When people ask me what’s my favorite time of the year here in Athens, I always say it’s spring and particularly April. That is when all the Seville orange trees lining the streets of Athens – both downtown and in the suburbs – blossom and perfume the whole city. I can spend hours walking around and inhaling the wonderful scent.
The common orange is believed to be a naturally occurring hybrid between the pomelo and the mandarin. There are many different varieties and other hybrids that have evolved, but they generally fall into one of two categories: sweet (citrus x sinesis), which includes varieties such as the navel orange, the Valencia orange, the blood orange and the Jaffa orange, or bitter (citrus x aurantium), which includes the Seville orange, the trifoliate orange and the bergamot orange.
Today orange trees are considered to be the most cultivated fruit tree across the globe. They particularly love a tropical or subtropical climate, but the mild Mediterranean climate is also ideal for most varieties, which is why the production in this region is so large. (The current world leader in orange production, however, is Brazil, which has about 24 percent of the global production, followed by China and India.)
So-called “golden apples,” which many people now believe to be oranges, appeared in Greek mythology. One myth posits that Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life, soul of the Earth and mother of the Titans, offered the fruit tree as a wedding gift to Zeus and Hera. The rare fruit grew at the “garden of the gods” at the northern edge of the world, in the land of Atlas (the Titan who held the sky and earth on his shoulders), and was guarded by both a sleepless dragon named Ladon and the Hesperides (Εσπερίδες), nymphs from whom we get the Greek word for citrus fruit (εσπεριδοειδή). There are further references to citrus fruit in ancient Greek texts even though there is no recorded proof of their cultivation at that time on this side of the world.
Hundreds of years later, during the 10th century, the Portuguese were responsible for a more widespread circulation of oranges in Europe, although their steady cultivation and production in Europe didn’t begin in earnest until after the 15th century. As in other languages, the modern Greek word for orange – πορτοκάλι (portokali) – was named after the Portuguese.
Greece, like most southern European and Mediterranean countries, has since ramped up citrus fruit production. Most of the orange groves are located south in the Peloponnese (particularly Laconia and Argolis) and Arta (in northern Greece). All the citrus fruit grown on the island of Chios has been particularly famous for centuries – there’s actually a particular variety called the Chios orange as well as the very famous Chios mandarin.
As far as its use in the Greek cuisine, the orange is a staple ingredient. We encounter the fruit in a wide range of dishes, from salads and dressings to meat stews and roasts (particularly pork or poultry). You’ll often find oranges combined with pulses like lentils and chickpeas (the vitamin C in oranges helps with the absorption of iron in lentils), in spoon sweets and marmalades, and, not surprisingly, in hundreds of Greek desserts and treats, including sweet pies, halva, custards, cakes and more.
Among the most popular orange recipes here in Greece is the portokalopita, or orange pie, a syrupy treat that comes in several variations. Some are more sponge cake than pie, but what they all have in common is lots of orange zest and an aromatic orange-cinnamon syrup. My favorite version is the one made with phyllo. In fact, apart from loving the final texture and result, I am particularly fond of the fact that I get to use all my old and dried out phyllo scraps. This technique of using scraps of phyllo is also encountered in savory pies – it’s called patsavouropita or “the lazy woman’s pie” because you just throw in what you’ve got and bake, without needing much of a technique or a recipe to follow. However, this orange pie does require a bit of a technique as far as the syrup is concerned.
450gr thin phyllo
140 gr white sugar
2 full tablespoons or 34 gr orange zest, finely grated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
270 gr Greek yogurt (it needs to be thick and creamy)
2 teaspoons baking powder
200 ml sunflower oil (it can also be made with olive oil. Sunflower oil has a lighter result)
For the syrup
250 ml fresh orange juice, strained
250 gr white sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 thin lemon peel
1 tablespoon honey
120 ml water
Let the phyllo defrost in the pack if frozen. Once defrosted, open the pack of phyllo and tear it with your hands into small pieces. They don’t need to be perfect and even, just not too big (refer to the attached photo to get a sense of the size). Lay them out on a tray to dry. You can do this a couple of hours ahead. Or use any leftover, dry phyllo scraps from other recipes you’ve made. The drier the better for this recipe.
If your phyllo is too fresh and doesn’t dry that quickly or you have no time to wait, there’s a trick. Preheat your oven at 180 degrees C. Bring the heat down to about 100 degrees C (convection) and put them in the oven to dry. But make sure they don’t start to actually bake or go golden – that’s why we keep the heat low. I usually keep them in for about 15-20 minutes, stirring them occasionally to dry evenly. Once dried, put aside the phyllo.
Start with the syrup so that it has enough time to cool down. Put all the syrup ingredients, except for the honey, in a saucepan, put on low heat and bring to a simmer. Continue simmering just until the sugar dissolves. Don’t cook this down too much or else you will lose the flavor of the orange juice. Remove from the heat and stir in the honey. Set aside.
Preheat your oven at 170 degrees C (convection). Put the eggs in a bowl and whisk. Add the sugar and beat with an electric mixer at medium speed until the sugar dissolves and your mix turns frothy and white. Mix in the orange zest. Start adding the yogurt in batches while beating at low speed. Add the vanilla and baking powder and blend well. Finally start adding the oil gradually while beating at low speed. Set aside.
Go back to your dried phyllo and, using a spatula, start folding it in batches into your mix until you’ve used it all. Take a round pan around 30 cm in diameter (it could also be a square pan – the size matters more than the shape). Grease the pan with oil (whichever oil you are using in the recipe). Pour in the pie mix and even out the top using a spatula.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes on a low rack, until golden and puffed up. Remove from the oven and with a toothpick start pricking it all over (this helps it to absorb the syrup). Strain the syrup and start pouring it slowly, one tablespoon at a time, all over the pie. Once you’ve used all your syrup, it might look too syrupy but that’s right. You need to let it sit for at least a few hours until it absorbs all the syrup. (Trust me, it works and is heavenly delicious!)
Slice and serve with a scoop of vanilla or yogurt ice cream and sprinkle it with some extra cinnamon. It also tastes great with plain Greek yogurt.
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