you squint) kind of a craft.  Like origami. Make some tasty and quick fillings for it (though no nuts–schools have gotten annoyingly leary of anything with nuts. How are you supposed to teach baklava? Eh? Eh???) and let the kids go to town, a couple of sheets of fillo apiece in the synagogue kitchen. An hour should do it, and it’s a cool, sophisticated food to know how to make–very different from the standard summer camp challah with blue or green food coloring.

So…I bought a couple of packets of fillo (about $2.69 for a roll of 20-24 sheets), a couple of pounds of loose-frozen spinach, an onion, some garlic, a bottle of olive oil and another bottle of canola oil (for the sweet fillings), a packet of dried apricots, a packet of dried figs, some farmer cheese (mistake, doesn’t taste that good; stick with ricotta) and some feta. And some dill and scallions I had at home. Also a lemon or two. I left the fillo in the fridge overnight to thaw slowly the way you’re supposed to, and not the way I usually do (i.e., take the thing out of the wrapper and let it sit an hour on the counter and then wonder why it cracks when I rush to unroll it).

I made the fillings the Sunday morning in a microwaver’s frenzy of immense efficiency:

  1.  Nuke a stick of unsalted butter in a bowl, pour it into a snaplock container.
  2. Thaw the spinach on a plate–4 minutes on HIGH. Take it out.
  3. Dump the dried apricots in a bowl with water to cover and a saucer on top–3 minutes. Meanwhile, start squeezing the spinach dry, and I mean dry, in handfuls over the sink. Nothing worse than soggy spanakopita. Except maybe soggy pizza.
  4. Take the apricots out, put in the bowl of figs with the stems cut off, some water and a lid, 3 minutes for them.
  5. Blend the apricots with a little sugar and water and lemon juice to make a thick paste. Get it out of the food processor and pack it in a disposable container with a lid.
  6. Do the same thing for the figs, only no sugar necessary.
  7. Rinse out the food processor, stick the scallions, wild thyme, fresh dill and basil in and chop them fine, drop in the spinach, a fat clove of minced garlic, and the feta. Pack that too.
  8. Grab all the bags with the goods and don’t forget the oils and the butter and the fillings and the extra feta and farmer’s cheese just in case there’s time to make some cheese-only filling there and somebody wants it. …

I hustled, I got to the synagogue kitchen on time, I set up stations around a stainless steel work table–foil sheets at each place, paper bowls with a dab of melted butter and a pour of oil, plastic baggies to go over everyone’s hands instead of pastry brushes, the carefully unrolled fillo under plastic wrap. The oven–on. The fillings–ready to rock. And then I waited. And waited.

An hour really would have been enough time for that class. But none of the kids showed up for the first 20 minutes because it was also the day the photographers were herding all the classes out into the basketball court area for graduation photos. So when they finally straggled in, all eight–and surprisingly, three of them were boys–I made them wash their hands and then set them to work.

The first thing I did was hand out individual sheets of fillo and pointed out that they were nearly as thin and tearable as tissue paper. They were all surprised when they saw it. None of the kids, who’d been cooking all year and who had attended a lot of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, had seen fillo “in the raw”.

I got them started on spanakopita triangles–also known sometimes as bulemas (Greek root found here; you’ve heard of bulimia, right? Didn’t mention that connection, of course. You would never want to get into that with a batch of preteens. Don’t get too disturbed, though. The rough translation as used in Hebrew is “appetizers” or “things to gobble”. Of course, in Israel “bulmus” is also what they call anything like the American after-Thanksgiving shoppers’ frenzy or otherwise a run on the stock market…so much for appetites gone hog wild…)

I naturally thought fillo triangles would be a cinch for the boys especially–you do it the same way you fold a paper football and try not to get caught in class. Only with a little more butter and olive oil involved, and hopefully no punting in the kitchen, because I wasn’t gonna clean it up for them when the spanakopita went flying.

Here came the second generational surprise, though: none of the kids, not even the boys, had any idea how to fold a basic paper football! They’d never done it. Paper airplane? I asked desperately.  One or two kids had, in the distant past, before they got their phones or iPads or whatever, and given up on using any fingers, including thumbs, for anything but swiping a screen. Sigh. How quickly the essential arts are lost!

So I said, “Well, so this class will teach you some unexpectedly useful skills. When your iPhone battery runs out, you can write a secret note, fold it into a paper football after this and flick it at the back of your friend’s head in class to get his attention, and the Justice Department will have a harder time tracing you as the source without getting a subpoena.” No, I didn’t really say that last bit either. But I was sure thinking it. Not sure the kids have any idea just how many unlovely people can see and track what they’re texting. They desperately need better subterfuge, or at least privacy, skills.

In any case, I taught the class how to fold spanakopita into fillo triangles and then showed them how to make basic fruit-filled (or cheese filled) short rolls. Each of the kids managed to make three or four decent-sized pieces in the time we had, nobody did anything gravely wrong, and they seemed to be having fun (but not too much; that would be uncool since there’s no app for it).

One kid said “Eeeww” at the texture of the spinach and feta filling. He got over it quickly enough and figured out how to fold once he realized he didn’t actually have to touch the filling with his fingers (I pity him later in life, I really do, and NO I did not say that). The girls were neater, no surprise, but although everyone made an apricot roll, nobody tried the fig jam. Pity for them–it’s incredibly simple (figs and water, maybe a squeeze of lemon) but it’s terrific, and it makes a killer fillo dessert pastry. The Big Fig Newton looks kinda pathetic and gummy in comparison. Throw in a sprinkle of aniseed or a grind of cardamom if you want something more exotic, but it’s good as is.

But because we’d started so late, only five minutes were left, so I gave up on the oven and wrapped the pieces in foil and told them to bake them at home in the toaster oven for 15 minutes or just until they’re brown and toasty–not black, not limp and pale. Who knows whether anyone did. The ones I brought home and stuck in the toaster oven turned out really well, so I hope some of the kids tried theirs.

One thing about the dessert pastries–given the time limits for that class, I skipped making the thick sugar syrup you use for baklava and kataif, and I don’t think if your filling is already really sweet that you need it, but obviously for nut-filled fingers you could and perhaps ideally should dip them while still hot in cold thick syrup for a minute and then drain and dry them on a tray if you’re doing them for a party.

Fillo, Round II

I never got around to making the feta cheese appetizer filling for that class, but my chance came up the very next week–also on too-short notice–for my daughter’s class. We’d missed the “Bring your favorite matzah recipe” class before Passover, so this time it was, “Could you make blintzes? Or anything dairy” for Shavuot–again, with only two days’ warning. Blintzes for 12 kids, and only one frying pan? A little more labor-intensive than I think is worthwhile, especially since blintzes are best hot off the press.

But fillo cheese triangles–I had leftover fillo, I had a packet of feta and some ricotta in the fridge, and even–dare I say it–some labaneh (like very stiff sour cream). Easy as rolling off a log. Or 20. This time I made my daughter help before Sunday school, and the ricotta/labaneh combo was better with the feta and herbs than the try I’d made earlier using farmer cheese because farmer cheese is skim, tough-textured, and a little bitter. Even though it’s what my own grandmother used to use for cheesecakes.

Because my daughter’s relatively competent and likes to be competitive as well, she elbowed me away for most of the triangles once I got her set up. We sprinkled sesame seeds on about half of the triangles just before baking them, and they looked really pretty nice. And even though the filling leaked a little in places, the labaneh bakes up beautifully cheesecake-like, not drippy, so it wasn’t too messy or soggy to serve. And they went like bulemas at a party.

Fillo Triangles and Rolls

Ingredients and equipment:

  • A wide foil or plastic wrap sheet to cover the work surface
  • 1 sheet of fillo dough per triangle
  • A little melted butter mixed with olive oil (for savory pastries) or canola oil (for sweet pastries), poured into a bowl for dabbing
  • A plastic baggie over your hand for dabbing the oil/butter mixture onto the fillo sheets–substitutes well for a pastry brush. It’s quick, gentle, doesn’t absorb all the oil, and it’s disposable. Also good if you have a lot of people making the pastries all at the same time.
  • one or more of the fillings below

Main tip: go light on dabbing so you don’t get a greasy pastry.

Folding triangles

First, fold the fillo sheet (about 9 x 11 inches) lengthwise in half, dab lightly with oil/butter mixture, fold in half again to a long skinny rectangle about 1.5 inches wide, and dab lightly again. Then put a spoonful of filling at one end and fold the way you would a paper football.

folding fillo triangles-step 1

Step 1. Put filling at one end of the folded strip of fillo (shown here with cheese and pesto)

howtofoldtriangles-step2

Step 2. Fold a corner over the filling

howtofoldtriangles-step3

Step 3. Lift the point and fold it up toward the edge.

howtofoldtriangles-step4

Step 4. Roll the triangle over toward the opposite edge.

howtofoldtriangles-step5

Step 5. Lift the new point up toward the end of the strip and keep going up, over, and across, alternating sides, until you use up the strip. Then tuck the end in.

Fold a bottom corner of the fillo over the filling diagonally to meet the opposite side edge. Then pick up the new bottom corner on the right and fold the triangle straight up to meet that edge. Take the next new bottom right corner and lift it over diagonally toward the other side edge, then take the new bottom corner and lift straight up. Keep going until you run out of the strip, and tuck the last bits inward. Lay it down on a length of tinfoil with the smoothest side up and dab the top with oil/butter if it’s dry. You can sprinkle sesame, poppy or nigella seeds on top just before baking.

Fillo short rolls

1 sheet of fillo per roll, dab a little oil/butter mixture and fold in half lengthwise. Place a spoonful of filling in a line about 1/2 inch from the bottom short edge, fold the bottom over it, then fold the long sides inward 1/2 inch, and dab a litte more oil on the fillo sheet and roll up the rest of the way. Place seam-side down on the baking foil. Dab the top with a little oil/butter mixture.

Baking

Bake all pieces on foil-lined trays at 350°F for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and smelling good. A toaster oven works fine for just a few pieces if you set it on “Bake” at 350°F. You can also use it to reheat baked pieces that have sat in the fridge overnight and gone soft.

FILLINGS

Spinach and Feta

  • 2 lb frozen spinach, thawed in the microwave and squeezed to bone-dryness in a strainer, teatowel or by handfuls
  • 2-3 scallions or 1/4 medium onion, finely chopped (food processor is fine)
  • 2 T fresh dill
  • 1-2 T wild thyme
  • several leaves fresh basil if you have it
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • 8 oz pkg feta cheese, crumbled

Feta/ricotta

  • 8 oz. pkg. feta, crumbled
  • 1.5-2 c. part-skim ricotta
  • 1/2 c. labaneh or sour cream, optional but really good
  • minced onion or scallions, dill and wild thyme as above
  • medium clove garlic, minced, mashed or grated

Apricot Paste

  • 1 lb. Turkish dried apricots (probably California ones would be better, but they’re 3-5 times as expensive)
  • water to cover
  • lemon juice and sugar to taste

Microwave apricots in water about 2-3 minutes in a microwaveable bowl with a saucer or lid, let sit a minute or so covered to steam, then carefully blend in a food processor to a thick paste with only a little cooking water to start. Taste and add sugar and lemon juice, about 1-2 T each or to taste.

Fig Paste

  • 1 lb pkg dried figs, preferably Smyrna or Calimyrna (light-colored), hard stems trimmed off
  • water to cover
  • lemon juice to taste
  • aniseed, optional

Follow the microwave instructions as for apricot paste. You won’t need added sugar for this. Aniseed can be sprinkled on–lightly, if you like it–when you go to roll up a fillo cigare with this filling.

Nut Fillings

  • 1 lb walnuts, almonds, or pistachios
  • sugar to taste (start with 1/2 c., you’re probably also going to be dipping nut fingers in cold syrup after baking, or else pouring cold syrup over the just-baked pastry if you’re using the nut filling for baklava, so figure to go lightish on the  sugar in the filling itself)
  • sprinkle of cinnamon (1/2 t? a bit less or more?)
  • pinch or grinding of white or green cardamom seed, optional but really good
  • sprinkle (1/2 t.-ish to start) orange blossom water or rosewater if you like it–go very light to prevent it tasting soapy

Grind the nuts and sugar very fine in a food processor, mix in cinnamon, cardamom, and flower water of choice as desired. Go light and taste, then adjust flavorings.

Sugar syrup

  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1/3  c. water
  • small spoonful of orange blossom water or lemon juice

Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar is dissolved and simmer over medium-low heat 10-20 minutes until the syrup reaches 240°F on a candy thermometer and/or coats the back of a spoon pretty thickly. Add the flavorings and let it cool to room temperature before using.  If you have a microwave proof ceramic bowl that won’t heat badly after a minute or two, you can also just microwave a minute at a time just until you get a thick syrup with slow, thick bubbling and then stir in the flavorings and let it cool.

To use the syrup, pour it over a hot baklava you’ve just removed from the oven–spread it all over the top and let it sink in.

For sweet-filled rolls, dip the hot, just-baked rolls just a few at a time in the syrup to coat, let them sit for a minute in the syrup bath and remove them to a cooling rack to dry. NOTE: I haven’t done this myself, so I’m not sure how easy it is to get them back out of the syrup without damaging them. You could just pour the syrup over the whole pan of rolls as for baklava and let it sink in–this might be less pretty but more efficient and less damage-prone.

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