Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Greek Easter bread - tsoureki (Τσουρέκι)

As if the koulourakia and red eggs are not enough, Greek Easter is not complete without tsoureki, the sweet bread-like cake shaped in twists and rounds with a red egg tucked into it for decoration. We make it (or buy it) because it's all part of our heritage, even though we know we cannot eat the quantity of food that we have prepared during the pre-Easter preparations. But we still make it, or at least buy it, to decorate our Easter table, to make it look more lavish. It's only once a year, as the saying goes.

Tsourekia are usually made in the Holy Week, when housewives (whether employed outside the home or not) prepare all the festive cuisine in readiness for Easter Sunday. As tsoureki is a kind of tea bun (albeit in XL size), I can make one of these now that the banana cake has run out, and there are still hungry people breakfasting in our house in the morning before they go to school or work.

Like vasilopita (New Year's cake), there are two types or tsoureki: the cake type and the bread type. I prefer the bread type, which is also called lambropsomo. The tsoureki that I like most is one that has a distinct smell that in Greece is associated only with tsoureki, and only at Easter. In Hania, masticha, mahlepi and bahari (all Greek names of the spices used; click on the links to see what they look like) are only used during festive times, to make festive breads and biscuits; it's only natural that we associate these spices with special periods of the year. I've previously used mahlepi in my New Year's cake (vasilopita), and I have also used masticha in making kourambiedes, a Christmas sweet.

The basic recipe is given by UKTV. It makes a small batch of tsoureki, although most Greek housewives will make a large batch to share around the neighbourhood, as they do with koulourakia. That's a good way to find out who makes the best tsoureki in the area. Given the over-abundance of food in our lives, and the excesses that are implemented when it comes to filling the festive table, I know that most tsoureki and koulourakia presents actually become expensive and carbon-footprint-laden chicken feed, especially in a suburban village like the one I live in. I prefer to keep my cooking among family members, who are just as critical as the neighbours! I have made some alterations to it so as to suit the taste preferences of my family, in addition to my attempt to use local products; for example, I use olive oil, while the original recipe stated butter. The spices in the original recipe were all ground; I use whole spices steeped in the liquid that is to be used in the tsoureki. In that way, I smell the spices in the bread, but I don't taste them. Who'd want to taste gritty masticha or crunchy mahlep, anyway?

To make a large loaf (or two small loaves), you need:
5 cups of strong white flour (the kind used in pastry making, rather than the kind used to make cakes; I am lucky to be able to buy organically produced flour)
3/4-1 cup of sugar (in yeasty bread dough, you don't want too much sugar; it makes the dough too 'heavy')
100g olive oil (the original recipe uses butter; I clearly remember my mother using a mixture of the two)
2 eggs
15g salt
25g dried yeast
150ml water
150ml milk
the juice of 2 oranges
grated zest of 2 oranges
1 teaspoon of whole mahlepi OR: 1 teaspoon of whole bahari (using both may not be a good combination of aroma; I used bahari, and not mahleb)
1 teaspoon of whole masticha crystals
1 small stick of cinnamon
another 3-5 cups of flour
beaten egg, preferably only the yolk, for the glaze
1-3 hard-boiled eggs, dyed red, for decoration

Pour the water and milk in a small saucepan and add the whole spices. Let them warm up without boiling. When the liquid cools, leave it overnight in the fridge for the spices to infuse. In a mixing bowl place the first 5 cups of flour, sugar, salt, yeast and orange zest, and pour in the strained milk and water, orange juice, beaten eggs and oil (and or melted butter, if using). The original recipe used sultanas - I've never seen any tsoureki with sultanas in it, unless it's the newfangled Athenian master chef variety. (Candied peel is used, as are slivered almonds, usually pasted on the outside over the egg for decorating purposes, but not sultanas.) Mix everything in together into a scented batter. When all the ingredients are incorporated (if they are all at room temperature, this will be easy), let the dough rise in a warm dark place - you can even leave it overnight at this point.

After the batter has risen, punch it down. You will notice how easily it comes away from the bowl. Add the extra flour cup by cup, kneading the dough into a smooth elastic ball. Add enough flour to make a soft dough. To make the classic plait design of tsoureki, divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Form the dough into three 'strands' and plait together to form a 3-strand plait-shaped loaf. You can also shape the dough into circles, or simply twist a long strand of dough into a plait with two strands rather than three. Greek bakers are deft at creating novel, more intricate tsoureki shapes every year; there's probably going to be a contest for the longest, biggest, Guinness book of world records tsoureki ever made!

Place the finished tsoureki on an oiled baking tin. Let it rise for no more than an hour - if you leave it longer, it might rise too much and the finished product will be 'holey' bread! Brush it with beaten egg. Place the boiled dyed eggs in its middle, pressing their bases into the dough. Bake the loaf in a moderate-hot oven for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Many housewives still carry on an old tradition of taking their Easter (and Christmas) baking to the local baker's to be cooked, in a wood-fired oven, and insist that there is no other way to cook tsoureki. (For me, this is just another way to use up more petrol - a conventional oven does a fine job!) The tsoureki is ready when you tap it on the back and you get a hollow echo. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

You'll notice that my braid had to be twisted, due to the size of the baking tin (my bigger one was full of koulourakia - again). During the last rise, one of the braids broke away. (My second tsoureki baking day was more successful - the red eggs were dyed using yellow onion skins.) Perfect tsoureki is not in the appearance; it's in the taste. It's the inside that counts, not the outside! The eggs are not dyed - I refuse to put unnatural substances into the food my family eats. In any case, when the children come home from school, they can have a go at decorating the eggs themselves. And if you do find that you can't eat the amount you've made, this bread freezes very well individually sliced; when you want to eat or serve some, let it defrost, and it's ready to eat. Alternatively, it goes really well as toasted bread.

hot cross bun tsoureki

I used the same recipe to make tsoureki in 2009, using Peter G's idea of mixing the hot cross bun shape with the traditional Greek Easter bread, and the result revived my nostalgic feelings for Wellington, where I was born.

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