I have two modes of recipe development: carefree, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and methodically planned. When I’m working with everyday ingredients that I know are hard to mess up, I’m likely to get into the kitchen with only a vague idea of what I expect the final outcome to be and add seasonings and ingredients on instinct; most of my soups and stews are created this way. When I’m baking or working with an ingredient that is new to me or that can be temperamental, like phyllo, I tend to be more cautious. I research the ingredients, look at other recipes to get approximate cooking times, plan out what I want to do, and jot down a working recipe. When I take the recipe to the kitchen, amounts may change and ingredients may be added to taste, but I usually follow the general outline of my working recipe–unless something unexpected happens. In the case of this recipe, the unexpected happened and changed my strudel into a “strudel pie.”
My plan was to roll up an apple-cranberry filling in phyllo dough, but after I’d gotten all my ingredients laid out, ready to roll, I unwrapped my newly-thawed phyllo dough and found that I had bought small sheets of phyllo rather than large ones. As I laid them out and covered them over with a damp tea towel to keep them from drying out, I realized that I’d never be able to roll all of the apples I’d prepared in such small sheets of pastry. I could make a bunch of sushi-sized rolls, but what a lot of work for sushi-sized strudel! So I made a snap decision to bake my strudel as a sort of pie, grabbed the nearest baking dish (which turned out to be a little too small), and began layering instead of wrapping.
If you’re not used to working with phyllo dough, there are a few things you should know:
- Most phyllo is sold frozen, and it must be thawed before using. It’s easiest to do this in the refrigerator overnight. The brand I use, Athens, comes divided into two packages inside the box, so I put one of them into the fridge the night before and left the other in the freezer for later use. If you don’t get around to using the defrosted phyllo, it will keep, sealed, in the fridge for 30 days.
- As soon as you open and start to unroll the phyllo, it will begin to dry out. Lay it out flat and immediately cover it with a lightly moistened–but not too damp–towel. If the towel is too damp it will make the dough soggy, so be careful.
- Recipes will tell you that you must coat each sheet of phyllo with melted butter or margarine. Don’t believe them! Those people just like the taste of butter or margarine. Some recipes call for an entire stick of butter to be brushed on the dough, making what could have been a low-fat dish into a heart attack on a plate. I like to sprinkle something between the layers to keep them separate and flaky, but I don’t use oil or margarine except for on the top layer, to prevent it from drying out during baking. (The calories and fat from a two-second spray of canola oil are included in the nutritional stats of this recipe. Even with the fat in the phyllo and spray, this dessert still comes out with only 10% calories from fat.)
- Phyllo is also spelled “Fillo” so don’t be confused by my old-fashioned spelling!
Even if you’re new to phyllo, I hope you’ll give this delicious pie a try. I used sweet apples (rather than the tart cooking apples so many recipes call for) to add natural sweetness, and the cranberries provide small bursts of tartness. Because working with phyllo can be intimidating, I’m including photos of the process as well as a diagram of the layers that you can follow, from the bottom-up.
- 12 9×14-inch sheets phyllo dough, thawed if frozen
- 2 tablespoons walnuts or pecans
- 2 tablespoons oatmeal
- 1 1/2 pounds Honeycrisp apples (or other crisp apples), peeled, cored, and diced (about 4 cups or 3-4 apples)
- 1/2 cup coarse sugar, such as demerara or raw sugar
- 2 teaspoons unbleached white flour or cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons molasses
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup cranberries
- 2-second spray canola oil or non-stick spray
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a rectangular baking dish with oil or non-stick spray.
- Place the nuts and oatmeal in a food processor and process until coarsely ground. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- In a large bowl, toss together the apples, raw sugar, flour, molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cranberries. Mix the 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl.
- Working with two phyllo sheets at a time and keeping the others covered to prevent them from drying out, place two sheets into the dish. (If sheets are too big for the dish, coax the edges into standing upright along the sides of the pan, but don’t stress about it.)
- Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the nuts/oatmeal. Repeat this twice, for a total of 6 sheets. Arrange the apple mixture on top of the 6th sheet.
- Cover it with 2 sheets of phyllo, tuck the excess edges under, and sprinkle with a tablespoon of nuts/oatmeal. Repeat 2 more times for a total of 6 sheets on top of the apples. Spray the top sheet lightly with canola oil and lightly cut through the top layers of phyllo to form 8 equal pieces.
- Sprinkle with the cinnamon/sugar mixture.
- Bake until the phyllo is golden and the apples are just tender (but not mushy) when pierced with the tip of a knife, 40 to 50 minutes. Allow baking dish to cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Serve warm. Reheat leftovers in toaster oven or regular oven, not microwave, to maintain flakiness.
Anticipating Your Questions:
Q: What size pan did you use?
A: I used a 6 1/2 by 9 1/2-inch pan, which turned out to be a little small. I recommend something slightly larger, up to a 9×13-inch pan (which may be a little too big).
Q: Can this be made gluten-free?
A: I felt guilty creating this recipe because I didn’t want to make my gluten-free readers feel deprived. Phyllo depends on gluten to enable it to stretch into such thin layers, so there’s no such thing as gluten-free phyllo dough. However, the apple filling would be delicious baked in your favorite gluten-free pie crust.
Q: Can I use agave nectar or maple syrup instead of the sugar?
A: Not unless you want a very soggy pie! I used sugar because you need to keep the moisture down with working with phyllo. Too much liquid will make it soggy instead of flaky.
Q: Can I use brown sugar or regular sugar instead of the raw sugar and molasses?
A: Yes. But–many vegans do not use brown sugars or granulated sugars because most are filtered using animal products (that don’t actually remain in the sugar). It’s your call. I added a little molasses to give my pie more of that brown sugar flavor, so leave it out if you use brown sugar.
Q: Can I make this sugar-free?
A: You can experiment with using stevia or other sugar-free sweeteners, but I haven’t tested a sugar-free version.
Q: Can I use dried cranberries instead of fresh?
A: Yes. Since dried cranberries almost always contain added sugar, you may be able to decrease the sugar a little.
Q: Can I use Red Delicious or another type of apple?
A: If you want. I prefer the texture and sweetness of crisp apples like Honeycrisp, Sweet Tango, Pink Lady, and Ambrosia, but use your own judgment.
Q: What should I do with the leftover phyllo?
A: How about make a Spinach-Artichoke Pie?!
Q: I have all of the ingredients except for phyllo, apples, cranberries, and sugar. Can I substitute phyllo with flour tortillas, apples with pears, cranberries with canned pineapple, and sugar with stevia?
A: You’re on your own!