What would you do if I told you that there is a traditional Greek orange cake that needs minimal preparation, no mixer involved, extra juicy, syrupy to perfection, and insanely delicious? You would make Greek portokalopita, of course!
Why this recipe works
Portokalopita comes from the words “portokali” which means “orange” and the word “pita’ which means “pie”. See below why you are going to love this dessert.
Even though the majority of the traditional orange cakes use eggs, I would like to differentiate. I usually like eggs and add them to a wide range of dessert recipes. But, for my portokalopita I need to fully enjoy the exquisite orange flavor without any other "flavor distraction", even the slight taste of eggs.
A perfect make-ahead dessert
When you have a huge party dinner ahead of you (or you don't want to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen), this orange cake is the perfect choice. Make it the previous day and leave it in the fridge. It will be way better the following day when you will serve it and your guests will find it deliriously epic.
Easy and quick to make
This dessert needs the minimum of your effort. Just make the syrup (5 minutes) and whisk in a bowl the rest of the ingredients. That’s it! No hand or stand mixer, no flour, no eggs. It takes more time to write down the recipe than to make it. No kidding.
That’s why it is the perfect dessert recipe either for novice cooks or for those that want to make a delicious dessert in no time.
It’s a whole dessert category. No, allow me to rephrase, please: it’s THE best dessert category. Greek syrupy desserts are cherished for their sweet, moist, and indulgent qualities, offering a delightful range of treats.
From my online research, I couldn’t find another dessert like this orange cake. The ingredient combination is truly unique because instead of flour there is another ingredient that gives an amazing texture (see below.) You won’t get the usual spongy and fluffy cake texture. Portokalopita's texture is smooth but denser than the usual cake but smooth enough to love it.
Greek desserts often have deep cultural roots, and portokalopita is no exception. It is a popular dessert in Greek households, often associated with family gatherings, celebrations, and holidays.
Don't be surprised if they treat you portokalopita in a Greek restaurant or taverna. It is a tradition called "kerasma" and we use to serve a sweet treat along with the bill (free of charge, to sweeten up the "unpleasant paying procedure"). Portokalopita along with halva and a couple of others are popular for kerasma.
To make traditional Greek portokalopita you need the most common ingredients that most likely there are already in your pantry and fridge.
Pastry phyllo sheets
Also known as filo or fillo/phyllo dough. It is the unique ingredient I was telling you about. No flour! Just pastry phyllo sheets from your local supermarket. Let me tell you exactly what you need.
What kind of phyllo?
The most delicate, tissue-thin phyllo sheets you can get. Purchase the package with the most sheets for the least weight! Just to give you an idea, for about one 1 pound (500g) package you need 11-12 sheets.
No puff pastry for this recipe. Only the thinnest phyllo sheets like those we use to make baklava and galaktoboureko (traditional Greek custard pie).
You may use frozen phyllo sheets too. Follow the instructions on the package to thaw it properly (you usually have to place it in the fridge overnight to thaw).
You can find phyllo dough in the refrigerated section of many Greek/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern markets along with some grocery stores.
Is it possible to make pastry phyllo at home?
Yes, it is. But…
For those who are interested in homemade pastry phyllo, it takes years of practice to produce a phyllo so thin that you can see through it. It is an art that has been passed down through generations in many Greek homes. I don’t even dare to make it. I know how to make phyllo thin enough for pies like spanakopita or hand pies but pastry phyllo is another whole level!
Greek strained yogurt
The real thing. Read the ingredients listed on a package and purchase those that contain milk and live/active cultures. Avoid sugar content or any artificial ingredients.
Very important for this recipe is to use strained Greek yogurt. Strained yogurt is often made from milk enriched by boiling off some water content. That’s how there will be no leftover liquid in our portokalopita.
You may choose a Greek strained yogurt with less fat, for example, 2%.
Olive oil or vegetable oil?
While the traditional choice for Greek desserts is olive oil, this recipe is the exemption. At least in my cooking book. Olive oil makes this orange cake really heavy and even the half/half option (meaning half olive oil/half vegetable oil) doesn’t work for my taste buds. I need a milder flavor to achieve the desired texture and lightness in this Greek treat.
While vegetable oil lacks the distinct taste of olive oil, it serves as a neutral option that allows the citrusy essence of the oranges to shine through. It's crucial to opt for minimally processed vegetable oils to maintain a healthier aspect. I usually use good-quality sunflower oil.
Use large, juicy oranges, the sweetest variety you can find. If you are lucky enough to find Valencia variety, go for it. They are also delicious when eaten fresh, and their sweetness makes them popular for various culinary applications. Like portokalopita!
Make sure that their surface is in good condition. Apart from their juice, we are going to need their zest and peels.
Vanilla extract and baking powder
They are present in the majority of cakes: the former to add a nice vanilla flavor and the latter to give volume.
How to make Greek orange cake
- Prepare the syrup
Start with syrup. In brief, add all the ingredients in a pot and just bring to a boil. Set it aside and let it cool down.
- Prepare the phyllo sheets
You have already thawed the frozen phyllo sheets. Then, you have two options here: either you shred them manually into small pieces or you cut them into strips! I prefer the strips because it is a quicker way. Let me show you how:
Unfold the phyllo sheets and cut them in half using a sharp knife.
Stack the halves.
- Cut the phyllo into strips: roll
Take 4-5 sheets and roll them tightly.
- Cut the phyllo into strips
Aim for approximately ½ inch (1 cm) width. Don’t worry, precision is not crucial here.
- Cut the phyllo into strips: unravel and twist
Unravel the phyllo strips and twist them into a nest. Repeat this process with the remaining sheets.
Set them aside to dry. Twirl them a couple of times to ensure even drying, including the strips at the bottom (Do you find this step soothing or is it just me?).
Take your time. The syrup is cooling down and the phyllo is drying out.
- Make the batter
In a big bowl add gradually the ingredients whisking lightly.
- Add the phyllo strings to the batter
Whisk into the phyllo cords carefully and gradually. Make sure that each batch is well incorporated before adding the next one. That is how won’t clump together resulting in an unpleasant mass.
Once your batter is ready pour it into a well-greased baking pan or dish and bake for about 40-45 minutes until golden brown or until toothpick tester comes out clean.
- Add the syrup
Once out of the oven ladle cold syrup over hot cake evenly and let rest at least 30 minutes before slicing. Each spoonful of syrup must be absorbed before adding another (just a few seconds).
- Slice the cake
Let aside to rest. I know it is hard to wait because it smells like heaven. I know. But wait at least half an hour. It needs time to properly absorb the syrup and to cool down before slicing it.
Ideally, once it is cool enough, place it into the fridge for at least an hour (ideally overnight) and then slice. But ok, I get it if you have to taste a bite (like I usually do).
- When you make a syrupy dessert, you always start by making the syrup. It should be cold when we are going to pour it over the hot-right-out-of-the-oven cake. Keep in mind the rule “cold syrup-hot dessert” for other Greek syrupy sweet treats.
- The yogurt should be strained because it won’t release any liquid in our dessert.
- Some recipes call for lightly baking the phyllo shreds or strips to dry them up instead of just letting them dry at room temperature. I have tried both ways and I find no purpose in following the additional step of baking the phyllo. However, it is better to give time for the phyllo shreds/strips to dry up while you are preparing the cake batter.
- The only tricky part of the recipe is to coat well the phyllo shreds/strips. Don’t just through all of them into the cake batter. This will turn the cake into an unpleasant mass.
- Some recipes suggest topping the cake batter with thinly sliced oranges before baking, mostly for decoration purposes. I won’t suggest it because the slices will release bitterness that you may find unpleasant. However, you may make the additional step and bake thin orange slices separately. Line them up on a baking sheet, add cognac or Cointreau, and sprinkle some granulated or brown sugar over them. Bake until they get a nice golden brown color. Top your baked portokalopita with them and serve.
- It is essential to use a ladle or a big spoon to ladle gradually the syrup over the cake. Otherwise pouring the syrup all at once your cake will break apart at serving.
- Once it is ready, the best practice is to let it cool down completely and place it in the fridge (ideally overnight) before slicing it.
How Greeks serve portokalopita
So your masterpiece has been in the fridge for a while soaking the luscious syrup. Perfect. You cannot wait to taste it. Wait because the way we serve it in Greece takes this amazing orange cake to a new level.
Top each piece with a scoop of ice cream (especially if you can find kaimaki ice cream, which is a unique (to-die-for) flavored ice cream. We pronounce it "kah-EE-mah-kee". Ask for it if you are in Greece or in a Greek/Middle East restaurant).
If you want to save yourself a couple of calories (ok a lot of calories) top it with Greek yogurt instead to enjoy the additional creaminess and coolness.
Finally, maybe you are just like me. I enjoy a cool piece of portokalopita in the summer but for the winter I like it at room temperature or slightly (I repeat slightly) reheated. Why not? Variety is the spice of life.
How to store and freeze
STORAGE: Once cooled keep it well-wrapped tight for 5 days in the fridge.
FREEZE: In theory, this orange cake can be frozen but, in practice, once thawed it becomes soggy and compromises its delightful texture and flavor. Therefore, I won’t recommend it.
More Greek syrupy desserts
If you like syrupy desserts, the following recipes call your name.
Start with this easy vegan dessert called halva. Make sure to taste these honey cookies that are literally bathed in syrup and finish your cooking adventure with both this custard pie called galaktoboureko and this walnut cake called karidopita.
If you make my recipe, you have to let me know! I absolutely love your feedback. This is a huge motivation for me and it keeps 30daysofgreekfood’s kitchen alive. Bookmark this recipe and leave your rate and comment below, or take a photo with your portokalopita and tag me on Instagram with #30daysofgreekfood and Facebook with @30daysofgreekfood.
Greek Orange Cake - Portokalopita
- 1 baking pan/dish 9x13inch (25x32)
FOR THE SYRUP
- 2 cups (500ml) granulated sugar
- 2 cups (500ml) water
- ⅓ cup (100ml) orange juice, fresh
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Orange peels from 3 oranges
FOR THE CAKE BATTER
- 1 pound (500g) pastry phyllo dough (sheets), thawed (if frozen)*
- 1 cup (200g) Greek yogurt, strained, plain or low fat
- 1 cup (220g) granulated sugar
- 1 cup (250ml) sunflower oil
- 1 cup (250ml) orange juice, fresh
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Orange zest from 1-3 oranges
- A pinch of salt
PREPARE THE SYRUP
- In a pot add all the ingredients and just bring to a boil. Set aside and let it cool down without stirring.
PREPARE THE PHYLLO SHEETS
- Remove the phyllo sheets from the package and place them on a clean surface. Unfold the phyllo sheets and cut them in half using a sharp knife. Stack the halves together.
- You have 2 options: a) Shred the phyllo into small pieces and place them into a baking sheet/dish. Set aside to dry and twirl them a couple of times to ensure even drying, including the shreds at the bottom.
- b) Cut the phyllo sheets into strips: Take 4-5 sheets and roll them tightly. Cut the roll into strips, aiming for approximately ½ inch (1 cm) width. Precision is not crucial. Unravel the cut strips and twist them into a big nest. Repeat this process with the remaining phyllo.
- Let the strips on the surface to dry. Twirl them a couple of times to ensure even drying, including the strips at the bottom.
PREPARE THE CAKE BATTER
- Preheat your oven to 340 °F (170 °C) and grease a 9x13 inch (25x32) baking pan/dish.
- In a bowl add the yogurt, the orange juice, and whisk well. Stir in the sunflower oil, the sugar, the vanilla extract, the orange zest, the baking powder, and a pinch of salt. Whisk well to incorporate.
- Fold in the phyllo shreds/strips to the wet ingredients a little bit at a time. No need to over mix.
- Pour the cake batter into the prepared baking pan/dish and place it in the upper rack of the preheated oven. Bake until golden about 40-45 minutes or until toothpick tester comes out clean.
ADD THE SYRUP
- Once out of the oven ladle gently cold syrup over hot cake (one ladle at a time). Each spoonful of syrup must be absorbed before adding the next one (just a few seconds). Let it rest at least 30 minutes before slicing but it would be better if you freeze it for an hour or even better overnight before slicing.
- Top it with ice cream or Greek yogurt.