If you’ve ever ordered saganaki in a Greek restaurant then you’ve probably enjoyed the theatrics of a quick tableside fire and loud chorus of “Opa!” Celebratory and fun, saganaki refers to a few types of Greek dishes that are set aflame, often in a two-handled pan of the same name, including one featuring cheese.

In this version, thick slices of halloumi are dredged in flour and then quickly seared until they’re golden crisp and just a little bit melty. Then a splash of ouzo is added — Sambuca or any other high-proof liquor works just as well — before the dish is set on fire. The ouzo adds a hint of anise flavor to the dish, which is balanced with a squeeze of lemon. Garnished with fresh herbs and served with crusty bread, it makes a satisfying appetizer or, with a side salad, could be a full meal.

Can’t find halloumi? Look for other firm, slightly springy cheeses. Kasseri or kefalotyri are two popular options, but queso fresco, Manchego or paneer would work, too. If you’re gluten-free, you can use rice flour or a gluten-free flour blend in place of the all-purpose. And if you don’t like the flavor of anise or licorice, use another high-proof spirit, such as grappa or brandy.

Lighting food on fire can be fun, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Don’t wear loose clothing, and keep long hair tied back. Never pour alcohol into a dish directly from the bottle as the flame can travel up into the bottle; pour the booze into a heatproof cup and then into the food. Ensure there’s a few feet of clearance over the pan, and have a pot lid handy in case you need to quickly put the flames out.

The oil in this dish will burn a little bit, but it’s primarily the alcohol’s vapors that catch fire, so if you don’t want to use alcohol you won’t be able to light the dish on fire. That’s just fine — the cheese will make a tempting appetizer for a small crowd with or without a blaze.

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  • 8 to 10 ounces halloumi, Kasseri, kefalotyri or other mild, firm cheese with a high melting point such as queso fresco, Manchego or paneer
  • 1/4 cup (32 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola
  • 1/4 cup (2 ounces) ouzo, or other clear, mild-flavored spirit (optional, but you will not be able to light the dish on fire without the alcohol).
  • 1 medium lemon, cut into wedges, for serving
  • Fresh oregano or parsley sprigs, for garnish
  • Crusty bread, pita or crackers, for serving

Step 1

On a cutting board, slice the cheese lengthwise, so it’s between 1/2-inch and 1-inch thick. It may be in two or more smaller pieces. Sprinkle the flour evenly over a large plate. Dip the cheese in the flour, dredging until lightly coated on all sides; discard any remaining flour.

Step 2

In a saganaki pan, small cast-iron or stainless steel skillet over high, heat the oil until it shimmers. Using tongs, carefully slide the flour-coated cheese into the oil away from you. Fry until golden and crisp, about 2 minutes. Using tongs or a spatula, carefully flip, and fry the other side until golden and just starting to melt, another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Step 3

If flambéing: Have a pot lid handy in case you need to cover the pan to suppress the flames. Ensure nothing is hanging over the pan, and keep your face and body at a distance. Pour the ouzo or other alcohol into a small cup and then pour it over the cheese. (Never pour the alcohol directly into a hot pan from the bottle.) Using a long stick lighter, carefully set the alcohol aflame, shaking the pan gently to help disperse the flame. Allow the flames to go out. Garnish the cheese with the oregano or parsley sprigs and serve hot, with lemon wedges and bread.

Nutrition Information

Calories: 341; Total Fat: 25 g; Saturated Fat: 13 g; Cholesterol: 50 mg; Sodium: 702 mg; Carbohydrates: 6 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 0 g; Protein: 15 g.

Recipe from staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.

Tested by G. Daniela Galarza; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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