Fabulous Phyllo

My job was to pinch and seal the seams of the freshly rolled strudel so that none of the juicy apple filling could escape during baking. That was a very important task for a 5-year-old, who every Thursday watched Grandma Chevet (short for Yochevet) make miracles with dough that was rolled so transparently thin that a "even a dull light would shine brightly through it."

Shabbat dinner at our house never ended without this ethereal pastry that seduced all our senses to hurry the meal so that dessert could arrive. My mother (Yochevet's daughter), a wonderful baker in her own right, never intruded on my grandmother's strudel territory, except to suggest that she use pears, plums, apricots — anything other than apples once in a while.

That, of course, never happened — it was always apples, walnuts and raisins that bulged in that flaky, tender package we all loved so dearly. She died before I could master her strudel techniques; nevertheless, I try to keep up the Shabbat tradition. I'm sure that Yochevet would be surprised, and possibly tickled, by my opening up a box of frozen phyllo dough, and fashioning it into the edible legends she made and passed down to me.

Phyllo is a paper-thin pastry that bursts into delicious buttery flakes when you bite into it. It is remarkably similar to puff pastry, but entails only a fraction of the work. And talk about impressing your guests — oohs and ahs always accompany a presentation of this showy and delicious dessert.

Flaky sheets of phyllo are easy to work with once you get the hang of it. Their versatility provides the shortcut beginnings for appetizers, main dishes and desserts. You don't even have to make the dough yourself.

Good-quality packaged phyllo dough is widely available in the refrigerator or freezer section of your supermarket. Best of all, for the busy cook and party host, once assembled, phyllo pastries can be refrigerated the day before baking or frozen for up to several weeks.

Phyllo-Wrapped Salmon With Leeks and Red Pepper

2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 large red peppers, cut into strips
2 leeks, white part only, cut into strips
1/2 cup dry white kosher wine
1 tsp. crushed red-pepper flakes
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into strips
salt and pepper
12 sheets phyllo dough
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
6 salmon fillets (5 oz. each), skinned

In a large skillet, heat oil.

Cook peppers and leeks until tender, about 6 minutes.

Add the wine and crushed red pepper, and simmer until liquid evaporates, about 4 minutes.

Cool and stir in basil, salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400°.

Place 1 pastry sheet on work surface, short end facing you. Brush with butter. Top with a second sheet and again brush with butter. Place salmon fillet, crosswise 5 inches from bottom. Top salmon with about 1/4 -cup of leek mixture.

Fold a 5-inch section of pastry over salmon. Fold in sides and roll up forming a rectangular packet.

Transfer to baking sheet, vegetable-side up. Brush with butter. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

Bake about 35 minutes, or until golden-brown.

Serves 6.

Pear-Pecan Strudel*
(Dairy or Pareve)

Filling Ingredients:

1 cup chopped pecans
2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice
4-5 medium pears (Comice, Bartlett, Anjou), peeled and coarsely chopped
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsps. cinnamon
1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries

7 sheets phyllo dough
1/2 cup melted unsalted butter or margarine

In a medium bowl, combine the ingredients for the filling and let stand about 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375°.

Grease a baking sheet.

To assemble strudel, place one sheet horizontally in front of you. Brush with butter. Continue until you have stacked all seven sheets, buttering in between. Do not butter the seventh sheet.

Spread an even, 3-inch wide strip of the pear mixture about 1 inch from the bottom and 2 inches in from the side. Fold in the bottom and sides of the phyllo dough and roll up like a jelly-roll.

Place the strudel, seam-side down, on prepared baking sheet, and liberally brush top and side with butter. (May be made one day ahead up to this point. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over strudel and refrigerate.)

Bake about 30 minutes, or until golden-brown.

Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Cut with serrated knife.

Serves 10.

*For Apple Strudel: Substitute apples for pears, walnuts for pecans, and raisins for cranberries.

Goat Cheese and Sun-Dried Tomato Tartlettes

Filling Ingredients:

1/4 lb. mild goat cheese
8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp. fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon, dried

1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil
3 sheets phyllo dough

Preheat oven to 375°.

Grease 2 miniature muffin tins (each containing 12 molds).

In a medium bowl, combine filling ingredients.

Brush a sheet of phyllo dough with butter. Lay a second sheet on top and brush with butter. Repeat with third sheet.

Cut phyllo stack into 24 three-inch squares. Place each square in a muffin mold, pressing them down for a firm fit. Chill about 30 minutes in refrigerator.

Fill each tartlette shell with a heaping tablespoon of goat-cheese mixture. (May be made a day ahead up to this point.)

Bake about 12 minutes, or until cheese has melted, and phyllo is golden.

Let cool for about 10 minutes. Remove from muffin molds.

Set on paper towels to drain, if desired.

Makes 24.

Curried Mushroom 'Cigars'

Filling Ingredients:

3 Tbsps. oil or butter
2 shallots, chopped
11/2 lbs. mushrooms, chopped
2 tsps. curry powder or to taste
1 tsp. paprika
2 Tbsps. flour
1/4 cup sour cream
3 Tbsps. chopped parsley
salt and pepper

12 sheets phyllo dough
2 egg whites, beaten with 2 Tbsps. water

Heat butter in a large skillet. Cook shallots and mushrooms.

Stir in the curry, paprika and flour, and cook for another 2 minutes.

Stir in the sour cream and cook until thickened.

Add parsley, and taste for salt and pepper.

Let cool before using.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease 2 cookie sheets.

Cut the phyllo sheets in half lengthwise and stack, covered by plastic wrap.

Place 1 phyllo rectangle with the short side facing you. Brush lightly with the egg wash. Put a heaping tablespoon filling in center of lower third of rectangle and fold long sides of phyllo over the filling to cover.

Brush folded phyllo with egg wash and roll up jelly-roll style. Place seam-side down on cookie sheet. Continue until all sheets of phyllo are used up.

Bake 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden-brown.

Makes about 24.

Creamy Smoked Salmon and Dill Tart

14 sheets phyllo dough
3 Tbsps. butter, melted
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
4 eggs
21/4 cups heavy cream or half-and-half
8 oz. smoked salmon, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper

Butter two 9-inch tart pans with removable bottoms.

Stack phyllo sheets on a work surface.

Using a small, sharp knife and a 11-inch circle as a guide, cut phyllo stack into 11-inch diameter rounds.

Transfer 1 round into the prepared pan, allowing sides to extend above rim of pan.

Brush with butter, sprinkle with some Parmesan cheese and top with another round. Continue with remaining phyllo.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Whisk yolks and mustard in a medium bowl to blend.

Beat in the eggs, cream, salmon, onions and dill.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour into prepared crust.

Bake until center is set, about 50 minutes.

Transfer to rack. Cool.

Garnish with dill and serve in wedges.

Serves 6 to 8.

Louise Fiszer is a California cooking teacher and food writer. Among the six books she's co-authored is Jewish Holiday Feasts.



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