We’re in the height of citrus season here in California and it is truly one of the most wonderful times of the year. I am always amazed at how out of the cold, gray days of winter comes the bright, sweet gift of citrus. Living near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, we are blessed with ready access to a huge bounty of winter citrus and in our neighborhood, there are orange trees literally everywhere. Oranges are a very abundant crop in Greece as well, where one will continuously find them used in all manner of ways throughout Greek cuisine. One of those ways is portokalopita (pronounced: por-toh-kah-LOH-pee-tah) a Greek orange and phyllo cake that is the ultimate celebration of orange season.
Portokalopita hails from the Chania region of the island of Crete, which is where my hubby’s mother was born. The climate and terrain in Chania are very similar to California. The ‘Lefkon Oreon’ is the snow covered mountain range that supplies the foothills and valleys below with precious water to sustain the land during the hot, dry summer. The land below the Lefkon Oreon is prime for growing citrus, so the region is blanketed with orange trees, which is why oranges are a huge part of the Cretan diet and the main feature of many of their winter recipes.
For our portokalopita I have chosen to feature blood oranges as they are one of the true treasures of the winter citrus season here in Northern California. Their deep garnet flesh is created by the presence of anthocyanins, a family of antioxidant pigments that not only make for a uniquely colored orange but the flavor is totally distinct, with notes of raspberry and less acidity than a standard orange. Any type of orange will work in this recipe however, but if you can get your hands on some blood oranges, definitely try them out – they have become the winter fruit we look forward to most.
Portokalopita is different from traditional Greek dishes that call for phyllo dough, the sheets of phyllo do not get layered in the traditional way one would expect from Greek cooking, they get all crumbled & torn up into the pan. This unexpected application of the phyllo dough makes portokalopita one of the simplest Greek dessert recipes, which makes it perfect for those who may be intimidated by the thought of working with paper thin phyllo dough.
A custard made of Greek yogurt, pastured eggs, olive oil, honey, vanilla, orange juice and zest gets poured over the torn phyllo. Once baked, the portokalopita gets drenched with a cinnamon, vanilla and blood orange infused honey syrup. The slices of orange that get placed on top make for beautiful presentation and actually taste lovely as well. The flavor of our portokalopita has a nice brightness from the blood oranges that is perfectly complimented by the flavors of vanilla and cinnamon.
The marriage of orange, vanilla, honey & cinnamon into a tender and creamy Greek pastry is the manifestation of a citrus dream. The aroma of the syrup simmering on the stovetop and the cake baking in the oven is the greatest prelude to the dessert that is to come. The wait is always the hardest part with Greek desserts, as you have to let the syrup soak into the pastry for hours before you can eat it, but the sweet bliss that your patience gets rewarded with makes it totally worth it. Portokalopita has become one of our most treasured winter recipes: it is like sunshine to the dark skies and sweet comfort from the cold air – it is winter solace in the form of a cake.
- 1 cup honey
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 blood orange
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla bean pod (reserved after removing vanilla beans)
- 16 oz phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerator overnight or 2 hours on counter (if using frozen phyllo)
- 1/2 cup olive oil + 2 tbsp for greasing pan
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 3 blood oranges
- 1/2 cup honey
- 4 eggs
- 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
- 2 tsp baking powder
- Start by scraping the vanilla beans from the pod and reserve these for the cake
- Cut orange in half and juice into a medium pot
- Add honey, water, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean pod & orange peels to the pot and stir to combine
- Bring mixture to a boil and simmer over medium heat for 8 minutes
- Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature while you make the cake
- Pre-heat oven to 350f degrees
- Brush a 9x13" stainless steel pan with 2 tbsp of olive oil
- Tear and crumble phyllo sheets into approximately 2" pieces into the prepared pan
- Slice 1 orange into 1/8" thick slices & reserve for topping off the cake - you will need 8 pieces
- In a bowl, whisk eggs until frothy
- Use a zester to harvest the zest of 1 orange
- Add yogurt, juice of 2 oranges, zest of 1 orange, 1/2 cup honey, vanilla beans (reserved from pod), and 2 tsp baking powder - whisk together with the eggs until well combined
- Pour custard over phyllo dough, distributing the custard evenly over the torn phyllo pieces
- Use a spoon to stir the custard into the phyllo - making sure the custard is evenly incorporated into the phyllo
- Top cake off with orange slices
- Bake cake in the center of the oven for 40 minutes
- Upon removing from the oven, immediately pour the cooled syrup over the cake, using a ladle to evenly distribute the syrup over the cake
- Allow syrup to absorb into cake for at least 2 hours before serving or if you can bare to wait, the cake is even better the next day
- Slice into 8 slices and serve