There was a time when I had a serious fear of working with filo dough. It just seemed like one of those projects in the cooking world that were too scary to tackle. No matter how many times I looked at a recipe and read my way through it, I would get tripped up on that whole idea of the filo drying out and how to prevent it and what to do if it does. It just seemed like one of those things I wasn't going to get. Cooking, and especially baking, has been a series of these obstacles for me. Or maybe I should say, becoming a better cook (and a better baker) has meant overcoming the idea over and over again that something is "too hard" for me. Then I try it, have some degree of success, and either keep trying it to perfect it, or move on to the next challenge.
Layer cakes is a good example of tackling something I perceived as "too hard" for me. For some incredibly strange reason, I decided it would be a good idea to make my own wedding cake. Randy and I got married in 2002. It was a second marriage for both of us and we decided to have a very small ceremony with just family and close friends. A week after the wedding, we had a party for all the friends that we couldn't invite to the wedding. 75 of those friends. I found a recipe on Epicurious for a Lemon Berry Wedding Cake and decided that for this party that I had to make that cake. At that point, I was a decent baker who had made tarts, bundt cakes, pies, and more cookies and brownies than I could count, but I had never tackled anything of that magnitude - not even close. In fact, I had never even made a layer cake before.
Fortunately, I had enough time to do a practice run, well, a much smaller practice run. I cut the recipe in half and made a single 12 inch layer cake and served it to a bunch of people who I didn't know that Randy invited over to our house. Fortunately, my brother Michael was there and so I knew I could trust what he had to say. Both of my brothers are amazing eaters but neither of them are that keen on dessert. Something has to be really good for them to even eat a serving of it. That evening, Michael had three pieces and said it was the best cake he had ever eaten. So, no doubt, this was going to be my cake.
A month or two later, in the days leading up to the wedding, I logged some serious time in our (then) tiny little kitchen. I seriously challenged our old gas oven that was very tempermental, I battled our tiny refrigerator that had barely enough room in it for a salad for space, and my KitchenAid mixer started throwing butter back at me when I tried to one and a half the buttercream frosting for the 12 inch, 10 inch, and 8 inch cakes I thought we needed. I got cake pans, cake boards, and the little tower to build a wedding cake on (and some very good advice) from Home Cake Decorating Supply on Roosevelt Ave. I juiced 24 lemons (with a reamer!), made a last minute run to the Pike Place Market for berries, split cake layers, reassembled layers that looked crooked no matter how hard I tried, and spread the whole thing with an ocean of buttercream frosting.
And then, I loaded it in to the car, brought it to the reception site and assembled it. A three Iayer cake I made all by myself. On towers! I bought a beautiful orange and red ribbon to wrap around each of the layers but there was so much butter in frosting (even without the bits that the mixer spit out) that it bled through the ribbon and darkened it in spots. And it was pretty crooked. But here is the important thing - everyone loved the cake. I had so many people tell me it was the best wedding cake that had eaten even if it wasn't the most beautiful (they didn't say that last part, but I knew). It's true that most wedding cakes are beautiful and don't taste like much. This one didn't look all that great and tasted wonderful.
I made that cake one more time right before we moved to London for a year. We had a party to say goodbye to all of our friends and I thought it was only fitting to make it again, the smaller version this time. Our dear friends John and Lauren brought their son Jaden, 18 months old at the time, to the party. Once it was time for dessert, Lauren took a piece of cake and was slowly feeding it to Jaden. A dessert lover even then, he decided she wasn't going fast enough and stuck his whole face in to the cake. Yes, it's that good.
So, I had tackled layer cakes - in a big way - what was to stop me from making all those things I didn't think I could? And this is where filo made its first appearance in my life. I just went for it and truth be told, it was a little challenging at first. But there are a few things I learned along the way that make it much easier and less intimidating. Without further ado, here are my filo tips:
First, the day before you are going to use your filo dough, remove it from the freezer and put it in the fridge to let it thaw overnight. Then use it directly from the fridge.
Second, filo does dry out quickly but not that quickly, so try and relax as you are working with it. Once it does dry out, the corners start to crack and it can be a little hard to separate the layers. The best way to keep it moist is to just cover the portion you are not working with with a clean kitchen towel. Don't bother with plastic wrap or a damp towel, just a clean dry towel.
Third, use olive oil to brush the layers. Your choices are usually butter or olive oil, but when I use butter I have to keep rewarming it to keep it liquid so I just stick with oil. This is true even for sweet things (like baklava) because the oil doesn't really add much flavor, it's just there to keep everything moist and to give you a nice crisp crust on the outside.
Fourth, if it does tear - don't worry about it. Almost anything you make with filo will have many sheets of it layered on top of each other so any tear will be invisible and insignificant. If your top layer tears, just brush it with oil and add one more layer to the top.
Fifth, ENJOY the delicious and wonderful things you can make with the versatile product. Last night I made Filo Purses with Leeks, Walnuts, and Goat Cheese from Everyday Greens. Delicious, delicate, but with a wallop of flavor, and of course that wonderful crisp yet flaky filo dough. Go for it!