How traditional Bougatsa puff pastry is made in Greece

  • Phyllo means leaf in Greek: a name that could not be more precise.
  • The thin layers of the dough are obtained by a very complex rolling which involves margarine and oil.
  • We visited Philippos Bandis, an artisan producer who still makes filo pastry by hand.

Phyllo means leaf in Greek: a name that could not be more precise. Phyllo dough is made up of several thin layers and is obtained by a very complex rolling process that involves not only fat, such as butter or margarine, but also oil. The oil adds extra slip and makes it incredibly difficult to stretch – so difficult that despite the popularity of phyllo dough throughout Greece, most bakers have given up making it by hand. We visited Philippos Bandis in Thessaloniki, one of the few artisan producers who still makes phyllo dough by hand, to learn how he makes phyllo dough for the traditional breakfast dish, bougatsa.

Here is a transcript of the video:

Claudia Romeo: Sprinkling a dough like this is the key to achieving authentic, incredibly thin Greek phyllo dough. But that’s just one of the challenges of making phyllo. “Phyllo” means “leaf” in Greek. Well, the name couldn’t be more accurate. These thin layers are obtained by a very complex rolling which involves not only a fat, such as butter or margarine, but also oil. The oil gives extra slip and makes the dough incredibly difficult to stretch. So difficult that most bakers have given up making filo pastry by hand. We are in Thessaloniki, and we are going to meet Philippos Bandis. He is one of the few craftsmen who still makes filo pastry by hand. It’s his shop. Let’s enter. Philippos prepares its phyllo dough with water, a soft semolina flour with strong gluten, salt, vegetable oil and margarine.

Philippos: To make our phyllo dough more crunchy and light in taste.

Claudia: To be strong enough to toss in the air, the dough needs to be mixed for 20 minutes, then mixed again with more oil and margarine. So how is this dough different from other types of dough that have a lot of layers, like, for example, croissants or other pastries?

Philippos: You can’t say they have anything in common. It’s completely different.

Claudia: Alright. [laughs] Philippos: Because we don’t make layers of butter, dough, butter, dough. The layers come from folding. Claudia: Yeah.

Philippos: But we do here.

Claudia: We smell a little oil and margarine. [upbeat music] After mixing, the dough rests for another 20 minutes on the counter. Here, Philippos cuts it into small pieces of 250 grams each which will then be rolled in a bowl.

Philippos: Like a perfect —

Claudia: — perfect bowl.

Philippos: We let them rest, another 20 minutes, with our oil on them. It’s going to scab over there if we don’t put the oil in, and we don’t want that.

Claudia: After the 20 minutes of rest, Philippos uses his palms to press the dough, not his fingers, as they would create unwanted holes. So guess what? We have to wait another 20 minutes. It may seem like a lot of pauses, but this method actually speeds things up. If the dough were kept as a whole, it would need much longer resting periods.

Philippos: Now the margarine inside.

Claudia: Oh.

Philippos: Everywhere, okay? We put them together, okay? This is going to help us do the lamination, the layers.

Claudia: Mm-hmm.

Philippos: It will separate the dough.

Claudia: Yeah, the dough.

Philippos: The dough.

Claudia: We wait another 20 minutes, then the dough is ready to be thrown in the air. [upbeat music]

Philippos: Can you take a step back? Thanks very much.

Claudia: Alright. [upbeat music] [dough slapping]

Claudia: Despite its theatricality, this technique is not for show. It is used to evenly distribute the fat in the dough and to avoid lumps. And, again, it’s faster and more efficient than any rolling pin. So should I try? Throwing phyllo dough in the air reminded me a bit of pizza dough. It made me feel a little closer to home, although I have a feeling it won’t be very useful today.

Philippos: A hand like that.

Claudia: Yeah.

Philippos: Ok… And the other hand like that, here. No no no.

Claudia: Like this?

Philippos: Yeah.

Claudia: Alright.

Philippos: Now, here and there.

Claudia: Phew, like that?

Philippos: Here, no, no, no.

Claudia: No, no, no.

Philippos: This side stays up, okay?

Philippos: We’re not going…

Claudia: Ah, okay, I see. Yeah.

Philippos: Yeah. Like that. The finger here.

Claudia: The finger here? So you don’t want to return it.

Philippos: No, no, no.

Claudia: It’s really to give him some air.

Philippos: A little — and that. [upbeat music]

Phillips: Good. Very very good. Well done.

Claudia: Why doesn’t it break?

Philippos: Because all this preparation we do, and the flour, as I told you, it’s strong. We have a strong [inaudible].

Claudia: Wow, my God, look, you can see your hand.

Philippos: It’s ready now. If you can see your hand, it’s ready.

Claudia: Yeah. He feels very thin, but strong. I don’t really want to dare to touch it anymore because I’m really afraid of breaking it.

Philippos: You can try later.

Claudia: Yeah. Is the cold also the reason why it stays that way?

Phillips: Of course. We don’t want the dough to be hot because it will break it.

Claudia: And what is the most common mistake when you do that?

Philippos: These edges, it takes a lot of practice and experience to make them thin like in the center of the fold. All this phyllo should be the same everywhere. This is the hardest part. Of course, you shouldn’t have any holes.

Claudia: Alright. It’s – I think I touched on it, sorry. [laughs]

Philippos: It’s a problem that, for many of us, the holes.

Claudia: If you disregard my clumsy throwing technique, the right technique could still give you holes. This may be due to improper preparation of the dough or the wrong temperature, especially during the summer months. In Greece, phyllo dough is always associated with a pie, and often the manufacturing process changes depending on the pie. The one Philippos prepares is specific to bougatsa, a popular breakfast pie in Thessaloniki and northern Greece. Bougatsa phyllo is one of the most complicated to make because it has to be stretched and tossed in the air like a large full sheet, whereas other pies can be stretched into individual portions. Bougatsa has existed for centuries, since the times of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, Philippos tells me that his family and Pie came to modern Greece from Cappadocia, Turkey.

Philippos: My grandfather came as a refugee here in 1922 and brought all the recipes that we continue to make. It was my father the year who opened this store, in 1969. This is how they sold bougatsa in the streets. This photo is in Constantinopolis, Istanbul.

Claudia: The way you make phyllo dough is different depending on where you are in Greece.

Philippos: Ah, yes, have a difference. The most popular breakfast is the Northern Greek one. This bougatsa, here in Thessaloniki, we try to make more crunch in the phyllo dough. In Cérès, the other town, they make the phyllo dough softer. Claudia: Alright. Philippos: It’s a bit different.

Claudia: The giant phyllo sheet is cut in the middle and covered with more oil and margarine. Philippos then fills it with a sweet cream that he and his team prepare in the shop. The cream is added at room temperature. Otherwise, it will break the phyllo dough. Now it’s time to fold the filo pastry. Each folded side has four layers, so there are 16 in this half. The first folded half with the cream filling goes inside the unfolded half, creating 32 total layers for our bougatsa. Yeah, the dough looks super fluffy and moist, like — there’s a bit of air in it.

Philippos: We want air inside. This will help us cook better inside the bougatsa.

Claudia: Besides bougatsa with sweet cream, you can also enjoy it as a savory pie with local cheese, spinach or meat.

Philippos: People who make bougatsa, from year to year, less and less and less and less, and this art will disappear. And that’s a shame. It’s a different type of food, bougatsa with the machines, so I want to show young people that it’s a beautiful job and that it’s more pleasant.

Claudia: The pie rests in the refrigerator for 24 hours so that all the flavors can combine and form a maximum of crispiness. To obtain a golden crust, it bakes for 30 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius. [pastry crackling] A bougatsa makes four servings. Traditionally, each portion is then cut into 10 small pieces. As the pie is traditionally eaten for breakfast, in Thessaloniki sweet cream bougatsa is often enjoyed with a glass of chocolate milk.

Philippos: You can see the layers from here, there, all that.

Claudia: Yes, they are here.

Philippos: Yeah. Claudia: How many do we put in? Thirty-two, you say?

Philippos: Yes, 32. [upbeat music]

Philippos: It’s very simple cream, but the ingredients are all top quality, you know, and around Thessaloniki.

Claudia: Also the crunch is not an aggressive crunch. It’s not greasy, it’s light — oh, it’s very, very nice.

Philippos: It’s very good.

[upbeat music]

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