Saganaki: Set Fire to the Cheese, Watch It Burn

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[Photographs and Video: Vicky Wasik]

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I love setting things on fire. As a child I started small, using the thick lenses of my red plastic-rimmed glasses to burn holes into brittle fall leaves. When I got a tad older, I assigned myself the official title of s’mores cook at every campfire, carefully toasting jet-puffed marshmallows until their centers were molten and exteriors charred black.

Over the years I’ve moved on to bigger and riskier pyrotechnics, and I've even gone as far as igniting a towering multi-tiered cake with a bottle of overproof rye. (A few fingers were scorched.) But I don’t think I'm alone in being attracted to food engulfed in flames—nothing gets the attention of a packed dining room like setting a slab of fried cheese ablaze, like Athenian restaurants do with saganaki.

Pan seared greek cheese with walnut vinaigrette

Saganaki is a Greek dish of fried cheese, usually halloumi, kasseri or even flour-dusted feta, served alongside bread as a starter. Flambéeing is an optional touch, available at touristy spots around Athens if you’re ever looking for dinner and a show.

After pan frying the cheese, ouzo—a very strong anise-flavored Greek aperitif—is lit tableside and poured over the already oozing slab. The liquor catches the fat from the cheese, lighting up like a torch right in front of your eyes, in a way that fully satisfies my arsonist itch. A squeeze of lemon puts out the flames, so you can scoop up the anise-scented cheese onto thick slices of bread, and wash it all down with more ouzo.

I wasn’t about to let the Greeks have all the fun. After returning from a trip, my days were filled with flaming cheese. In order to jazz things up even more, in place of the usual squeeze of lemon, I finish my flaming saganaki with a warm walnut vinaigrette, transforming the simple dish into a hot cheese plate. Nothing beats a quiet evening alone—just me, a block of melted cheese, and a bottle of ouzo.

How to Make Flaming Saganaki

Toasting walnuts in oil, adding honey, lemon, and parsley.

This dish comes together in a flash and is optimally eaten just as quickly. Because this flaming, oozing cheese waits for no one, I make sure the bread, crackers, or some other vehicle for cheese is ready before anything else.

Next I prepare the walnut vinaigrette, starting by toasting raw walnuts in extra virgin olive oil. This flavors the oil with the walnuts, and the walnuts with the oil. Once the nuts are golden and toasty I add a couple spoonfuls of floral honey and simmer until just foamy. I then remove the mixture from the heat and finish it off with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and chopped parsley.

Pan frying cheese in a cast iron, pouring over flaming liquor, finishing with walnut vinaigrette

Now, at long last, I can get to the star of the show: the cheese. If you want to keep it authentic, stick to the Greek cheeses, but any firm and butter-y cheese—like manchego, akawi, or cheddar—can work well, too. I like to slice it into a thick slab, so I can develop a crunchy crust while maintaining plenty of gooey middle.

I preheat a small cast iron or other small, heavy-bottomed skillet until smoking hot, before searing the cheese on both sides. A flexible slotted spatula is the perfect tool to flip the cheese without losing any precious crust to the pan.

After searing, I warm up a touch of ouzo in a small pot until I can see wisps of the alcohol fumes curling from the surface. If you don’t have ouzo, Pernod, arak, or tsipouro offer a similar anise flavor and will work just as well. To set the alcohol ablaze, I let a long stick lighter reach into the pot for me, about two-inches from the surface. There’s no need to make direct contact with the liquor, as the fumes will draw the flames down into the pot.

Saganaki with walnut vinaigrette on crusty bread

Finally, I have my friends and loved ones gather round for a spectacular show. I carefully pour the lit ouzo over the cheese and watch the fat burst into flames. When I’m satisfied with the surface browning and ready to dig in, I pour over the walnut vinaigrette to put out the fire.

The Greeks have really come through for me here, combing my two loves—fire and cheese—into one easy appetizer that’s great for sharing, or not.