Sunday, April 22, 2012

Greek Easter Bread (Tsoureki)

My husband is of Greek descent, which I'm learning has numerous wonderful traditions. After our wedding in the beautiful Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in 2008, I've embraced the culture and traditions. One tradition at Easter is to share a delicious, sweet bread called Tsoureki. The past few years, his family purchased the bread from various Greek bakeries in the area. This year, I decided to take up the challenge of making this significant (and hard to stop eating) bread.

I consulted with my mother-in-law, who said I needed to make sure to use ground mahlepi and mastic gum to give it its distinct taste. These ingredients are not readily available at your average grocery store, so my husband and I headed to  Titan Foods in Astoria. My husband lived the first three months of his life in Astoria, so we also checked out his old neighborhood while having lunch at Bahari, which had a great Spanakopita.
Since it was a few days before Greek Easter, the store was packed, with a line of cars vying to get into the parking lot. After asking a clerk where to find my ingredients, I wandered around the store taking inventory of the shelves, trying to see if I could put my Greek alphabet skills from my sorority days to use. No such luck.
I managed to find the baking aisle, but couldn't make out which type of flour was which. Since this was my first time baking Tsoureki, I didn't want to take any risks. Maybe next time.
The two ingredients in the bread that give it its distinct taste are mastic powder and mahlepi. Mastic is the sap of the mastic tree, which grows in Greece. When the sap is dried it forms into a resin, which then is ground as used as a spice. It is quite pricey -- the container above cost about $13. Mahlepi, the item in the container to the right, is the seed kernel found in the stone of the St. Lucie cherry, which is then ground into a powder and used as a spice. The taste is similar to that of ground almonds. My mother-in-law said she used to ground the mahlepi using a mortar and pistol, but Titan Foods sold it pre-ground, saving me that step.
I searched for recipes online and selected the one that had both a good picture and easy-to-follow directions. Here is the link to the recipe I followed (the actual recipe will be included at the end of this post). Making the bread was not difficult, but it certainly was time consuming. From start to finish, it probably took at least four hours, including time for the dough to rise.

The first step is to activate the yeast in some warm milk. While that is happening (which usually takes about 10 minutes), I sifted together the flour, salt, mastic, and mahlepi. I decided to use bread flour, even though the recipe calls for all-purpose. It made the bread less dry with the added gluten. 
In a separate bowl, you then combine the melted butter, eggs, and orange zest. Once that is combined, you'll add in the yeast mixture.
The flour mixture is then added to the egg mixture and combined until a dough forms. I didn't use my Kitchen Aid, as it just seemed easier to mix by hand. Once the dough is formed, you'll kneed it for a few minutes on the counter.
After kneeding the dough, butter a cookie sheet (or a large glass bowl) and one side of a piece of plastic wrap. Set the dough on the sheet/in the bowl and cover with the plastic wrap, butter side down. The dough should rise for about two hours.
Divide the dough into three equal parts, to represent the Holy Trinity.
Using your hands, role each ball of dough into a rope. For one large loaf, role each rope to about 17 inches in length. If you're making the loaves smaller, you would have divided the  dough into six small balls and rolled each one to about 12 inches. Each rope should be about 1 1/2 inches thick.

The traditional bread usually has a red hardboiled egg added to the bread, which symbolizes the blood of Christ. The egg is not eaten and is only for decoration. I omitted the egg in my bread though.

Braid the ropes together on a cookie sheet, pinching the ends a bit to secure them. Use the same buttered plastic wrap and cover again, letting the dough rise for another hour.
Once the dough has risen, brush the top with an egg wash mixture and sprinkle slivered almonds on top (lightly pushing them into the dough).

The bread is then baked at 350 for about 30 minutes. The smell while the bread is baking will leave you intoxicated. The whole apartment smelled so good!
I made two batches of bread, one large loaf to take to my husband's family, and one batch of two smaller loaves, which I froze to eat later. I think the bread is amazing on its own, but my husband likes to put a bit of butter on it for a richer taste. The taste and texture of the bread reminds me of Challah bread, but with a tad sweeter taste from the mahlepi.
For the record, we bought a few loaves of the bread packaged at Titan Foods just in case my baking experiment didn't turn out as planned. After trying my bread and the one from Titan, my husband's family agreed mine was the better of the two. High praise coming from them! 

Here is the recipe I used, adapted from

Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread)

  • 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • 1 (1/4-ounce) packet active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 4 cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground mahlepi
  • 1/4 teaspoon pounded mastic gum
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest (from about 1 orange)
  • red-dyed hard-boiled egg (optional)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds

  1. In a small saucepan, heat 3/4 cup of the milk until warm to the touch but not hot. Transfer the warm milk to a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside for about 10-15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  1. Sift the flour, sugar, salt, mahlepi, and mastic together into a large bowl; set aside.
  1. In a small saucepan, melt 7 tablespoons of the butter. Let the butter cool, then transfer to a medium bowl. Add the eggs and orange zest and beat together. Stir the egg mixture into the yeast mixture until combined.
  1. Using a spoon, stir the flour mixture into the yeast-egg mixture until combined. Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, flouring your hands and the surface as needed, about 5-10 minutes.
  1. Coat a baking sheet and an 18-inch piece of plastic wrap with the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Set the dough on the baking sheet (or in a buttered class bowl) and cover it with the plastic wrap, butter side down. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
  1. Remove the plastic wrap and set it aside. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces (about 12 ounces each). Roll the pieces into 1-1/4-by-16-1/2-inch ropes. Pinch all 3 pieces together on one end to secure, then braid the ropes, entwining the red hard-boiled egg (if using) into the bread. Pinch the other end of the ropes together to secure the braid. Set the braided dough on the prepared baking sheet, cover with the buttered plastic wrap (butter side down), and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle.
  1. In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk and remaining 1 tablespoon milk. With a pastry brush, evenly brush the egg mixture over the risen dough, then sprinkle the almonds over top, pressing the nuts gently into the dough. Bake until the bread is browned and the internal temperature reaches 190°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 30 minutes. Let cool before serving. (Don't remove from the cookie sheet until cooled, or the bread may break!)

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