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The Filo Factory

May 26, 1999|CHARLES PERRY

Nick Koufoudakis takes aim. He shoots. He scores. The basketball of brown dough drops neatly into a hopper over his head, to be extruded into chocolate filo in a machine about the size of a fire truck.

Koufoudakis, clad in traditional pastry-maker's whites, is tending his own invention. He started designing filo-making machines in 1974. The current model, which he has been been tweaking since the mid-'80s, is used by Astro Chef, a Los Angeles company specializing in flavored filo, which is sold under the brand name Pegasus.

The dough in the hopper goes through a proprietary extruding mechanism and comes out looking like a sheet of pasta from a gigantic home pasta maker. Then it's carried away on a conveyor belt, which stretches it. The thinness of the dough is controlled by the speed of the belt.

Producing dough thin enough to read a newspaper through is tricky business. In its long path over and around a series of rollers, the sheet gets dusted with cornstarch top and bottom to absorb surface moisture (everybody who spends any time in the room when the machine is running gets a dusting too). It goes alternately under heating elements and fans.

And somebody with experience in filo--Koufoudakis is a baker as well as an inventor--still has to monitor the process. Problems can develop right from the moment the filo emerges from the mouth of the extruder, where any tough speck of dried dough will split the sheet in two.

At last, the continuous sheet reaches the end of the conveyor belt, where a worker rolls it up on a big rotating stainless steel drum. When 20 pounds or so have accumulated, he breaks the flow of filo by casually swiping his hand through the running sheet. A few feet of waste filo spool out on the floor while he substitutes a new drum.

The filo is removed from the drum by slicing through it crosswise. The big stack of sheets that results is cut into 12-by-18-inch rectangles by the decidedly low-tech method of measuring it with a welded steel form and slicing it with a knife.

If you're used to only frozen filo, fresh filo is a revelation. It has a lovely silken texture, and it doesn't tear at the slightest mishandling. Koufoudakis likes to crumple up a fresh sheet before your eyes and then shake it out. Amazingly, it doesn't crack to bits. The creases practically disappear, and the sheet is still usable.

Even frozen filo should be practically as good, at least in theory. "The problem is that filo is a nuisance product to markets," says Astro Chef president Jim Zaferis. "They sell a package a week, two packages, so it has to be frozen. It can sit around for quite a while in the freezer case.

"And when it's made in the Midwest, it ends up being thawed and refrozen half a dozen times by the time you get it. That's why it ends up so brittle, particularly at the edges. Whenever it thaws, the moisture tries to escape."

For the last seven months, Astro Chef has been experimenting in flavored filos, which it markets under the trade name Pegasus. Besides chocolate filo, it makes a light green version with a delicate flavor of pistachios.

These seem like a natural direction for filo, but Zaferis' first idea was his least traditional: corn. He envisions finger foods and all sorts of Mexican snacks being made with crisp, crunchy, corn-flavored filo.

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