A few years ago, Mina Stone and her partner Alex were driving through central, mainland Greece when they decided to make a stop in the mountainous village of Karpenisi. Hungry, they wandered up to a small, brightly lit restaurant. Peering in, they could see tables packed with locals, enticing plates of food and, oddly, images of dancing elves on the walls.
“It was very surreal—I think it was like a children’s daycare by day and at night, these two women turned it into a restaurant,” says Stone, chef and owner of Mina’s at MoMa PS1 in New York. The village, she says, looked as though it was trapped in the 1970s. “It was busy, so we went in. The food was absolutely amazing.”
But the real showstopper came at the end. While it’s customary in Greece to be served a bowl of fresh fruit drizzled in honey or something similar for dessert, one of the women instead brought over a generous helping of portokalopita, a syrup-soaked phyllo cake and Greek coffee.
Though Stone grew up visiting her grandmother’s home in Greece and enjoying her cooking—particularly sweets like baklava—this was her first encounter with portokalopita. “I didn’t know it existed and it was so amazing,” she says. “I remember asking her, ‘What is this? How did you make it?’ She kind of laughed, turned over my napkin, wrote down the recipe and was like, ‘It’s so easy to make! Here’s the recipe.’ I’ve been making it ever since.”
The cake is made from shredded phyllo dough that’s baked into a yogurt-based batter. It’s then soaked in an ultra-sweet orange and cinnamon syrup. It falls into a category of desserts known as siropiasta, which means “soaked in syrup,” and includes Greek baklava and Turkish revani.
“From Turkey to Syria to Lebanon to Iraq they have these syrup-soaked desserts,” says Stone. “They can be so delicious and luxurious, but often are way too sweet. They’re really supposed to be served in the afternoon with a strong coffee. It is not an after-dinner thing.”
Though Stone has since lost the napkin with the original recipe, the dessert has become a go-to at her restaurant and in her home. It’s also featured in her new cookbook that dives into Greek food culture, Lemon, Love & Olive Oil.
However, her recipe does include one notable adjustment: less sugar. This way, it’s not too overwhelmingly sweet after a hearty dinner, doesn’t require the bitterness of coffee and, most importantly, you can eat more than one piece.
“It feels like a warm hug,” says Stone. “It has such a specific smell that reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen and being in Greece and appreciating the moment. It’s exciting to see other people enjoying it.”
If you love syrup-soaked Mediterranean desserts like baklava, here are Stone’s tips for making the much simpler and equally delicious portokalopita.
The basis of portokalopita, like most cakes, is fairly simple: mix it all together and bake. “The only tough part about it is making sure that all the phyllo [is coated with batter],” says Stone. “The cake needs to be dry enough to soak up the syrup, so it feels like there’s not enough batter for the phyllo. I get in there with my fingers and make sure I can feel that every single phyllo piece is saturated. The phyllo creates these layers that make such a cool texture.”
And Stone says you should stick to pre-made phyllo and not get too ambitious. “Making your own phyllo is really appropriate for pies, but I think for this dessert you need the packaged stuff.”
To make the syrup, Stone cut down on the amount of sugar that was included in the original recipe. She still boils it with strips of orange rind and cinnamon sticks for an intense flavor and aroma that’s “perfumy, but in a good way.”
“Greek and Middle Eastern deserts have this element of perfume that I think takes some getting used to, like rose water or orange blossom water and mastic,” she says. “This has that same perfume quality to it, but it’s aromatic and really approachable.”
Also, don’t hesitate to pour every last bit of syrup over the cake. “It’s going to seem like too much, but it’s not,” says Stone. “It will soak it up, and you need all of it for the right moisture.”
That sweetness is also essential for balance. The phyllo is like salty and unleavened Greek matzah and it’s coated in a tangy yogurt batter, so “when you soak it in the syrup, it balances out like when you have salt on a cookie or caramel. It cuts that sweet.”
When serving portokalopita at Mina’s, Stone “cuts it into thin triangles” and treats it as a cafe would their pastries. “It’s really juicy and moist and that’s what’s so yummy about it,” says Stone. “When you take a bite, it’s this spongy syrupy dessert, but it is not too sweet.”
Serves 10 to 12
For the Syrup:
- 2 cups Water
- 2 cups Granulated sugar
- 6 Orange peel strips
- 2 Cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp Kosher salt
For the Cake Pudding:
- .5 cup Canola, safflower or olive oil, plus more for the pan
- 3 Eggs
- 7 oz Plain Greek yogurt
- .5 cup Granulated sugar
- 1 tsp Vanilla extract
- 2 tsp Baking powder
- 1-pound Phyllo dough
- To make the syrup add all of the ingredients to a pot and bring to a simmer over medium/low heat.
- Simmer for 5 minutes for the ingredients to meld. Then remove the pot from the heat and set aside to cool.
- To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 F and oil a 9-inch cake pan.
- In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, yogurt, oil, sugar, vanilla and baking powder.
- Shred the phyllo and fluff with your fingers to separate the pieces. Fold the phyllo pieces into the yogurt mixture and use your fingers to make sure every piece of phyllo is covered in batter.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Remove the cake from the oven and poke it with a fork or chopstick all over the place, so you have lots of holes for the syrup to soak in. Slowly pour the syrup over the hot cake. You might have to pause midway through and wait for the cake to absorb the syrup before adding more.
- It will seem like a lot of syrup, but trust me, use all of it or the cake will be dry. Let the cake sit for at least 1 hour before serving.
- The cake is best served warm or at room temperature the day you make it. Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to three days.