I think that most people who know what it is find phyllo dough to be intimidating. And rightfully so, it would seem. It's certainly not a common ingredient in most American households. It's paper thin, dries out easily, and is essentially useless when it dries out. I am here to tell you that phyllo dough is nothing to be afraid of. The first time I ever worked with phyllo dough, I didn't have a handy little tutorial such as this. My boss at the time gave me instructions over the phone, made me write them down, and then read them back to him. Fortunately, I managed to pull them off with little difficulty, even despite only having old, crackly phyllo dough to work with. If I can do it with crackly dough, with phoned-in instructions, then you can easily do it with fresh phyllo dough from the store.
There are a few things we'll need to get started:
1 package phyllo (or filo) dough
2 cutting boards, each bigger than the phyllo rolled out flat
1 tea towel, also bigger than the phyllo rolled flat
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, clarified and melted
1 pizza cutter
1 paint brush that has never been used for painting
mini muffin tins
Mise en plas (meaning, having everything in place) is important. At some point, your work area will probably look something like this:
Now, phyllo dough is sold frozen, so you're going to have to thaw it. The box will probably recommend letting it sit on the counter for a couple of hours before working with it. I've found that this produces crackly dough that is difficult to work with. Instead, park your phyllo in the fridge the night before you plan to use it. This will thaw it much more gently. When you're ready, preheat your oven to 350F. Then take your tea towel and get it just barely damp. If it feels damp but you can't squeeze even a drop of water out of it, then it's probably okay. Line up your cutting boards next to each other and unroll the phyllo onto the one away from you. It will probably be rolled up in a piece of plastic longer than the dough. Don't throw this away! In fact, go ahead and keep it underneath your phyllo dough so that you don't lose it.
When you have your phyllo rolled out, go ahead and cover it with your tea towel. Remember, phyllo can dry out quickly, and this will help keep it moist. Now, you're going to be working with one sheet at a time here. To get a new sheet, remove the tea towel from the dough, take a sheet of phyllo and lay it where you'll be working with it, and then put the tea towel back over the dough before working with the new piece of phyllo.
Okay, step 1, grab a piece of phyllo and lay it out on the cutting board closest to you. Be careful with this first sheet; remember, it's as thin as paper, but it does tear a lot more easily. Once you get a feel for phyllo, you'll be able to work a lot more quickly. For now, just worry about getting used to it. When you have it laid out flat in front of you, dip your brush in the clarified butter and then lightly brush the phyllo sheet, starting with the edges. The edges dry out a lot more quickly, so you want to get them first. When you have the edges done, brush the rest of it. Remember to go light, both with the butter and the pressure you apply to the brush. You don't want soggy phyllo, and you don't want the brush tearing it either.
Now, wasn't that easy? Okay, so maybe not so much the first time. Maybe there's a couple of tears in the dough. Don't sweat it. Just fix them the best you can, and if it starts to look worse, then leave it alone. You've done all you can. It's time for the next layer. Now, be careful laying this layer down, because it will stick to the butter on the first layer. Once you have it down, follow the same procedure: brush the edges, then the middle.
Don't worry if the sheets aren't lined up perfectly! Chances are they won't be, and that's okay. In fact, uneven edges are kind of rustic and homemade looking, and believe me, that's a good thing. It adds interest to the final product. Okay, are you finished with your second sheet? Go ahead and do a third sheet, and then a fourth. Four layers is about perfect for phyllo cups. The next thing we need to do is cut our creation into squares with our handy-dandy pizza cutter. Most supermarket varieties will cut quite nicely into 12 squares, but I have seen some brands that are twice as large as normal. If yours is just slightly smaller than a cookie sheet, then you're good to go. If it's twice that, cut it in half first, and then cut each half into 12 squares.
Now, here's the cool thing about phyllo dough. Once it's been brushed with butter, it's not going to dry out. So take your time cutting, so that you can get each square roughly the same size. Personally, I have next to no ability getting the size right, so I take my time. Once you have it cut into squares (actually, they'll be a little more rectangular, but don't worry about it), it's time to press them into the muffin tins. Now, I bought my mini muffin tins at a restaurant supply store, but I've seen them in almost every supermarket I've been to. My tins hold 24 muffins, but if you can only find tins with room for 12, don't sweat it.
Pick up a sqaure of phyllo and press it carefully into a cup in your muffin tin, butter side down. The butter will act as a lubricant, keeping you from having to spray the pan. Do be careful, though. The phyllo may be four times as thick, but it can still tear, so be careful. Try to make sure you get it pressed into the edges as much as possible, but don't stress if it's not perfect. And don't bother trying to make it look all symmetrical either. Remember, rustic is good, but don't go so rustic that it starts to look sloppy.
Now, if your tin holds 24 like mine does, you'll have to do another four sheets of phyllo. It should be a lot easier this time, since you've had some practice. Don't worry about the ones you've already done, they butter will keep them from drying out. Do another four sheets of phyllo, butter between each layer, and then cut into pieces and press into the muffin tin. You'll come out with something that looks a little like this:
Now you can go ahead and bake 'em. Your oven should already be at 350F, which is about right. Set your timer for 8 minutes and don't open the door until the timer goes off. I mean it! But when the timer does go off, check on them. If they're not golden brown, give 'em another couple of minutes. Yes, use a timer. Do this until they do look golden brown, and then make a note of hour long that took. Mine usually take 10 - 12 minutes. They should look something like this:
That's right, golden brown and delicious. Now, when you bake your second batch, keep something in mind. Every time you open the oven door, heat escapes, and you add time to how long it takes to bake. So if you checked on them at 8 minutes, then 10, and then finally pulled them at 12, that doesn't mean that you can leave your next batch in for 12 minutes. If you do that, chances are your second batch will burn. Leave it in for 10 minutes and see how it does. Before long, you and your oven will come to understand each other, and you'll know about how long to bake each batch.
Now, another nice thing about these is that even though the phyllo may have had moisture when you started, it's all been baked out. This means that when cooling the cups, you can leave them in the muffin tins for as long as you need to, and the bottoms won't get soggy like they would with cupcakes or muffins. Still, at some point you may want to move them to a cookie sheet, for whatever it is you're going to use them for. They can stand on their own now, so they don't need the support from the muffin tin. Go ahead and line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper, and then line it with your phyllo cups. You can fit a lot more on there than you might think, but be careful not to overcrowd it. At this point, you can wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap (carefully, so as not to break the cups) and store in a safe place for a couple of days. I wouldn't hold them for too long though, or they'll start to go stale.
Now, another nice thing about these is that you can bake them well before you need them. If you're planning a dinner party and you know that time will be limited between the time you get home from work and the time guests start arriving, you can bake these the night before and have them all ready for you. You don't even have to refrigerate them. In fact, I wouldn't, because they might pick up moisture from the refrigerator and get soggy. Just keep them on a counter, away from the kids, and you'll be fine.