How To make Saganaki, The Flaming Greektown Chicago Cheese | A Chicago Johnny's Recipe
What you will need to make your own saganaki at home:
•Semi Soft to Semi Hard Cheese | Traditionally "Kasseri" cheese, but I prefer "Fontinella" & you can also use "Feta" in the brick, not crumbled.
• Grapeseed oil for frying (pure or pomace olive oil will work too)
• Brandy or Cognac
• Lemons or Lemon Juice
• Parsley for plating
• Pita or soft bread for eating
Fried Fontinella Cheese Saganaki
It is incredibly important to use a heavy bottom pan to prevent burning your saganaki. I love using a well seasoned Cast Iron Skillet (linked below). This is a dangerous recipe & is not for the faint of heart, but easy for any seasoned kitchen dweller.
In Chicago it's believed that Saganaki began in Greektown at the Parthenon, well, at least where the lighting of liquor on fried cheese began. Fried cheese served in a heavy pan is commonplace in Greece, but they don't light the stuff on fire & yell "Opa" when the brandy is lit. Sadly the Parthenon closed in 2016, but their legend continues to live in every Greek diner & dive in the Chicagoland area. I grew up with this stuff on every casual diner I frequented as a child & continue to see it everywhere today. I love this stuff, like more than any human should love something.
So let's begin with a couple of basic tips. First, you are going to be lighting the brandy (or cognac) on fire while the saganaki is fresh off the stove, like burning hot, so you may want a fireplace lighter to pull this dish off if you are scared of flames. Be assured that trying to light the brandy on fire on a cold saganaki will not work, the brandy has to be hot & steamy to get a flame.
Don't do this in a small apartment or anywhere that you can cause a fire. If this is your first time trying to make this dish you should probably go outside when you light the brandy on fire, I'm serious. Really Serious. And make sure to watch your hair, eyebrows, mustaches, beards, et cetera. This is a big flame that you will be creating. Be careful.
So let's get started. Prep your ingredients before you get going. Make a bowl of water, a bowl of flour, cut some lemons into wedges, & have a shot of brandy ready. Now take your cheese (usually coming in an 8 oz wedge) & cut it lengthwise (so you still have your wedge shape, but it's half as thick).
Heat up your skillet on medium heat, a little higher if you have a really heavy duty pan. Once heated thoroughly, add some grapeseed or olive oil to coat heavily. Your oil will heat up rather quickly, so just after pouring in your oil dip your cheese into your water bowl, then your flour bowl. You want to cover as much of your cheese in flour as possible, & the water will help it to stick. Shake off some of the excess flour & carefully place into your hot skillet & oil, try to let the cheese fall away from you in the pan so the hot oil doesn't splash you.
Let your cheese fry for 2-3 minutes, the longer it fries the darker the crust you will have. After 2-3 minutes flip carefully with a sturdy spatula & fry the other side for 2-3 minutes.
Now this is where it gets fun! After both sides are fried, leave your cheese in your pan & take your pan somewhere safe to light the fire. While your pan is still scorching hot, pour in your shot of brandy & light the fumes on fire (don't forget to yell "Opa" or the Greek demons of long ago will come haunt your house). Let it burn until almost extinquished & squeeze your lemon wedges (1 or 2) over the cheese to completely put your flame out. Serve while hot with some fresh parsley, Kalamata olives (optional), pita or soft bread. Squeeze more fresh lemon juice over your saganaki if you want more of that acidic bite (which I love).
That's it. This is a dish which you should make in front of an audience, after all that's how it got it's start!
Thank you for trying out my recipes - Johnny
Pick up some quality skillets & spatulas below. Don't be afraid to use a stick lighter if you're nervous about the flame!