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Friday, April 10, 2009

Tsoureki (Sweet Greek Easter Bread)

One of my most consistent childhood memories is of the tsoureki my Yia-Yia would always bring to my house at Easter. She would get it from the church, and I was always fascinated by the slightly sweet, almond topped bread with a blood-red egg stuffed into it. This year, I decided to try my hand at making my own. I have never made a yeast bread before, and every Easter when I see the tsoureki at the Greek store by my house, I think "I can do that" but I never actually try. So I decided that 2009 would be the year. Ignoring my family's dusty, obligatory "Joys of Greek Cooking" book, I located a recipe online that I liked the look of, from Evelyn/Athens at RecipeZaar.

For those who don't know, tsoureki is a braided Greek sweet bread, traditionally served at Easter. It has many equivalents in other cultures, including: corek (Turkey); panaret (Albanian); choreg (Armenian); and, more distantly, Challah. It is considered a "brioche-like" bread, meaning that it is tender and yet has a dark outer crust courtesy of an egg wash. Although it has the right amount of flour, it does not, however, contain enough butter to be truly considered a brioche bread. In Greece, tsoureki can also be known as lambropsomo, which is a derivative of the Greek name for Easter Sunday, and literally means "shining bread." The outer glossiness of the bread is considered an important symbol for the light of Christ, and the blood-red egg (kokkina avga) is also highly symbolic -- red for the blood of Christ, and egg as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. All of this, of course, went right over my head as a child. I just thought I was getting a yummy dessert!

The prospect of tsoureki-making was exciting to me because it was such a familiar part of my life (and yet I had no clue how to make it), because it was a yeast bread, and because it contained a few elements out of the common way.

The first of these are the main spices in the bread, mahlepi and masticha. I had never heard of these spices until I started looking up recipes. Mahlepi are seeds from the St. Lucie cherry, most common to the Mediterranean and southern Europe, but found all the way to Morocco and Pakistan. The seeds, which need to be ground to a powder before using, taste like a mixture of cherry and almond. Masticha is the resin from the mastic plant, an evergreen shrub in the pistacio family. Here's an interesting tidbit of trivia: although mastic plants are found over a wide geographical area, only the mastic shrubs on the Greek island of Chios are capable of producing the resin for the spice. As such, Chios has been granted "protected designation of origin" status by the EU. To this day, the masticha production of Chios is controlled by the Mastichochoria, a collective of medieval villages. But enough with the trivia!

The second element of the bread is, of course, dying the egg a deep blood red. I have done it before, and instructions can be found here , but this time (because I was short on time) I chose to just use Paas, and try to get the pink as dark as I could.

I found the mahlepi and masticha at my local Greek store,Pithari/Hellas Greek Food in Highland Park, NJ. Many ethnic grocery stores, or supermarkets with extensive grocery sections should carry both, especially at this time of the year, but if you can't find them, anise and vanilla can be substituted as indicated below.
2 cups milk
2 (1/4 ounce) envelopes active dry yeast
8-9 cups bread flour
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup almonds, very finely chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 orange, zest of, grated
1 tablespoon mahlepi (or 2 teaspoons finely ground anise seed)
1 teaspoon ground masticha (optional - can also use 1-2 tsp vanilla)
1/4 cup butter, melted
5 eggs, very well beaten

1 egg yolk
2-3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup slivered almond


1. Warm two cups of milk (110-130 F) and place in a large bowl. Add the yeast, one cup of the flour, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Cover and proof for one hour.

Here is the mixture, happily bubbling away

Here are my spices and such (clockwise from plate): orange zest, masticha, mahlepi, and pulverized almonds. I used the same nut chopper to powderize the mahlepi and masticha

2. In a large bowl, combine seven cups of flour, the ground almonds, salt, remaining sugar, orange rind, aniseed or mahlepi and masticha (if using). Make a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture, melted butter and eggs. Work from the center outwards, bringing flour into the well, stirring the mixture until a dough begins to form.

3. Dust a worksurface with a little of the remaining flour and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and doesn't stick to your hands, about 12 minutes. Don't skimp on this, it is important.
4. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with a cloth, and set aside in a warm, draft-free place to rise until doubled in bulk, about two hours. Punch down dough. It'll feel like marshmallow when it comes back out of the bowl.'ll be huge...
5. Divide into six small balls and roll each into strips 12-15 inches long, and abut 2 inches in diameter. I did this by cutting the dough ball in half, and then cutting three wedges from each half. In retrospect, my loaves were too big, so I think I will cut the dough into quarters before dividing each piece into three wedges. This will increase the recipe yield from two to four.
6. Lay three strips side by side, pinching together at one end, and braid. Pinch together at the other end to hold the loaf intact. At this point you can press dyed eggs between the strips of the braid or just leave the braided loaf plain. Repeat for the second loaf (or however many you decide to make).
I had a mishap with my second pink egg, so I had to use a blue.
A little large...
7. Place the breads on a parchment-lined baking sheet, covered, and let rise for two hours, or until doubled in bulk. While the braids are rising, preheat oven to 375F (190°C). Yeah, another two hours. Yeast breads are time-consuming. But very rewarding!
8. Beat together the egg yolk and remaining milk. Brush over tsoureki loaves and sprinkle with slivered almonds.
9. Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown. The bread should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove and cool on racks.

This bread had such a great flavor, it tasted like coming home to me. But everyone will like this bread, it is a truly great sweet bread recipe. Sans the egg if you want, substitute in sesame seeds for almonds in the topping if your tastes would prefer it, make it any shape you want -- twist, round, braid...yeast breads are time consuming, but they are just plain fun to work with, and they taste great. Success!


Anonymous said...

I used the Evelyn recipe this yr for our bread too! Soooooo good!!

Meredith said...

Thanks for the comment, it is a yummy recipe! There really is nothing like using the traditional spices! Tastes like home!