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Filo: The Greeks Turn Over a Tasty Leaf

April 15, 1993|FAYE LEVY

When I lived in Israel, I became acquainted with the pastries called burekas , flaky filo-dough turnovers. Known in Turkey as boreks and in Greece as bourekia , these savory snacks could be considered the empanadas of the eastern Mediterranean.

In Israel, you can buy them from bakeries, in cafes and in pizzeria-like restaurants. Cheese, spinach and potato are the traditional fillings, but you can also find burekas filled with beef, mushroom or eggplant, even tomato and Parmesan cheese. I'd often pick some up when I was going to the outdoor market or on my way home from work.

Burekas are made at home too. Whether they contain a savory filling or a sweet one, they are the first things to disappear at parties.

Convenience is one reason burekas are ideal for making at home. You can shape them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator or freezer, then bake them fresh at a moment's notice. Best of all, there is no need to make the pastry from scratch or even to use a rolling pin. Sheets of fine-quality filo are now easy to find in many American supermarkets in the frozen foods section. You no longer even have to go to a Greek or Middle Eastern specialty grocer to find filo dough, although these stores offer more brands and often have fresh dough.

Filo means leaf in Greek, and indeed the sheets are very thin. When baked, the pastry is light, delicate and flaky. In recent years filo dough has become part of fine cooking outside its traditional region. Top French and American chefs now use it to wrap everything from seafood to sweetbreads; they see it as a lighter, easier-to-use alternative to puff pastry.

Filo dough does have a great advantage over other doughs in that it does not contain fat. However, the pastry must be brushed with melted butter, margarine or oil before baking--otherwise it will be too dry. By brushing the pastry either lightly or generously with melted butter, you can regulate how much fat the appetizer or dessert will have.

You can make filo appetizers in different shapes, from strudels and fingers to snails and wreaths. But triangles are the most practical shape for burekas because they are easy to serve; each makes an individual portion, so no cutting is required at serving time. Folding the dough in a triangle is simple too. People tell me the shaping technique is the same as in flag folding. I guess if I ever need to fold a flag, I'll know how to do it from making burekas .

Cheese is the most popular filling for filo appetizers. I like to mix a flavorful cheese, such as kashkaval or Swiss, with a mild ricotta or cottage cheese.

CHEESE FILO TRIANGLES 1/4 cup cottage cheese 2 large eggs, lightly beaten 2 cups shredded kashkaval, Swiss or Cheddar cheese 2 green onions, finely chopped Salt, optional Freshly ground pepper Oil 1 pound filo sheets, thawed, if frozen 3/4 to 1 cup melted butter or margarine 2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Place cottage cheese in strainer over bowl and press gently to remove excess liquid. Do not push cheese through strainer. Leave cheese in strainer 10 minutes and press gently again. Mix together cottage cheese, eggs, shredded cheese and green onions in bowl. Taste before adding salt. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Lightly oil 2 or 3 baking sheets. Remove filo from package and, using sharp knife, cut stack in half lengthwise to form 2 stacks of sheets 16x7 inches. Spread sheets on dry kitchen towel. Cover filo immediately with wax paper, then with damp kitchen towel. Work with 1 filo sheet at time. Keep remaining sheets covered with wax paper and towel.

Remove 1 filo sheet from pile. Brush lightly with melted butter and fold in half lengthwise to measure 16x3 1/2 inches. Dab lightly with butter. Place 1 1/2 teaspoons filling at 1 end of strip. Fold end of strip diagonally over filling to form triangle and dab lightly with butter. Continue folding over, keeping neat triangular shape after each fold, until end of strip. Set pastry on oiled baking sheet. Brush top lightly with butter.

Shape more triangles with remaining dough and filling. Brush pastries again with butter. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. If baking on 2 racks, switch positions halfway through baking time. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 30 triangles, or 10 to 12 appetizer servings.

This filling tastes best with a creamy imported feta cheese from Greece, France or Bulgaria, made with sheep's milk.

SPINACH AND FETA TRIANGLES 10 ounces spinach, stems discarded, rinsed 1/2 cup water 2 tablespoons olive oil 3/4 cup finely chopped green onions Salt Freshly ground pepper 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled 1 large egg 3/4 pound filo sheets, thawed, if frozen 2/3 cup melted butter or olive oil 2 teaspoons sesame seeds, optional

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