I remember when I was a kid, people took Greek Easter far more seriously. Easter Thursday and Friday were mourning days and everything was shut, from grocery stores to restaurants. There was no TV and fasting for 40 days was the norm. As a kid with no religious aspirations at the time, surely I hated the fact I couldn’t watch TV for 2 days, but my greatest protest was not being able to eat “tsoureki” until Easter Sunday.
What can one say about this soft, brioche like braid, flavoured with the intense aroma of orange zest, mastic and mahleb? If this is considered to be a kind of “bread” then I would like a “tsoureki” toast every morning. It’s delicious plain or with a chocolate filling. Braiding is not my thing (mom of boys!) so it took me a few trials to get it right. What I realized in the process is that it doesn’t really matter if your braid is not perfect. Following a few tips (like weighing the dough before dividing it), helps ensure a more symmetrical braid, which will bake evenly. Whatever you do, this is a foolproof recipe of an amazing “tsoureki”.
For the dough:
- 1/3 cup milk, lukewarm
- 3 tsp (11 grams) dried active yeast
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 Tbs orange zest
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 medium mastic tears
- ½ tsp mahleb seeds
- 2 ½ – 2 ¾ cups unbleached bread flour
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ cup unsalted butter (115 grams), at room temperature
For baking the “tsoureki”
- 1 egg
- 2 Tbs milk
- Sliced almonds
Make the dough. In a medium bowl, mix the lukewarm milk with the yeast and one teaspoon of the sugar. Mix until yeast dissolves. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to stand for about 30 minutes. During this time, the mixture will puff up. If it doesn’t, it means the yeast is not active so discard and start over.
Crush to a powder in a mortar and pestle, the mastic tears and mahleb seeds with a teaspoon of sugar.
Lightly whisk the eggs and mix with the puffed up yeast-milk mixture (mixture will deflate and that’s ok). Add the orange zest and vanilla and mix again.
In a bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the dough hook, add the 2 ½ cups flour, sugar, ground mastic, mahleb and salt. Mix briefly and make a well in the centre. Add the egg mixture and soft butter and beat at medium speed for 10-15 minutes. The dough is ready when it leaves the sides of the bowl. If mixture is too sticky add some more flour until you have a soft dough.
Lightly oil a large bowl. Put in the dough and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for 2 hours, until double in size.
Make the braid.
Tip the puffed up dough on your work surface. Roll into a long rope (about 80 cm). Fold it in half and roll into a long rope again. Repeat 2 times more. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 35 cm roll. If dough stretches and you find it hard to roll, let it rest for 10 minutes and try again. Braid the dough following the instructions. Make sure that when you finish your bread, you will tuck under the edges.
Put the braided dough in a baking pan lined with “silpad” or greaseproof paper. Cover with a kitchen towel (not terry cloth). Leave to rest for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 175 C.
To bake the “tsoureki” mix together the egg with the milk. Brush the egg mixture on the “tsoureki” and sprinkle with sliced almonds if you like. Bake for 35-40 minutes. Let “tsoureki” cool completely before slicing.
Note: If you cant find mahleb seeds or mastic tears you can substitute vanilla and cinnamon. It won’t be a traditional Greek Easter bread any more but it will be one hell of a tasty, braided brioche!