This appetizer meze is one that you will find both in Greece and in the tavernas around the world. The glaring difference in the Cheese Saganaki served in Greece and abroad is that in Greece it will simply be pan-seared and brought to your table. Abroad (Canada, US, Australia, western Europe) you will also get some showmanship with the waiter lighting up the cheese with either Metaxa (Greek brandy) or Ouzo (anise aperatif). This “flaming cheese” theatric got its beginnings in Chicago’s Greektown. The Liakouras brothers, founding owners of the Parthenon, claim to be the first to light the fried cheese with brandy (Metaxa).
Non-Greek friends get a kick out this spectacle and both Greeks and non-Greeks order this almost every time at the local taverna. If you scan down to the recipe instructions you’ll be amazed at how easy this meze is to reproduce but they are many caveats – things you must be aware of and details.
Once again, “saganaki” refers to many dishes in Greek cookery (not just this cheese meze). Saganaki refers to the two-handled vessel wherein such appetizers are served in. There is Shrimp Saganaki, Mussels Saganaki, one of my own creations in Scallops Saganaki and of course the famed Cheese Saganaki (I know you want to yell OPA!).
First, it is important that you choose the right kind of cheese. It should be a Greek cheese and it should be a firm cheese – something that will hold-up well to heat. Luckily, you also have some options:
Graviera cheese is a sheep’s milk cheese, off-white to yellow in colour, not too salty and it has a slight sweetness and some of the best Graviera is produced on the islands of Crete, Naxos and Mytlini.
Kefalograviera is the cheese I like the best for Cheese Saganaki. It is again a sheep’s milk cheese that is saltier than graviera but not as salty as Kefalotyri cheese.
Kefalotyri is definitely a salty cheese, often compared in flavour to a Romano Peccorino and both cheeses are made of sheep’s milk. If you’re the type that likes piquant flavours and your cheese quite briny, you may also use Kefalotyri for saganaki.
Many Greek grocers will also carry pre-cut and packaged portions of cheese labeled as “Saganaki cheese”. The source of this cheese varies and you should ask a clerk for more info, including how salty this cheese is.
Kasseri is a mild sheep’s milk cheese that often appears on Greek tables for nibbling during dinner. It’s probably the least salty of all the cheeses mentioned here yet it also holds up well to high heat.
Halloumi cheese from Cyprus can also be used to make Saganaki. Primarily made of sheep’s milk, it is buttery in flavour, amounts of salt vary from brand to brand and it’s usually packed in a brine with some dry mint.
Those are you cheese options that are widely available and accessible in most markets outside of Greece. Inside Greece, the variery of cheeses that are available and suitable for “saganaki” are a multitude. I am now depressed just thinking of the variety of cheeses in Greece.
Now another important step is in slicing the cheese. You may choose to cut a square or triangular piece (the shape is often determined by whether you bought a wedge of cheese from a wheel or a brick). The thickness of the cheese is most important. Being stingy with the portion will only result in a cheese that will melt ito a gooey blob in your skillet. Slice your cheese to the thickness of about 1/2 inch (or width of yout index finger).
Finally, I must address the safety issue – lighting up the cheese. NEVER pour the alcohol from the bottle to the pan. Flare-ups can occur where the alcohol you poured into the pan will ignite and travel up into the bottle of booze you are holding in your hand. The SAFE way is to pour the alcohol into a shot glass and then pour it into the pan and ignite.
When lighting the alcohol on fire for Saganaki it is safest to turn off your stove, carry the hot cheese to your serving table and light away from any other heat source and for pure entertainment purposes. Also, make sure you have a high ceiling (or even do it outdoors during the warm months).
Cheese Saganaki (Τυρι σαγανακι)
1 slab of cheese, 4″ x 4″ and 1/2″ inch thick, trimmed of any rind
1 heaping Tbsp. of olive oil
all-purpose flour for dredging
1/2 shot glass of Metaxa (brandy or Ouzo)
- Pre-heat a heavy-bottomed skillet (a cast-iron pan works very well) to a medium-high heat. Place your slab of cheese under running tap water then dredge in all-purpose flour. Shake off any excess flour.
- Add your olive oil to the skillet. Add a sprinkle of flour into the pan to test if the oil is hot enough. As soon as it sizzles, add your cheese to the skillet and sear for a couple of minutes. Carefully flip the cheese with a spatula and allow to sear for a couple of minutes on the other side.
- Turn off your heat source and carefully carry your cheese saganaki to your table and pour the brandy ( or Ouzo) over the cheese and ignite with a lighter. Move your head back, shout “OPA” and squeeze the wedge of lemon over the cheese.
- Serve immediately with crusty bread, some Ouzo on ice or a Savatianno white.
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