The dough is paper-thin, fragile, easily torn, quick to dry out.
I lay out two sheets, side by side, and brush them lightly and quickly with melted butter.
I am feeling my way. I haven’t done this in a long time.
Normally we get pre-laminated phyllo dough, but supply chain issues have put that on backorder, so the best we could get were the packaged boxes of phyllo sheets rolled up in plastic – the kind you’d find in the freezer section of the grocery store, near the frozen cakes and berries and other desserty things.
So it’s old-school Spanakopita making this time.
I carefully, gently, lift another sheet of phyllo from the package and carefully, gently, line up the bottom corners with the far end corners of one of the sheets on my stainless steel work bench. I lower the rest of the sheet over the bottom layer of dough and adjust it gently when there is a slight crease in the middle. Repeat with another sheet on the second rectangle. Lightly, quickly, brush with melted butter. Repeat. Repeat. Until I have 5 layers of dough. I leave the top sheets unbuttered and just swipe a bit of egg wash across the sides farthest from me.
I slice these rectangles in half the long way so I have four working pieces.
Then I grab a generous handful of the spinach and feta (and other ingredients) mixture and place it near the end of one long rectangle, the end closest to me. Repeat with the other three long rectangles. Then I take the bottom right corner and fold up toward the opposite side, filling tucked in, a triangular pillow in the making, and fold over again and one more time, the same way you’d make a paper football in grade school, or folding a flag at sundown at camp. The egg wash seals the last edge to the completed triangle. The final step is to brush the whole thing with some more melted butter. It adds a bit of shine when cooked, and it also holds the package together while it’s stored in the walk-in refrigerator.
I am making a double batch this time. The buttering and layering of phyllo adds a lot of time to the whole process, and it’s better, efficiency-wise, I have found, to just go ahead and do a big batch in one shot rather than a small batch one day and another small batch two or three days later.
So after one set of four triangles are completed, I am layering and buttering again.
The repetition is meditative. I enjoy the process. It’s like art class in the kitchen.
And the motions of my hands send me back to my mother’s kitchen, where I first learned about layering and buttering phyllo dough.
Mom taught me to make little Tiropitas – little feta-filled appetizers for a party she was throwing.
Mom wasn’t Greek. Her parents were English and Scottish; she was born in New York. But when my sister and I were growing up, Mom liked to try recipes from all over the globe.
Anyway, the tiropitas were about an inch and a half on the short sides, a little over two inches along the hypotenuse side.
We had a dishwasher on wheels in the kitchen. It would sit next to the fridge most of the time, and we’d wheel it over to the sink and hook up the water tube to the faucet and plug it in to the outlet near the stove to wash the dishes. When it was finished, we’d wheel it back to the spot by the fridge.
The other time we moved the dishwasher was when Mom was working with dough. The top of the dishwasher was a thick wooden butcherblock surface, perfect for kneading bread or rolling out pie dough or cookie dough – or for buttering phyllo.
I learned to layer the phyllo with the butter and put the little tiny blob of feta and probably egg and maybe some oregano and pepper at one end and carefully fold and fold until the little triangle was completed.
They baked quickly and were really good.
I remember making them for friends when I was in college.
When my parents got a new dishwasher, I took the wooden top. I still have it.
I am back at work, buttering and layering and folding and repeating.
In my mind, I see my mother’s hands, comfortable and sure as she handles the dough. I see her wedding ring, smudged with a bit of butter. Her fingers are graceful, elegant. I have my dad’s hands – short and square.
I had an idea a long time ago to photograph my mother’s hands at work, making bread or something. And my dad’s hands at work, holding a camera, maybe. But I don’t think I ever did it.
I wish I had.
Dough, butter, repeat.
Lightly and quickly.
Carefully and gently.