Thoughts on making fresh phyllo dough for burek, pita and strudels in general

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One of the signature dishes of Bosnia and Herzegovina is, for sure, the famous pita, a savory type of strudel made with extremely thin fresh phyllo dough and traditional fillings like grated potatoes and onions, cottage cheese or, for example, Swiss chard with a mixture of cottage cheese and sour cream. Or the famous Bosnian version with minced meat and onions, spirally rolled or stacked to form a circle and cut into triangles, but, in this case, always called burek.

I grew up on pita, it brings a lot of beautiful memories of days spent with my cousins running around my parents’ village impatiently waiting for pita to be done. It’s flaky, it’s crispy, it’s ‘croissanty’, it’s absoultely delicious! But exclusively with home made phyllo dough, store bought one is never as delicious as the home made version.

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When pita comes up in a conversation, there seems to be a lot of discussion about the right amount of everything, the consistency of the dough, the way you roll it out, or more precisely, thin it out using only your hands, the amount of some kind of fat in the dough and on the dough, so I decided to write down my experiences and thoughts on how to make it just right. This kind of pastry is also used to make strudel dough and a famous Croatian dish štrukli with a couple of differences I’ll note further down.

In my experience, the most important things are:

1) Using all purpose flour which enables the dough to be nice, smooth and stretchy.

2) Adding a bit of vinegar to the dough mixture and kneading it for at least 5-10 minutes helps the gluten to develop which renders the dough stretchier and less prone to cracking.

3) Letting the dough rest for about half an hour at room temperature before stretching it into thin sheets. It gives time to the gluten to relax so the dough doesn’t spring back during stretching.

4) Using a bit of fat in the pastry to add to the final crispiness.

Unfortunately, as always when we talk about dough in general, a lot of things depend on at least some experience and knowing when the dough consistency is just right because the recipes call for different quantities of flour and water, and, unfortunately, the quality of flour varies, as does the quantity of water a certain type needs.

Here are the approximate ratios I usually use:

500 g all purpose flour

325-350 ml lukewarm water

2 pinches of salt

1 tbsp oil or melted butter

1 tsp vinegar of choice

Leave 50 g flour aside and make a DSC_0071asofter dough kneading it for at least 5-10 minutes.  You should get a stretchy, not too sticky and smooth dough. Put the 50 g of flour on a kneading surface and take out the dough rolling it for another couple of minutes to get a firmer dough, but still slightly soft. At this point, if you are using it to make pita or burek, divide it into 6-12 balls, depending on what kind of shape you want and the size of your baking pan, smear the dough generously with an oil of choice and cover with cling film. Let rest for half an hour at room temperature. Oil the working surface, take a dough ball, thin it out gently using your hands and holding it in the air, put it on the surface and start stretching it out gently from the middle to the edges, thinning out the edges as you go further and trying to get a rectangle shape. You’ll see that the dough is turning into a completely transparent, extremely thin sheet with just a couple of moves . Remove the unthinned edges, sprinkle with a bit of melted butter or oil, put lumps of desired filling on half  or 2/3 of the sheet and carefully roll it up starting from the filled side towards the empty side so the pita roll doesn’t crack during baking.

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If you want to make strudel or štrukli, skip the ‘oiling the dough balls’ part, leave it covered, use a rolling pin to lightly thin it out, and continue thinning it out with hands till you get a paper-thin, but still a thicker sheet than the one in the photo above. You can also spread the dough over a table cloth, and when the sheet with the filling is ready for rolling, it’s going to be easier for you to roll it up by pulling up the cloth gently which also makes the dough roll up into a perfect, round strudel. If you want to use dried sheets to make baklava desserts, cut the thinned out dough into desired shapes and leave it to dry for half an hour to an hour at room temperature. You can avoid dividing the dough into balls by making one big dough sheet to get a perfect continuous spiral burek or pita for baking in a round pan. Although the ability to make good pita dough is often measured by how big of a sheet without cracks one can make, I have to admit I usually bake it in a squared pan, making almost always separate pita rolls, each one from a separate dough ball, since it takes up less space and is easier to handle. And because I just adore those half empty, doughy, crispy ends!

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