For our summer series Deep Frydays, we take some of Chicago’s favorite foods and, like the name says, we deep-fry them and deal with the big questions: How do you deep-fry deep-dish? Will it collapse in the heat like a poorly filled pothole? Can you deep-fry a feeling? Will we keep our jobs? Where’s the defibrillator in this building? Let’s find out together!
Today’s sacrifice to the gods of hot oil: flaming saganaki.
Midwesterners could be forgiven for thinking that Wisconsin has a lock on all things cheese in our region – they’re called Cheeseheads for a reason, after all – but here in sweet home Chicago, we’ve managed to one-up our neighbors to the north in at least one narrow slice of cheese history: we set it on fire.
Chicago’s Greektown started out as one of the city’s many enclaves that developed in its history and made it the patchwork of neighborhoods with distinctive ethnic accents. Greeks arriving in Chicago concentrated a little south of present-day Greektown, but when the neighborhood was displaced by the building of the Eisenhower expressway, many of the Greek residents moved north, where a strip of Greek restaurants on Halsted Street flanked by classical Greek temple reproductions remain.
It was in one of those restaurants, the Parthenon, where flaming saganaki was born. The dish of lightly floured and fried cheese was already a Greek restaurant staple, but it wasn’t until 1968, when a patron suggested Parthenon owner Chris Liakouras set fire to the fried cheese tableside, that it became a Chicago icon. His recipe of a splash of brandy, a flick from a Bic lighter, and a lusty cry of “Opa!” was an instant hit with patrons. The fiery dish necessitated another Liakouras flourish: a squeeze from a lemon wedge to extinguish it.
In order to deep-fry the cheese without cheese leaks, we knew we’d have to give it a sturdier crust, so we chose a naturally gluten-free coating of egg and masarepa, a very fine cornmeal flour. The plan was to then set it aflame the Parthenon way, with brandy, a Bic and an “Opa!” Sadly, we couldn’t get the brandy to catch fire. (Our insurance providers were probably OK with that.) Where did we go wrong? We’re hoping our fans, or maybe even Chris Liakouras, will let us know.
While our attempt at the classic Greektown appetizer went down in flames, we at least had a plate full of pretty tasty cheese sticks and a couple of ounces of brandy, so you know, we’ve had worse days at the office.
DEEP-FRIED (UN)FLAMING SAGANAKI
• ½-inch thick piece of firm Greek cheese (we used Kasseri)
• ½ cup masarepa
• 1 egg
• Lemon wedges
Whisk egg, then dip cheese into egg and coat with masarepa. Fry in hot oil until golden. Drain, douse in brandy, and burn the tip of your thumb trying to get it to catch fire. Give up in despair, sit in a parking lot, eat your fancy cheese sticks sprinkled with lemon juice, and maybe go home and try setting something else on fire when there are no cameras to witness you fail.