This is one of those recipes with a long intro. Skip to the recipe if you don’t feel like reading this, but forgive me. This recipe deserves an introduction.
“Portokalopita” is a Greek orange pie made with phyllo pastry, a yogurt based custard and, of course, oranges. There are so many recipes and so many methods of making this. Some fold the phyllo sheets, others crush them to pieces. Some make the custard with milk, others with yoghurt. Whatever you do, the final thing needs to be a light, airy, fluffy divinity with the intense flavour of oranges.
This sweet is not part of Cypriot tradition. So, I didn’t grow up eating “portokalopita”. The first time I have tasted something similar was more than 10 years ago in the Greek island of Paros, a place very close to my heart. I went with my sister and her children to our favourite restaurant “Barbarossa” for a fish feast, only to be dazzled at the end by “Accordion”, an amazing dessert baked by “Thia” Markela, the owner’s aunt. This divinity on a plate was made with phyllo pastry and custard but it was more of a “lemonopita” (lemon pie). We licked the plate and asked for more, so Evgenis (the owner) introduced us to his lovely aunt. We knew it was a long shot but my sister and I dared to ask for the recipe. Much to our surprise the amazing “Thia” Markela said she would be happy to share her secrets with us, if we passed by the next day when she wouldn’t be as busy.
So we did. “Thia” Markela kept her promise and not only she gave us the recipe, she was kind enough to sit with us and explain over a coffee how she folded the phyllo like an “accordion” to make this dessert.
I baked Thia Markela’s accordion a number of times and it was lovely and syrupy and delicious. Although, I must say, I never folded the phyllo quite as she did, so that every little fold was filled with the heavenly, tangy custard. One day, at a restaurant in Cyprus this time, I tasted “portokalopita”. It was love at first bite! I had to make this. Unfortunately the owner wasn’t too keen on sharing her secrets. But her “Portokalopita” had so many similarities to Thia Markela’s “accordion”, I knew I had a good starting point.
I started researching “portokalopita” about two months ago when I saw a post on Instagram by David Leibowitz from his trip to Greece and the islands. It was this fantastic top shot of a huge, mouthwatering piece of portokalopita. I tried A LOT of recipes and variations. A great Greek chef Argyro Barbarigou makes portokalopitta with orange marmalade, Greek masterchef winner Akis Petretzikis makes his by boiling a whole orange and then mixing it in the custard, some food bloggers make a milk based custard, others use yogurt. I tried everything. I tried making it with milk, but I liked the tanginess and creaminess of the yogurt. Besides, who am I to doubt Thia Markela’s suggestion? I tried boiling a whole orange which gave it a great flavour but I felt it took some of the fluffiness and airiness of this pie.
To cut the long story short(er) I ended up following Thia Markela’s instructions. She used a ratio of more yogurt and eggs than the average portokalopita recipe, which makes the dessert creamier. I added orange juice to the custard base to make it more orangey. I crushed the phyllo instead of folding it for ease and it works just fine. I leave the folding to the expert hands of Thia Markela. And although I have written such a long intro for this recipe, the process of making this dessert is very simple, easy and quick.
So here it is. I have finally reached my version of Portokalopita. Its light, fluffy, syrupy, orangey, everything this wonderful dessert should be. If there is one in a million chances Thia Markela is reading this, “THANK YOU”.
- 450 grams phyllo pastry
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 packed Tbs Orange zest (you will need about 5 medium-large oranges)
- ½ cup orange juice
- 1 cup sunflower oil (or other mild flavoured vegetable oil)
- 1 cup and 2 Tbs (300 grams) Greek yogurt
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 Tbs plus ½ tsp baking powder (20 grams)
For the Syrup:
- 1 ½ cups water
- 1 ½ cups orange juice
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
First make the syrup by mixing all ingredients together in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to medium and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes. Let syrup cool completely. Transfer to the fridge until needed.
Next you need to dry the phyllo pastry. Some recipes suggest you leave the phyllo soft as it is, but I find that the only way to distribute the custard evenly my drying the phyllo sheets. You can do this in two ways. You can separate the phyllo pieces and lay them one by one on a table to dry. This can take anything from 10 minutes to 6 hours. Especially if the weather is humid. I sometimes leave them on my kitchen counter over night. But if you are in a hurry you can dry them one by one in a 100 C oven, for 10 minutes. After your phyllo sheets are dry, crush them with your hands to small uneven pieces. Put them in a bowl until needed.
Preheat oven to 180 C. Beat eggs and sugar in the bowl of a mixer until light and fluffy. Add orange juice, orange zest, oil, yogurt, vanilla and salt. Beat until combined. Add baking powder and beat lightly to mix.
Brush a 23 x 33 cm baking pan with sunflower oil. You must use a baking pan for your “Portokalopita”. I find that a glass or ceramic pan does not distribute heat as quickly and evenly as a metal one and this might leave your pie uncooked in the centre or not a fluffy as the edges.
Put your custard mixture in a large bowl. Take handfuls of crushed phyllo and throw it in the custard bowl. Fold into the custard making sure, phyllo pieces are not stuck together and the custard is distributed evenly. Don’t put all the crushed phyllo in the custard at once. Do this in several doses.
Spread mixture in prepared pan. If you want to decorate with orange slices, these must be very very thin (1 mm thick max). You can also leave the pie plain and decorate with orange slices before serving. I quite like the roasted orange effect.
Bake pie for 30 minutes until dark brown. Reduce oven to 160 C, cover pie loosely with foil to prevent from burning (do this as quickly as possible, trying not to remove the pie from the oven). Bake 15 minutes longer. A cake tester or a skewer inserted in the centre of the pie must come out clean.
As soon as it comes out of the oven, ladle the cold syrup all over the hot Portokalopita. It may seem like a lot, but its not. The pie will absorb everything eventually and become this really moist, sweet, absolutely wonderful pie with tiny pockets filled with orangey syrup. Leave to cool completely before slicing and serving plain or with a dollop of vanilla or mastic ice cream. It’s divine!