IT HAS RISEN. It has risen indeed. And it’s damn good, if I say so myself.
Some background: the Greek in me simply does not consider it a proper Easter without a loaf of Tsoureki on the table. Pronounced “soo-REH-kee,” this festival bread is similar to challah with its sweet, eggy, cake-like charms. I have been buying mine from Greek bakeries for years, and I confess that there have been plenty of times when this ritual (buying two loaves because I can never resist tearing into one before I get home) has been the closest I’ve gotten to celebrating with the Orthodox, whose holiday usually does not coincide with Easter in the West, which is what my immediate family celebrates. For those of you who have wondered why Western and Orthodox Easter are not observed on the same date each year, this is because the Orthodox use the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian (current civil) Calendar. The date of Orthodox Easter is defined as the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox (fixed at March 21, regardless of astronomical accuracy). This year, though, it’s easy: 2010 is one of the relatively rare years in which the two Easter dates coincide. So, Tsoureki all around, I say.
Now, I don’t know if you’re the same, but my guess is that you can relate to the following. You discover a great product (be it a loaf of bread or an incredible dish at your neighborhood restaurant, or something having nothing to do with food), and, rather quickly, you develop some measure of loyalty to the item. So much so that—especially when life gets hectic and you are in need of shortcuts—you come to find impossible the notion that you would ever make the thing yourself. Why bother? You are pretty sure you could not improve upon your cherished bread/dish/object anyway, so you save yourself the effort of trying. In the case of Tsoureki, I have two fabulous go-to bakeries here in New York: the tried-and-true, no-frills Poseidon Bakery in Manhattan (complete with packages of handmade phyllo for sale in the freezer and a framed photo of Olympia Dukakis behind the counter) and the more upscale yet completely authentic Artopolis, decked out in Athenian marble and located (where else?) in Astoria.
Have you guessed my guilty secret? Until now, I have never made my own Tsoureki. Me, the baker; the lover of sweet breads; the advocate of kitchen work from scratch. I confess I get a bit intimidated by yeast.
This year, though, despite being busier than ever—or perhaps because of this—I’ve developed a need to knead. As this Holy Week approached, I found myself with a hankering for the kind of pushing, pulling, kneading, punching, and rolling that can only be afforded by homemade, yeasted bread. I resolved to develop my own recipe for Tsoureki; to stick close to the traditional, but to have some fun of my own as well. This post is the result.
The picture above is a bit misleading, though. It looks like a lovely braided wreath, doesn’t it? Tradition dictates that Tsoureki is braided in three strands: one strand each to represent the aspects of the Christian Trinity. Each strand is separate, yet together they form a unified whole. The circular shape is common, but you also see elongated loaves. I thought the crown shape was more symbolic and just plain prettier, and I’d seen an old recipe from an Orthodox women’s club cookbook that suggested using a round pan to do the shaping; that seemed like a good idea.
Well, what started out as a plaited, crown-shaped loaf expanded quickly into a solid, high-rise dome of fused dough. It is probably this very life-of-its-own, breathing, growing quality to yeast that has given me so much pause over the years. I have had visions of bubbly bread dough spilling out from under my carefully placed dishtowels. In the nightmare version, I leave the dough to rise overnight and then wake to find myself smothered by its warm, amorphous body; a body that exudes a tangy, fermented aroma. Psychoanalyze if you must. Tell me I’m a control freak. Whatever. The reality, though, is that I’ve managed to leave my fears behind. Perhaps I should have just put the bread ring on a regular baking sheet; maybe it would have held its shape better had I given it more space than the confines of my nine-inch springform. And yet—I like the look of this loaf. I like its height, its hulk, its Frankenstein quality. I like that it did not conform to my expectations (at least in terms of its appearance), and that I can therefore think of it as representing human experience. The taste, I am happy to report, is still divine. Another asset to my hyperactive loaf is that its slices will work even better for french toast once the bread dries out, which Tsoureki does easily and without fail, if you have any left over. (Watch this blog in coming days to find out what else you can do with dry Tsoureki.)
My duty is done. This year for Easter, I can be the proud half-Greek matron with her homemade Tsoureki. My grandmother would be proud. I will have to bake another loaf, of course, as this one has been demolished already, but there are worse things. The process of making my own recipe—thumbing through traditional cookbooks to discover common elements, picking out the “musts” and the “maybes” of my culinary heritage—has afforded me much joy this past week. Never mind that I’m not supposed to be eating any of this during Holy Week, when Orthodox “fasting” is at its peak; I long ago gave up the pretense that this would be the year I’d attempt to follow those rules. This sweet bread, braided with thoughts of what it means to be human and to have some sense of a life and spirit beyond the self (elusive, as the workings of yeast still are to me) . . . well, it’s put me in the right frame of mind for Easter, and also for the more secular appreciation of renewed life that comes each spring. Whatever you celebrate this week, I hope you have the same feelings of abundance and rising spirits. And I hope you decide to give Tsoureki a try.
Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread)
This sweet bread, with a taste and texture similar to challah, is enjoyed by Greek Orthodox Christians every Easter, and also throughout the year. The ingredients and flavors for Tsoureki can vary, sometimes including cinnamon and cloves (those ubiquitous spices of Greek baked goods), sometimes not. Orange zest and/or orange juice is used, and the sprinkling of slivered almonds (or sesame seeds) across the top of the loaf is common. Elevating the bread to its proper status as a special, festival loaf is the prized ingredient mastiha, a resin exuded only by the mastic or lentisk trees on the Greek island of Chios in the Agean. Using mastiha is optional, but it lends the Tsoureki a subtle, seductive aroma that calls to mind a world of church ritual, mystery, and exoticism. Here I’ve cast off the heavier spices in favor of the subtler, brighter flavors of mastiha and orange, adding my own touch with candied orange peel—something you are unlikely to find in other recipes. Again, the mastiha is optional, so don’t let it discourage you from making this light and lovely loaf. (If you do wish to try it, you’ll find notes about where to purchase mastiha at the bottom of the recipe.) Tsoureki dries out quickly, so be sure to store it wrapped tightly in plastic or sealed in an airtight container, especially once it’s been sliced. If by some miracle you end up with leftover Tsoureki, you can use it to make fabulous french toast.
Yield: 1 loaf
1 cup milk
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon mastiha powder or medium-sized “tears” (optional; see note)
grated zest of 1/2 orange
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 envelope (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1 Tablespoon fresh orange juice
2 large eggs, beaten very well
1/4 cup candied orange peel, diced fine
1/4 cup golden raisins
olive oil for greasing bowls and pans
1/8 cup light cream or milk for glaze
1/8 teaspoon sugar, for glaze
1/4 cup slivered almonds, for garnish
Over low heat, warm the milk. Add the butter and stir until completely melted. Let cool.
In a large bowl, place 1 cup of the flour together with 1 teaspoon of the sugar and the mastiha. (If using mastiha “tears,” see note; you’ll first pulverize these together with the teaspoon of sugar in a mortar and pestle.) Add orange zest, salt, and yeast and combine well. Add the cooled milk and butter. Mix, then cover with a clean dishcloth and let sit in a warm place for 20 minutes, until the mixture is bubbly.
When the yeast mixture is bubbly, incorporate the remaining sugar, orange juice, eggs, candied orange peel, and raisins. Gradually add the remaining flour, mixing until a soft dough is formed. It should be smooth and elastic. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead well for about 5 minutes. Place the dough in a large, clean bowl coated with olive oil; turn the dough to coat it on all sides. Cover again and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 1-1/2 hours. The dough should double in size.
Knead the dough again, then cut it into three equal portions. Roll each portion into a rope about 30 inches long. This will take some coaxing, as the ropes will contract due to the elastic nature of the dough. Lay the ropes out vertically in front of you, pinch together at the top, then braid. Be careful not to braid too tightly; you want the dough to have breathing room. If desired, form the braid into a circle and tuck or weave the ends together. Otherwise, leave the loaf as a long, straight shape. Place onto an oiled baking sheet or in an oiled, round pan (9 inches or more in diameter; I used a 9-inch pan and you see what happened to my wreath shape). Cover again and let rise once more, 30-40 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375F.
When the loaf has risen, bake for 20 minutes. While bread is in the oven, combine the cream (or milk) with the sugar and mix well to make a glaze. After the 20 minutes, remove the bread from the oven (do not turn the oven off!) and use a pastry brush to paint the top with the glaze, then sprinkle on the slivered almonds. Place the bread back in the oven to bake for another 20 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped. Transfer to a rack to cool completely. Remember to store wrapped tightly in plastic (use a large ziplock bag or a plastic bag with a twist-tie), or keep in another airtight container to prevent drying out.
A Note on Using Mastiha:
Mastiha can be purchased already in powdered form, in a liquid essence, or as raw crystals or “tears” (medium-size is best for general cooking and baking). If you are working with mastiha tears in this recipe, grind 1/2 teaspoon of mastiha in a mortar and pestle along with the 1 teaspoon of sugar that you add to the yeast. You want to make as fine a powder as possible. Combining it with the sugar will prevent the resin from becoming too sticky. It also helps to freeze the tears ahead of time; the more frozen the tears, the more easily you’ll turn them to powder. You can purchase mastiha tears, powder, essence, or prepared foods featuring this ingredient from: MastihaShop at http://www.mastihashopny.com/