You know filo dough, right? The impossibly thin, impossibly delicate sheets of dough you must paint with melted butter and always keep covered with a damp cloth as you work? The stuff of feta triangles, spinakopita, baklava and other wonders of Mediterranean cuisine?
Well, I was miles away from thinking of filo (aka phyllo) as I was sitting in the sweet dough and lamination with whole grain class at the recent Grain Gathering. In fact I was watching Jeff Yankellow mix and fold croissant dough when, out of the corner of my left eye, I noticed that Jonathan Bethony was no longer slicing through whole-grain croissants and passing around buckets of silky flour. He was standing behind Jeff and in front of the oven, holding what looked for all the world like one of these chamois you use to dry off just-washed cars. I briefly wondered what he could possibly be doing with a chamois right in the middle of the lamination class (was he planning to wipe the oven clean?) when someone exclaimed: ” Look at that filo dough!”
As if on cue, Jonathan let gravity lend a hand and the chamois became even bigger, thinner and smoother. The dough had a gorgeous golden hue (nothing like the white sheets you buy fresh or frozen at the grocery store) and it looked impossibly soft and obedient.
Jonathan seemed on the verge on twirling it on the tips of his fingers as a regular Napolitan pizzaiolo but he didn’t. Still stretching it he explained that he was trying to make whole-grain baklava and that today was his first time experimenting with whole-grain filo.
The dough was 100% whole-wheat with an hydration of 72% and 2.2% salt. It had been intensely mixed (almost too much) and then allowed to rest for one hour. It couldn’t be sheeted with a sheeter or a rolling pin. You had to use corn starch to stretch it as much as possible over a board or over the counter.
Jonathan knew how to make regular filo. The person who had shown him was a soft spoken and very patient Lebanese Chef residing in Venezuela who had visited him during his term at Stone Barns. “The filo takes a special touch in order to stretch it paper thin evenly. Something that has to be done by hand.” The chef had told him of the towering muscle man in his hometown whose profession it was to make filo dough (or a thousand-hit dough as it called due to the intense mixing required) by hand. “Wearing shorts and a tank top he would cover himself in corn starch and transform a one-kilo block of dough into a bed sheet of phyllo, eventually draping it over a large table to dry and be cut into squares.”
The audience gasped at the image. I don’t know what went through the others’ minds but I was picturing a hairy giant twirling in a cloud of corn starch wrapped in sweat-salty dough. Not a pretty thought. I made a mental note to inquire about the guy’s hometown and avoid eating filo-wrapped pastry there if I visit Lebanon one day. Although once everything is baked, it is probably okay, right? After all, some Parisian bakers used to mix, scale, shape and bake in their underwear in sweltering basement labs and I have heard good things about their bread. Sometimes it is just better not to know…
Anyway, there was no cloud of starch or drop of sweat to be seen around Jonathan. I focused again on what he was saying: “When I encountered my first tear, I expressed low morale and inquired if the muscle guy ever got a tear. ‘Yes of course,’ Sharbal, the chef stated, ‘but the muscle guy never stopped, he just kept going.’ So ‘the muscle guy never stopped’ became our mantra for finishing the dough and thereafter anytime we encountered difficulty during our bakes. For some reason the visual we conjured up of him lovingly stretching the dough over his large frame and continuing on in the face of disaster helped us chuckle at ourselves and keep pushing past apparent setbacks.”
Jonathan didn’t tear the dough this time (he said his first try, just a few hours before, had been a disaster.) He stretched it over every inverted sheet pan, board and empty stretch of counter he could find (there were not that many as the outdoor lab was a bit cramped). But the dough still became thinner and thinner and more and more beautiful.
I didn’t follow the rest of the operation as my attention had switched back to Jeff. But I saw the baklava rectangles stacked and ready to go into the oven.
And I saw them come out.
I know that later Jonathan poured syrup over the finished product and let it soak in and that his whole-grain baklava looked very convincing (sorry, no pic).
And although I don’t plan to make my own filo, be it whole-grain or not, I know I will always remember the muscle man who never stops.
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