The secret to making filo, says Maria Georgoulas, is love. Love and patience.
Georgoulas has been rolling filo and making spanakopita for more than 50 years. Today, I'm in the Sydney kitchen of her son Daniel’s home delivery meal and catering business, Get The Chef In. Spanakopita is on the menu this week and she has come to help him roll out hundreds of paper-thin sheets of pastry.
“Greek soul food, comforting, nourishing and filling”.
Georgoulas is fast and deft, taking small balls of dough and using a plasti – a thin wooden rod - to roll them out into big, almost see-through filo sheets. But for those who think they could never do it themselves, she has words of encouragement. “People say ‘How do you make it this big … I'm not going to get it there’. I say you can.”
To learn to make filo, “they have to be interested. They have to love it and to love to learn. And then, try!” Be patient with the filo, she says, keep practicing, and don’t worry about holes in your pastry – “it doesn’t matter”.
“It really is easier than people might think,” says Angela Nicolettou, who shares a recipe every Friday afternoon on SBS Greek Radio – including her recipe for filo for Greek pies (the interview is in Greek, while the recipe is shared in English, too).
Melbourne-based Nicolettou, who has been teaching cooking for 15 years, and now runs her own cooking school, Angela’s Kitchen, in addition to her work in learning technologies at RMIT University, tells us she loves seeing people discover the joy of making filo and pita. “People are terrified of it, and then they realise it’s actually not that hard.”
And for any of us who think we might be too old to learn, another great Greek cook, Kathy Tsaples, has more reassuring words. “I had a lady in the class who was in her 70s,” says the cookbook author and owner of the Sweet Greek shop at Melbourne’s Prahran Market, who recently taught a class on making filo at the Relish Mama cooking school. “I want people to not be scared. That's the whole thing because I have been scared. I know what it's like. Don't be scared of it. It may not be perfect the first time, but as you practice, you get better and better and better at it,” she tells us.
Filo is, of course, part of one of Greece’s best-loved foods, spanakopita – or as cookbook author, tour guide and TV host Diane Kochilas describes this spinach, herb and cheese pie, “Greek soul food, comforting, nourishing and filling”.
As Kochilas explains in My Greek Table – where an entire episode is devoted to filo (or phyllo) pites – there are endless variations on pastry, fillings and shapes across Greece. The ‘Life of Pie’ episode includes a chance to see a master Greek filo maker in action, as he works an enormous, table-sized sheet of dough; and a cook from northern Greece who makes striftopita, a coiled cheese pie, with particularly flaky pastry created by layering and rolling a stack of buttered filo dough pieces (get the recipe for Kochilas' version of this northern Greek feta and egg pie here) .
"Recipes are seemingly countless and a measure of the skilfulness of the cook but also surprisingly easy and fun to make," says Kochilas.
If you’re inspired to give it a go and make your own filo and pies, we’ve rounded up some tips from the experts to help you on your way.
“People are always blown away by homemade filo. It’s possibly one of the simplest, I think, pastries to make. It’s just flour, water, oil, salt, vinegar, that’s it,” says Nicolettou.
“I always say it’s a highly forgiving pastry. If you rip it, it doesn’t matter, you stick it back together again. And if there’s a hole in it, it just means there’s more crunch in your final pie. You can stretch it, you can roll it, you can throw it around, it’s a lot of fun to make. You just need time, the most difficult thing about making filo is time. It’s not something you can cook in five minutes.”
You’ll spot variations on the basic dough – Kochilas, for example, includes some Greek yoghurt in her recipe, which she used to make her family’s classic spanakopita (get the recipe here). Vinegar is a common inclusion; Daniel Gergoulas says he finds it helps make the dough more elastic, while Nicolettous says vinegar or other acids, such as lemon juice, also help create a flakier pastry. Some recipes use baking powder, some don’t.
Nicolettou suggests using homemade filo for savoury pies, but a bought filo – because it’s dryer and finer – for most Greek dessert pies. It’s advice we get from Tsaples too, who also says purchased filo can be a good starting point for less experienced cooks. “For young people, I'd like to encourage them to make a spanakopita, or a chicken one or a meat one, even if it starts off with a ready-made filo pastry, that's okay. And then as they get the confidence and knowledge … then they can start making their own pastry too.”
You can give it a go with Tsaples’ tiropita (cheese pita); she posted the recipe, which uses purchased filo, on her Instagram account.
Tsaples’ own journey to filo mastery was a round-about one. She grew up watching her mother make it but was in her 50s before she really learned how to make it well, she says. “I practiced it with Mum, but I was always very scared of it too, because, oh, if I made a hole what would happen, or if I would break it, what would happen? … And it wasn't until I was home because of my treatment [Tsaples was diagnosed with cancer in her early 50s], I then had time, and Mum would come over on my bad days and help me and look after me, and then I talk to her and say, "Look, perhaps tomorrow if I'm feeling better we could do this ..." and she'd say yes. She said, ‘Practice, practice,’ and that's how I perfected it.”
When it comes to rolling your pastry, Kochilas uses a rolling pin, while Tsaples says she likes to start with a rolling pin and then finish with a plasti. (If you want to give the traditional wooden rod a place in your kitchen, that’s easy, says Maria Georgoulas: just buy a piece of dowel from your local hardware store.)
If you're using store-bought filo, the usual guidelines apply. As Kochilas explains, it's important to keep the stack of filo covered while you are building your pie, or they'll dry out; and if you are using frozen filo, make sure it has come to room temperature before working with it.
And one common recommendation from everyone we spoke to - if you're making pita with oil, use a good-quality one.
“It’s said in Greece that just about anything edible can be used in a pie,” writes Vefa Alexiadou, one of the nation’s best-selling cookery authors for more than 30 years, in her enormous bible of Greek cooking, Vefa’s Kitchen. Her chapter on pies/pites includes four different cheese pies, a macaroni, spinach and cheese pie, eggplant spirals, an onion pie, spanakopita, several fish pies, a ‘Monastery vegetable pie', several other savoury options, and a raft of sweet pies. “You're only limited by your imagination,” says Tsaples.
"There are endless variations," says Nicolettou. While pies are made all over Greece, the north, in particular, is known for it. Making pita with butter is more common in the mountainous northern areas, home to more dairy herds and pita-eating shepherds (it's a nicely portable food) while olive oil is more likely to be used elsewhere. "It’s also geographic in terms of what ingredients people have, and traditionally pies are about using up whatever you’ve got around you. So cheese, wild greens, leftover meat, mushrooms if they’re in season - whatever is around is what people put in pies.
"That’s also because in Greek culture there are periods of fasting, or Lent, lots of vegan pies," she says.
One key to spanakopita success is to make sure the filling isn’t too moist. Squeeze the moisture out of the spinach or other vegetables; you can also add breadcrumbs, semolina, couscous, rice or tarhana (a fermented and dried mixture of grains and dairy).
“A little bit of tarhana is not too bad but couscous is better,” says Maria Georgoulas.
Alexiadou recommends the filling should be no deeper than 5cm so that it cooks evenly. Likewise, Kochilas says to make sure to spread the filling evenly.
Alexiadou says that a traditional Greek pie is best baked in a 35cm round tin, or a 30cm x 35 cm rectangular pan; aluminium pans are better than stainless steel, while ovenproof glass trays will also work well. Of course you can make yours smaller or larger - such as the hortopita recipe shown below, which feeds a crowd of 10-12.
If you opt for a square or rectangular tray, her tip when working with homemade round filo sheets is to trim the bits that hang over the straight edges and use them to fill gaps.
You can also choose to make a flat-style pie, where the filling is spread out between the layers of filo, or coiled pies, where long rolls of filled pastry are wound into one big circle.
Maria Georgoulas says both styles were made where she grew up, in Trikala. "My family, they used to make it flat, because my mother had a big family, and she tried to make it quick. The other way, to make a roll, it takes more time."
Triangles, small coils and fried pastries are other variations. Several of the women mentioned here also talked to us of the filo-meets-puff method shown in My Greek Table, where 4-5 pieces of rolled dough are stacked and rolled again, creating a pastry that is flakier when baked.
Pita for another day
Spanakopita and the like are great to make ahead. Make a couple of pies on a Sunday, suggests Nicolettou, and put them, unbaked, in the freezer. "And then you can pull them out, into the oven, and there you go, you’ve got a beautiful, homemade pie."
If you've got leftover pie, Alexiadou suggests reheating pieces in a frying pan, or in the oven - but never the microwave, as that will make them go soggy.
And wouldn't that be a pity, given the golden, flaky appeal of a homemade pita?
Inspired by the passion of these great Greek cooks, I tried making my own filo and spanakopita for the first time. It was far from the flaky golden pastry and fresh, 'just the perfect amount of cheese' spinach filling of Maria and Daniel Georgoulos's wonderful spanakopita, but it confirmed what Angela Nicolettou says: "It is highly satisfying to make your own filo pastry... it's wonderful."
Follow Angela Nicolettou on Instagram to keep up with announcements of more filo classes in 2020, and the development of her new regional Victorian cooking school; Follow Kathy Tsaples on Instagram to see what she's up to. Find announcements of when spanakopita and other Greek pies are on the Get The Chef In menu here.
Layers of filo pastry create a crisp, textured case for the fragrant chicken filling.
This coiled pastry is from Naoussa, a village in the Cyclades region of northeastern Greece. It's filled with a rich-but-light creamy feta cheese centre.
This traditional recipe from the island of Ikaria combines flaky, golden pastry with a tender filling of greens, onions, leeks, and squash or carrots. Packed with nutrients as well as flavour!
The classic, heavenly combination of spinach and feta in flaky golden parcels never disappoints.
This pie is one of my all-time favourites and brings together some of Greece’s most popular ingredients – silverbeet, haloumi, Kalamata olives, rice and filo pastry. It takes a little while to prepare but don’t be put off, I promise it will be well worth the effort.
My mother uses a plasti to roll her sheets out, which is very similar to a rolling pin, except it’s long and thin, and resembles a curtain rod.
Spinach, leek, herbs, eggs and two types of cheese come together inside layers of golden pastry.
Pies are a Greek tradition since ancient times. Filo is a Greek pastry and its name translates to leaf. There are many varieties of this pastry in Greece. Filo is traditionally made with flour and water and is then rolled out in very thin sheets. Pie making is the ingenious way Greek households recycle their leftovers.