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It’s said that sometimes good things come in small packages. At least from a culinary perspective, phyllo appetizers fit that description perfectly. Phyllo, also spelled filo, are paper-thin sheets of dough often layered one upon another to create dishes such as Baklava, Spinach Pie and the ever-popular Spanakopita, a smaller version of Spinach Pie.

While Greek in origin, nowadays these delicate leaves of dough are used in recipes never dreamed of by the Greeks. Because it’s SO versatile, chefs use it to make small, crisp cups; to create a crisp crust around countless entrees; and because it’s so much like strudel dough, to make strudels, both sweet and savory. Personally, I love to use phyllo. I’m the phyllo king.

Phyllo is available in the frozen-foods section of most supermarkets and, of course, at Nino’s. You’ll find it next to the frozen pie shells and puff pastry offerings. It’s sold in a long, slender box and once opened, it contains a couple dozen or so paper-thin leaves of dough stacked one upon another. They’re VERY delicate.

The trick of using phyllo dough successfully is more a matter of slowly thawing the frozen package first overnight in the refrigerator and then within its opaque plastic packaging at room temperature for a couple of hours before you open and use it. This slow thawing diminishes the possibility that the delicate layers of dough within the package will create excess moisture that can make the layers stick together, rendering them almost impossible to use.

The second trick is that once you open the sheets and unfold them on your kitchen counter (most sheets unfold into a shape approximately the size of a piece of legal-size paper), you keep them protected from drying out by covering them completely with an EVER-SO-dampened kitchen towel or cloth.

Lastly, most every recipe using phyllo has you brushing oil or butter between each sheet as you carefully lay one on another. My last recommendation is that while melted butter is usually called for, you should use warm clarified butter (which is melted butter separated from its 15% water). Water will make your phyllo gummy and your final dish less crisp.

Alternately, you can skip using clarified butter altogether and instead use a butter-flavored vegetable spray on your phyllo. In either case, you want to paint or spray the entire surface of each sheet of dough. This will help to separate each sheet into crisp layers as your dish bakes in the oven.

Speaking of ovens, if you happen to have a convection oven in your home, NOW is the time to put it to work. Convected air will crisp and brown your phyllo creations to perfection. Typically, the best temperature to bake phyllo dishes is between 375 F (convection) to 425 F for a standard conventional oven. In either case, turn your product halfway through the cooking process to ensure even browning.

Holidays are one of the VERY BEST times to use phyllo dough because it’s so easy to make really delicious appetizers from just about anything you have in your fridge, freezer or pantry.

How easy? I always keep a package of phyllo dough in my freezer, and it seems I always have the fixin’s for some great filling. I’ll bet you do, too.

Just cheese alone makes a great filling for a crisp phyllo package. Add to that some refried beans, maybe some pepperoni or cumin and chili-powder-seasoned ground beef, and you have a Mexican-inspired appetizer. Again, a bit of cheese, Nino’s spinach dip, some chopped spinach or other cooked vegetables, and voila! Another tasty treat.

Another one of my favorite appetizers, back from my days at Opus One restaurant, is seasoning raw, peeled and deveined shrimp (tail on) with lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper, then rolling them up in ribbons of phyllo. Bake them until crisp (see temperatures above) and you have an elegant hors d’ oeuvre or appetizer. Leftovers make great fillings too! All you need to do is chop whatever you have into smaller pieces, so it can be wrapped in small squares or strips of phyllo dough, and it becomes an entirely different dish.

If you’d like some ideas for recipes that ALSO make great fillings, check out these recipes on Nino’s Website.

Wrap Rap

Basically, you have three good methods to wrap your fillings. Each is illustrated below.

1. The most common is similar to how a flag is folded. That is by creating a long strip, placing your filling at the bottom of the strip, then folding left and right upwards in a triangular pattern, creating a triangular pocket.

2. The second popular method is starting with a square, placing the filling near the bottom of any one point, folding that point over the filling and then the two opposite sides over that point. It ends with rolling forward into a tube, which is JUST the way an egg roll is made.

3. The last is the simplest but can only be used with solid fillings, ones that are not too wet or that don’t melt too much. Method 3, similar to the flag fold, places the filling at the bottom of a narrow strip. You then roll forward into a tube.

Whatever filling you create and however you choose to wrap it, you’ll want to spray or butter the finished parcels to protect the phyllo dough from drying out before it is baked. You can also freeze them ahead of baking and then pull out what you choose to use, thaw them (covered) and then bake as many as you wish just before you serve them.

Phyllo appetizers are a convenient and delicious way to add a homemade touch to holiday entertaining.

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