Tσουρέκι – Traditional Greek Easter Bread
Most us will have devoured the last of the chocolate eggs from Easter by now but for the Greeks, Easter weekend is just starting. I have fond memories of Holy Thursday from the days when i lived in Thessaloniki. The women in our street would be dyeing eggs red and the sweet aroma of baking Tsoureki with mahlepi spice would fill each household.
Tsoureki (τσουρέκι in Greek) is the traditional sweet bread Greeks make every year on Holy Thursday and is eaten on Easter Sunday to break the Lenten fast. Tradition has it that the tsoureki symbolizes the Resurrection of Christ and rebirth in general as the flour is moulded into shape and takes life as it transforms into bread. Then, the red-dyed egg that is usually placed on top symbolizes the blood of Jesus.
This bread was traditionally prepared with an essence drawn from the seeds of Mediterranean wild cherries, called mahlepi (μαχλέπι in Greek). The wild cherry tree is native to Asia Minor and the spice is very popular in holiday breadmaking. The kernels either have to be ground or boiled as an infusion and strained to obtain the most flavour, it can be purchased from most reputable ethnic grocery stores.
Like many yeast breads, these loaves require two risings, so take this into consideration when planning to bake. The finished product is beautiful to look at and delicious to eat. I like to eat it most for breakfast, gently warmed with lashings of butter and washed down with an ice cold glass of milk.
Καλό Πάσχα – Happy Easter!
14g active dried yeast (2 sachets)
1kg strong white flour
350g golden caster sugar
100g ground almonds
1 teaspoon salt
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons mahlepi or finely ground anise seed
60g melted butter
5 eggs, very well beaten
1 egg yolk
2 -3 tablespoons milk
50g flaked almonds
- Warm the milk and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the yeast, 135g of the flour, and 50g of the sugar. Cover and proof for one hour.
- In a separate large bowl, combine 800g of flour, (reserve 65g flour for kneading and flouring the work surface) the ground almonds, salt, remaining sugar, orange rind, mahlepi or ground anise seed. Make a well in the centre. Add the yeast mixture, melted butter and eggs. Work from the centre outwards, bringing flour into the well, stirring the mixture until a dough begins to form.
- Dust a worksurface with a little of the remaining flour and knead the dough, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough is smooth and doesn’t stick to your hands. Knead for about 12 minutes.
- Place the dough 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.
- Divide into six small balls and roll each into strips 12-15 inches long, and about 2 inches in diameter. 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 two red-dyed eggs between the strips of the braid or just leave the braided loaf plain. NB Please ensure that edible dye is used to colour the eggs.
- Repeat the procedure to make the second loaf.
- Place the braided dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover and allow to rise for two hours, or until doubled in bulk. While the braids are rising, preheat oven to Gas 4 / 360F /180°C placing rack on lower shelf of oven.
- Beat together the egg yolk and remaining milk. Brush over tsoureki loaves and sprinkle with flaked almonds or sesame seeds.
- Bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown. Hint: Check the sweet bread after about 15 minutes as they do tend to colour quickly and drape them with aluminium foil to prevent excess browning.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool on cooling rack. Test the sweet bread is cooked by tapping the base of the bread, it should sound hollow when tapped.