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The phyllo phlop

This has been a fairly heavy year so far. Nothing terrible has happened to me and mine, rest assured. But I did take on extra duties at work: between scheduled leave and the unplanned-for absence of two major hitters in our team of six, I’ve had to pull a lot of extra work this year. And as of this past week, I’m finally standing down from the higher duties. It is an enormous relief to hand the position over to our new person, who has already shown admirable chops and skillz enough to pay all our bills.

To my surprise, my almost-immediate reaction has been to get my arse back into the cookzone. The higher duties have generally left me too knackered to do anything much at all on weekends and in the evenings. I flop through the front door on Friday evening and stay flopping until the weekend is done. Sometimes I raise my spirits enough to be argumentative and teary, but apart from that, weekends are a beanbag-based recuperative time. So when the idea sprouted one night to make spanakopita from scratch, I was surprised to note that the impulse didn’t immediately wither and blow away as dust in the breeze. In fact, I was so surprised that I ran with it.

First up: the spinach. I had been to see Mumini and Dadini’s new house (an exciting development to kick off the year!) and we uprooted most of the wild ruby chard growing in an abandoned vegetable house. Thus equipped and no room in the fridge, the spanakopita option presented itself with considerable appeal.

Second up: the feta. Another skill that has been left to the chickens this year has been cheesemaking. Time to flex the ol’ curd-fondlers. I hunted up my favourite feta recipe and got to work. Since I sprouted the spanakopita idea after dinner one night, I didn’t have a whole day of hanging the feta to dry. So when the draining step rolled around, I split the curds between two cheesecloth bags and suspended each over a tub in the fridge. There they hung overnight, yielding, by the next morning, two slightly-less-effectively drained bags of curds than I usually get. Normally the weight of the whole batch seems to produce a more effective draining process and I have firm, dry curds. Having two smaller bags seemed to produce softer, wetter curds. Hm.

Third up: the pastry. If you’ve done much bread or pastry making, then right now you’ll be doing something like sucking your cheeks in and raising your eyebrows, or maybe giving a low whistle, or flailing wildly and gibbering (I can’t tell from here). Phyllo pastry is kind of a big deal. Those delicate sheets, stretched transparent over a dinner table and layered. Tough stuff. Maybe. I watched videos and trawled the net trying to find a recipe that didn’t list “one packet of frozen phyllo pastry, thawed” as an ingredient. (The ratio of an ingredient’s appearances in recipes to recipes for making the ingredient is a good indicator you’re onto something tricky.)

But, all taken, it’s not too bad. I’m not saying mine was a triumph—we’ll get to that later—but it went surprisingly well. I followed Dima Sharif’s recipe but Chef In You also has a good recipe, with great photos. I kneaded my dough heartily for about fifteen minutes, and then, impressed by the firm, silky dough, M had a go at it as well. So all up, somewhere around 20–25 minutes of hand kneading to get it to a sturdy windowpane stage. Then I divided into three balls (since there’s no way the entire batch was going to stretch over my modest benchtop) and let it rest for about an hour. The first ball went very well: I found it possible, nay, fun! to roll out and then stretch the dough to its silky transparent state. For those who haven’t read over the recipes yet, after rolling out thinly you hand stretch the dough until you can see your workspace through it. It needs to be strong and supple to achieve this, and, using regular all-purpose flour, this I achieved! Five points! However, given the aforementioned feta delay, I knew I wouldn’t be cooking until the next day, so I followed Dima’s instructions on how to roll up the thin pastry for future use (blot with towels, dust with cornflour/cornstarch, then fold, wrap, and stash) and promptly glued the entire sheet of pastry to the benchtop. Good grief. I suspect I didn’t dry it enough before dusting with cornflour. However, don’t be sad! I still had two balls of dough for the morrow and a proof of concept success in my heart!

The next day dawned, and after shredding an acre of ruby chard and shoving it in the pressure cooker for boiling, I chopped and salted my slightly soggy feta and restarted Operation Phyllo. The dough having had a long, gluten-strengthening rest, was amenable, even enthusiastic, about being stretched tissue-thin. Tick-tock said the lunch-is-coming clock. I drained the spinach, pressing it with a handy yoghurt maker that was quietly making yoghurt, and tumbled it with the wet-crumbled feta and some salt and pepper; then I brushed the pastry with oil, folded it on itself, brushed the now-revealed non-oily side, folded again, and repeated this until I ended up with a neat package of folded, oily-layered pastry. I trimmed the edges to free them and ensure they were able to puff in the oven, and brought the pie together.

Mine was a simple pie: spinach and cheese on the bottom, pastry on the top, into the oven and let’s go!

Well, in theory.

What actually happened: someone—could be anyone—did not put enough oil between each layer as they were hurriedly folding pastry. The pastry separated into layers but then pretty much flaked away, far too dry to do anything but shatter at the slightest motion of the dish. Meanwhile, someone—could be anyone— also did not sauté the chard, but boiled it instead. Boiling kind of does the opposite of sautéing: loads the object with water rather than evaporating it off. So the chard was surprisingly (or not, if you think about it) waterlogged, and the addition of slightly soggy feta did nothing to help this. The end result was a pie whose pastry shattered and evaporated upon cutting, and whose underside was a sea of oozed, unappealing liquid. The middle was nice!

If you think for a second I’m at all disappointed by this outcome, you’d be wrong. I was so damn thrilled with having the energy and headspace to be enthusiastic for the foodin’ that I didn’t care one ruby chard stalk that it was imperfect. Plus, once lifted out of the pie dish (and leaving the liquid behind), that pie made perfect lunchbox lunches for the rest of the week. Sometimes the game isn’t for the goal: sometimes the game is for the game.

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