Handmade or ready to bake, this light and crispy pastry works well with a sweet or savoury filling
Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
When I was doing my pastry apprenticeship at a hotel in San Francisco, I was determined to be a purist and make everything from scratch. I’m still a purist about most things – I make all my own dough, fillings and icing – but the only exception is filo. I’ve made it before, but it’s a lot of work, requires a large work space, and, unlike other types of pastry dough where homemade is far superior, commercial brands work well enough.
Filo cigars filled with lamb, couscous and pine nuts (pictured)
40 grams couscous
500 grams minced lamb
60 grams shallots
3-4 garlic cloves
1-2 medium-spicy chillies
2 tsp cumin seeds
50 grams pine nuts
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp chilli powder, or to taste
Finely grated zest of one or two lemons
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 100 grams unsalted butter for brushing the filo
1 pack filo pastry
Oil for frying
200 grams Greek yogurt
Fresh mint leaves, chopped
Put the couscous in a bowl, add 60ml of boiling water and mix briefly with a fork. Cover the bowl tightly with cling-film and leave for 10 minutes. Uncover the bowl then mix the couscous, fluffing it up with a fork.
Mince the shallots, garlic and chillies. Heat the cumin seeds in a small, unoiled pan set over a medium flame and stir them constantly until fragrant. Transfer them to a plate. In the same pan, toast the pine nuts, stirring constantly until they brown slightly and become fragrant.
Mix the lamb with the shallots, garlic, chillies, cumin seeds, pine nuts, paprika and chilli powder, adding salt and pepper to taste. Pan-fry some of the mixture and taste, then adjust the seasonings if needed. Gently stir in the couscous and the lemon zest, then cover the bowl with cling-film and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Melt the butter in a small pan and cool until lukewarm. Unwrap the filo and cut the sheets in half along the width. Stack them, then lay them on a surface and cover with a clean tea towel.
Remove one of the filo sheets and lay it on a cutting board, covering the remaining sheets again (they dry out quickly). Very lightly brush the filo sheet with butter.
Roll some of the meat mixture into a long cigar, about 2cm shorter than the width of the filo sheet. Lay the meat on one of the short ends of the filo, close to the edge. Fold the lower edge of the filo over the meat, then fold up the sides to encase it at the ends. Roll the filo around the meat into a tight cigar, then put it seam-side down on a baking tray lined with cling-film.
Roll up more cigars until all the meat mixture is used. The remaining filo can be wrapped tightly in a double layer of cling-film, sealed in a plastic bag, and refrigerated for about a week.
Heat oil to the depth of about 2cm in a skillet. When the oil is hot, fry the filo cigars, laying them in the skillet seam-side down so they don’t unroll. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Drain them on paper towels.
Roughly chop the mint then mix it into the yogurt. Spoon the mixture into a bowl and serve as a dipping sauce with the filo cigars.
This recipe is based on one in Bernard Clayton Jnr’s Complete Book of Pastry:
A pan about 45cm x 30cm, and 3cm deep
500 grams unsalted butter
550 grams nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios, or a mixture of them)
3-4 tsp ground cinnamon
22 filo sheets
400 grams sugar
340 grams honey
2 cinnamon sticks
Melt the butter. When it sizzles, remove from the heat. Skim off and discard the foamy layer on the surface. Carefully pour the middle layer – the deep yellow, clear butter fat – into another container, leaving behind the thin, watery layer at the bottom of the pan. Cool the butter until tepid.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Spread the nuts in one layer in a pan and bake for about 10 minutes or until fragrant. If using hazelnuts, rub them so the skins loosen; discard the skins. Cool the nuts completely, then put them with the ground cinnamon in a food processor and roughly grind them; don’t process them too finely. Leave the oven on.
Put the filo on the work surface and cover with a clean dish towel so it doesn’t dry out.
Brush the baking pan with butter, then lay a sheet of filo in it and brush it with butter.
Lay six more sheets of filo in the pan, brushing each of them with butter. Lay the eighth sheet of filo on top – but do not brush it.
Spread one third of the nuts over the unbuttered filo sheet.
Lay another sheet of filo over the nuts, butter it, then repeat. Add a third filo sheet on top, but do not brush it. Spread half of the remaining nuts on top.
Add two buttered sheets of filo, then another unbuttered one. Spread with the remaining nuts.
Layer the remaining filo sheets, brushing each one the same way.
Use a ruler and small knife to cut the pastry into diamond shapes: cut it lengthwise into even strips, then turn the pan 45 degrees and cut again at even intervals. Use a clean pastry brush to brush cool water over the entire surface of the baklava. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the baklava turns deep gold.
While the baklava is baking, make the syrup. Heat the sugar, water, honey and cinnamon stick together. Stir until the mixture boils, then remove from the heat and leave it until it is warm. As soon as the baklava is baked, pour the syrup over the surface. Leave for several hours, so the baklava is evenly saturated, then serve with coffee or mint tea.