First things first, let’s get this burning question out of the way: Is it filo or phyllo (or, even more esoteric, fillo)? That’s really a potay-to, potah-to question, because they’re both right. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary identifies filo as the British English spelling and phyllo as the North American English spelling. So there you have it. Definitive answer.
Although the word comes from the Greek φύλλον, meaning “leaf,” the origin of this thin, flaky pastry is a bit murkier. Some say it is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, written around 800 BC, describing a sweet made with walnuts and honey (think baklava). Others credit the Turks for inventing a thin, unleavened bread called yufka about a thousand years ago, served “folded or piled up in stacks with butter or other fillings between the layers.” Still others claim it had its origins in China.
No matter how you slice it (or in this case, stack it), it’s still a light and crispy, flaky pastry that can encase any number of fillings—sweet, savory and anything in between. This showstopper challenge was for a filo pie, either freeform or baked in a tin, and could be either sweet or savory.
My pie is based on the flavors in an Indian samosa. I adapted this recipe from BBCGoodFood.com but used the recipe for filo dough from the pie that Kimberley made for this episode of The Great British Baking Show. She added turmeric to the dough, which gives it a lovely golden color, and she used a savarin mold to create a ring-shaped pie that was different from most of the other pies made by the bakers in the Great White Tent.
Making it in a mold meant that the dough didn’t need to be stretched into one large sheet, like I did for my strudel last year, but instead could be divided and stretched into many smaller sheets, which are then layered and overlapped in the tin.
The problem with making multiple sheets is that they have to be laid out to dry somewhere, so by the time all the pieces were stretched over cooling racks, muffin tins and cookie sheets, my entire dining room and kitchen tables were covered with thin sheets of dough. When I made the strudel, I only had to deal with one large sheet as big as my kitchen table.
However, the end result was worth the trouble. After each layer is brushed with melted butter and arranged in the pan, the filling is added. The overhanging layers are then folded over the filling in order to close up the pie before the whole thing is flipped out of the mold and baked on a cookie sheet. The biggest difficulty I had was that a lot of butter seeped out during the baking, so I used paper towels to sop it up before it dripped all over the oven. (Note for next time: Use a rimmed baking pan.)
The filo really did make a wonderfully crispy outer shell, and the filling was quite flavorful as well. I must admit that my husband and I didn’t share this bake with friends, as we usually do with the sweet ones. Even the next day, we found that warming the leftover pie in the oven brings back the crispness that is lost with refrigeration. The pie lasted us three meals and was worth every calorie!
Lamb & Sweet Potato Filo Pie
Filling adapted from BBCGoodFood.com
For the filo pastry:
- 2 t. ground turmeric
- 2¾ + 2 T. all-purpose flour
- 1 t. salt
- 11 oz. water, or less
- 2 T. olive oil
- Cornstarch, or finely ground cornmeal, for dusting
- 1 c. unsalted butter, melted
For the filling:
- For the dough, combine the turmeric, flour and salt in a large mixer bowl and, using the dough hook attachment, mix in enough water to bring the dough together. (I used between 8 and 9 ounces.) Add the olive oil and run the mixer with the dough hook until the dough is pliable, about 5 minutes. Remove dough to a lightly oiled surface and knead by hand until the dough passes the windowpane test: https://lifehacker.com/use-the-windowpane-test-to-tell-if-your-dough-is-proper-1789963601.
- Divide the dough into 1-ounce balls and place them on a baking sheet. (I got about 22 balls out of my dough.) Cover with cling film and set aside to rest for two hours in a cool place (ideally 60°F).
- For the filling, preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread sweet potatoes on a rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss lightly with a metal spatula to coat the potatoes with oil. Bake in preheated oven until tender (20-30 minutes) while you prepare the meat.
- In a large frying pan, cook the onion and the lamb for about 5 minutes until the meat is browned. Stir in garlic and curry powder. Remove from heat and stir in the peas. Set aside to cool while you form the dough. When completely cooled, add the cilantro and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- When sweet potatoes are done, remove from the oven and leave in pan to cool.
- For the pastry, cover a table with a clean tablecloth and dust it with cornflour or cornmeal. Remove the balls of dough from the cookie sheet one at a time and use your hands to stretch the dough until it is very thin and translucent. As the dough gets thinner, dust it with a light coating of cornflour so it doesn’t stick to itself. Keep working it from the center outward until it is so thin you can see through it. If the edges are thicker, lay it down on the tablecloth and use a rolling pin to flatten the edges. Set each sheet of dough aside to dry out for about 30 minutes. I laid them out on cooling racks, cookie sheets and upside-down muffin tins all over my kitchen and dining room.
- When ready to assemble, preheat oven to 400°F. Dab each sheet of pastry with melted butter and cut off any thick edges. Arrange the sheets in a well-greased savarin mold so that they overlap and cover the whole inside of the mold, with enough pastry hanging over the edges to cover the filling.
- Pack the cooled meat filling into the hollow ring formed by the pastry in the mold. Top the meat filling with the roasted sweet potatoes. Fold the ends of the pastry over the filling to cover. Press to seal any gaps in the pastry. Cover with a well-greased baking tray and turn the whole thing upside down. Remove the savarin mold. Brush the outside of the pastry with butter and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is golden-brown and crisp. Serve while still warm and crispy.