I wanted to make a traditional Greek Easter bread ‘tsoureki’ for the holiday because my father is Greek, and I know he misses the traditions of his family. The majority of his family is in Greece, on the beautiful island of Rhodes. We have a small family (here in Canada) and some of our Greek traditions have been forgotten. This Easter is the second time we won’t be able to get together here because of lock-down measures, so I wanted to do something for my dad to remind him of his home and family. And honestly what better way is there to remind you of home than through food?
I reached out to one of my cousins (in Greece) to obtain a family recipe a few weeks ago. I thought I might receive an attachment with the recipe, but to my surprise I received a hand written note via Whatsap. His mother in-law shared with him instructions on how to make this delicious Easter treat. I could tell it was a literal verbal translation (she doesn’t speak English, and my cousin does). This was so touching, and I was so very grateful to receive this. There were so many lovely and whimsical directions in the recipe such as, ‘use scrapes from one orange’ or ‘Kardamon half of a small spoon’ and ‘3 teardrops of mastic’. While the recipe does not fall into proper recipe development prose, this recipe was so carefully crafted and I will treasure it forever.
Despite the lovely prose, the recipe is straightforward, but there were two ingredients I
wasn’t familiar with, Mastic, and Mahleb and luckily I had received the recipe a few weeks ago, so this gave me time to find them. Google helped describe mastic is a resin obtained from a tree on the Greek island of Chios. It is ground into a powder and used this way in the recipe. Mahleb or Mahalepi is an aromatic spice made from the pit of a specific cherry. This too is ground to a powder. Its flavour is similar to a combination of bitter almond and cherry.
I debated if I should order from Amazon (what can’t you order from there??) but I decided to take a trip to Greektown in Toronto instead. I popped into a few shops and smaller bakeries to see if they had these ingredients, and was quickly directed to a well known, larger Greek bakery called Serrano. I’m a bit embarrassed I hadn’t heard of it before, but apparently this bakery has line ups for hours to get their Easter goodies, they are that good. They had so many specialty items from Greece and lots of amazing baked goods. If you go, you must try the melomakarona, and kourabiedes (a Christmas cookie), and of course the tsoureki!
I found the special ingredients I was looking for and was able to make the tsoureki without any issues. It was delicious. It is similar (in appearance only) to challah, but flavours were much more intense – citrusy with a hint of earthiness. It is very aromatic both while its baking and after it is fully cooled. It has a soft crumb, like a dinner roll right out of the oven, and a lovely chewy texture. While this was to be a gift for my dad, in the end, it was also a gift to me in many ways – from receiving the beautiful recipe, sourcing special ingredients, to sharing the results (it made 9 mini loaves) and in the process it has given me a closer connection to my Greek roots and culture, which I can now also share with my own family.
Helpful Hints: Start this recipe early because there are 2 stages of proofing and the entire recipe can take 5+ hours. This is a labour of love. This recipe makes 9 loaves, so be ready to share! Or you can safely cut this recipe in half. I have asterisked 2 items that you may have trouble finding. You can find these online or go to @serano bakery.
1200g all purpose flour + an extra 1 cup for the surface for kneading
250g melted unsalted butter
345g of warm water
345g of milk
24g of active dry yeast
1 ½ tsp mahlab*
1 tsp mastic*
1 tsp salt
½ tsp cardamom
Zest of one orange and ½ lemon
Almonds and sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
1 whisked egg + 1tbsp of milk for egg wash
In a stand mixer, add the warm water and yeast. Let this activate – roughly 5 mins. Meanwhile in another medium bowl gently whisk the eggs, melted butter, spices and zests. Once the yeast is activated, add the flour and salt, along with the wet ingredients. Mix with a bread hook on low for at least 5 minutes, and stop to scrape down the sides a few times. This is a lot of batter, so you will have to scrape down to the bottom of the bowl to make sure it gets well mixed. It should be a stretchy and sticky consistency once it is all incorporated. Have at least a cup of flour ready on your board. Dump out the batter onto a heavily floured surface. Add some flour slowly as you continue to knead the dough. As you incorporate more flour, you will see it start to loose its stickiness. This could take an additional 5 minutes of kneading and incorporating flour. You will know when it is done when it barely sticks to your hands or the surface. Next step is to cut the dough into 3 equal portions for proofing. Form each portion into a ball, grease each bowl with butter and place each dough ball into each bowl. Cover with a beeswax wrap (or plastic wrap) and let rest for 2-3 hours, or until the dough doubles in size.
Take one ball from its bowl and place on an unfloored surface. Divide it into 3 pieces. Place 2 of the piece to the side and work with just one at a time to make a braided loaf. I arrange the dough gently into a rectangular shape first, and then cut it into 3 equal strips. Arrange the strips in front of you and attach the 3 pieces furthest from you by gently squeezing them together. Carefully, place each piece over the next in a braid pattern, being carful not to pull to much and stretch the dough. When you get to the end, gently squeeze the ends together and tuck the end underneath, and tuck the top underneath. Place the completed braid on a parchment lined baking sheet and continue to do the other 2 loaves. Once the 3 loaves are done, cover lightly with a tea towel and rest for about an hour. Continue the steps above with the other 2 balls. In total you should have 9 loaves. Preheat the oven to 350’ and just before you put them in the oven, brush with the egg/milk wash and sprinkle sliced almonds or sesame seeds. Bake for approximately 30 mins until the crust looks a light mahogany colour. Let rest for about 20 minutes before you cut it, but I bet you won’t be able to wait!