Flaming Cheese Saganaki: A Memoir and a Contest Entry

When I was invited to participate in the Mediterranean-inspired blog competition sponsored by food blog Yummy Food and travel website Canarias.com, I knew it was something I had to do as a food lover with an appreciation for foods from Mediterranean countries.

So for my entry, I thought I thought I’d talk about one of my most affecting encounters with Mediterranean food and offer up a recipe. The dish was a simple one, a Greek meze of flaming cheese saganaki (pan-seared cheese that gets briefly lit on fire before serving), and that simplicity contributed a great deal toward my affection for this style of cooking.

In the years that followed my introduction to it, I would learn much about the food at the center of that plate of flames delivered to me that day. I would learn that the word saganaki can refer not only to the heavy two-handled frying pan in which the dish is cooked, but also to many other dishes prepared in such a pan. I would learn too, that the tendency to flambé the cheese using some sort of liquor is in no way traditional or native to Greece, with such plating pyrotechnics having originated in the United States and generally practiced there and in Canada, Western Europe, and Australia. And because learning is delicious, I would go on to learn more about Greek cooking and foods from other Mediterranean countries as I sampled my way from one new love to another.

A lifetime ago, one sweltering August afternoon in New York City, I happened into Aegean, an Upper West Side Greek and Mediterranean restaurant and frequent haunt of a renowned horror author acquaintance of mine (I doubt he’d appreciate my name-dropping him here, so I won’t). It was midday, much earlier than he typically arrived, so I hadn’t gone expecting to find him, but hoping to swim for a while in wine if I could not in water (on such an aggressively hot day as this, every public pool in the five boroughs would have been piled with rowdy teenagers, and I was already too old for that scene.)  I also hadn’t gone expecting my palate to find a declaration of love bathed in flaming raspberry liqueur.

One glass of wine into my visit, I’d gotten hungry, and moved from the bar to the dining room where I selected the unfamiliar flaming appetizer from the menu. I watched my server set a plate of sapphire-blue fire before me like a crown whose pearl bubbled and sizzled at its center.  I heard the dying flames hiss their displeasure at the thwarting spray of juice from a lemon wedge my server squeezed over the plate. I tasted salty, buttery richness of melting kefalotiri cheese enhanced by the sharp bite of citrus and raspberry cordial, and their combined flavors became my instant fascination.

To put into perspective the impression wrought upon me by this first encounter, as I sat eating, gazing out Aegean’s front window onto a sun-baked Columbus Avenue, I saw Howard Stern walk past.  There was no mistaking that it was him.

That sighting was for me the second most remarkable thing about that day.

And whenever I speak of that visit to that establishment which has long since closed, first mention still goes to the food, not my celebrity spotting.  So yes, my affection for Mediterranean cuisine (an admittedly broad and even contested term encompassing not only Greek fare, but also that of Turkey, Spain, Italy, Morocco, and many other countries) runs deep. Today, nearly 15 years later, no New York visit feels worth the trip unless I get to revisit my favorite kitchens.  I come home to much-missed Turkish restaurants that feed me crisp, delicately spiced İçli Köfte (bulghur wheat stuffed with ground lamb, nuts, and currants) and künefe (baked shredded wheat filled with soft white cheese and soaked in sweet syrup.) Favored Greek and Italian eateries return me to dishes familiar yet exotic, and fill my stomach with relished memories of joy and pain and revelation: the Cacciucco I enjoyed on my first night out with friends following a personal tragedy, the grape leaf Dolma I tasted on a first date as a belly dancer roamed the restaurant’s dining room.  I swallow ghosts tasting of roasted fennel, of cured olives, of mint and preserved lemons at surviving establishments that I knew best when I lived within daily eating distance of every single one.  And it feeds me body and spirit, this ongoing Mediterranean eating journey that caught fire years ago and burns ever brighter, first sparked by a simple saganaki meze.

Image credit: Anthony Beal
Image credit: Anthony Beal

Flaming Cheese Saganaki

Kefalotiri, Kasseri, Graviera, Haloumi, and Kefalograviera are the cheeses I see used most often to make this dish. They are firm Greek cheeses that stand up well to heat where softer cheeses melt too soon.  For my recipe, I chose Kasseri, and used blood orange in place of the more traditional lemon. A variety of spirits will serve well for flaming the dish. Here, I chose blackberry brandy. This recipe works best in a cast-iron pan, or a pan with a heavy bottom.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 lb. Kasseri cheese
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ¼ white pepper
  • 1.5 oz. blackberry brandy
  • 1 blood orange, quartered

Directions:

  1. Season flour with salt and pepper.
  2. Add 2 tbsp oil to pan. Preheat on stovetop over medium-high heat.
  3. Slice cheese into slabs approximately ½ inch thick. Dredge both sides of each piece in water, then in flour.  Shake off excess flour.
  4. Place flour-coated cheese in pan and sear until golden brown on each side.
  5. Turn off stove. Add brandy to pan and ignite with lighter. Squeeze blood orange wedges over pan to extinguish flames.  Serve immediately with pita or crusty bread.
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