There's a Reason Chefs Don't Make Phyllo Dough from Scratch
And I figured it out the hard way.
I’m a very ambitious person. While this character trait is great for acing high school exams and my job performance, it does also lead me to ignore my better judgement from time to time, like recently when I decided to make phyllo dough from scratch.
You see, one of my favorite Croatian dishes is burek. Though burek isn’t unique to Croatian cuisine at all — you can find different versions of it all throughout Eastern Europe and parts of Asia — and each culture has their own preferred way to make it, burek is at its simplest a baked pastry that can be filled with everything from salty cheese and spiced ground meat to roasted vegetables and baked apples, and is made from, you guessed it, flaky layers of phyllo dough.
Throughout the years, my family has debated everything from the very best place to buy burek (Djerdan Burek in Astoria, NY, hands-down) to whether spiral-shaped or horseshoe-shaped bureks were superior (spiral all the way.) Though we have some differing opinions about what makes the best burek, not a single one of us had ever tried making it from scratch. One of my uncles has even stated, “You know you’ve succeeded as a true Croatian when you’ve made a burek by hand.”
My all-time favorite kind of burek is one that’s filled with a delicious and sweet mixture of roasted apples, so when I finally set out to make my own, I knew that was the one I just had to try. Luckily my parents and I had just gone apple picking this past weekend, so after skinning and grating eight Granny Smith apples into a large bowl and combining it with a few dashes of cinnamon, my mom, twin sister and I set our filling mixture aside and got to work on our phyllo dough sheets.
Despite the fact that nearly every single burek recipe I found (even the ones written fully in Croatian) advised using premade phyllo dough sheets instead of making your own, I insisted on from-scratch. The recipe for the dough itself was super simple; a little flour, salt, water and olive oil was all we needed. Getting said dough to the super thin, nearly see-through consistency we needed for our burek though, now that was an entirely different story. In order for the from-scratch phyllo dough for this recipe to be successful, we needed to stretch it out to the length of a standard-sized kitchen table without forming even the smallest of rips or tears.
In order to do this, most of the tutorials suggested brushing your dough with a small amount of olive oil to increase its elasticity and using a thin wooden dowel to roll it out in place of a traditional rolling pin. And while the olive oil did help our dough stretch much more than we initially expected it to, my mom and I barely got it pulled to one side of our kitchen table before our very first rip reared it’s big and ugly head.
But in addition to being an ambitious person, I’m also a problem solver. After trying to make a souffle from scratch a few months ago, I had learned this very important lesson: when at first you don’t succeed, go miniature. And that’s exactly what we ended up doing.
After rerolling our failed dough sheet back into a big ball, my sister and I took a serrated knife and split it into four equal pieces. We then set about reforming our smaller phyllo dough sheets, and while those, too, sported some holes, our decision to go with a spiral-shaped burek actually ended up benefiting us in more ways than one. Once we added in our apple filling to our stretched-out dough sheet, we rolled the dough up lengthwise into a long log, and then coiled it sideways into miniature circular spirals, so you couldn’t even tell the holes existed in the first place.
The biggest win of the day, though, was that once baked, the mini bureks tasted exactly like the ones I had grown up eating, which was still a win in my book. So, sure, looking back now, do I wish I had just used premade, frozen phyllo dough? Yes, yes, I do! But at the end of the day, sometimes choosing the harder path is the only way you truly appreciate the shortcuts.