It is the Holy Week in Greece and there’s a different food-related tradition almost every day. But I am not here today to talk to you about these. I am here to talk to you about Tsoureki.
Tsoureki is a brioche-type bread we eat a lot in Greece. It is a favorite for breakfast, with your coffee, soaked in milk for dinner, or smeared with Nutella, jams, with feta, butter, oh wow, I can’t think of anything that doesn’t go perfectly with tsoureki.
The sad thing is that it is pretty fattening – and hard on your stomach, if you’re as sensitive as I am. But once you’ve tried it, you can’t go back.
Good tsoureki is difficult to achieve, and store-bought quality is almost impossible. I swear I don’t know WHAT they do, but home-made tsoureki is always different. The great part of this is that, it’s ok. Every type of tsoureki has a certain magic to it and, believe me, it works!
Every year, Greeks make tsoureki during the Holy Week and the kids bring it to their godparents, in order to get their presents (usually clothes) and their candles for Resurrection night. One of the things that brings the most memories is the very distinctive smell of tsoureki everywhere, in our homes, out on the streets, inside cars (it can get EVERYWHERE!) during Holy Week. It always takes me to my happy place.
This year my nephew visited and myself and my mom made tsoureki at my place for the first time. Let me tell you, though, trying to start a memory bank for a 3-year-old that really really REALLY wants a garbage truck for Easter is not an easy thing! :D
At least the tsoureki turned out great!
Disclaimer: Although I will post photos of our tsoureki, I will also post photos of a store-bought tsoureki, so that you will recognize them when you visit Greece. That is because, well, let’s face it, me and my mom? We are not really what you’d call “tsoureki artists”! Oh, and we completely forgot to add sesame or shaved almonds on top before baking them, do that, it gives it a different look (it doesn’t change the taste much, though).
Usually, we don’t say “I’m making tsoureki”, but “making tsourekia” (that’s the plural of the word). It is almost a whole-day process and involves making a massive amount of tsourekia, that will probably go uneaten by the end of the holidays – there’s only so much tsoureki one can eat, no matter how good or honest their intentions, right? The traditional recipes yield maybe 10 loafs each and require about 10 eggs or something. We all know by now that I am allergic to eggs, so my good mom tried to minimize the damage and adjusted the recipe to our needs. The recipe that follows yields about 3 tsourekia (that’s how many we got, anyway) and uses only 3 eggs, which was good because I didn’t have to handle too many of them and didn’t have a reaction (haven’t had one yet, at least!).
One more thing: we used the oven baking sheet and a round baking dish for our tsourekia, because we didn’t have the appropriate utensils. If you have anything like the photos that follow, use it. If not, remember it is perfectly ok to put your tsourekia on a baking sheet, just remember to leave space between them, because they do spread!
So, here’s what you’ll need:
60 gr. fresh yeast (by “fresh” I mean “not dry” –keep it cold so it can crumble)
2 Tb sugar (or 40 gr)
80 gr warm water
1 kg flour (if you can find tsoureki-specific flour, that would be great, but common flour will do just fine) plus more if you need some
350 ml full-fat milk
250 gr. butter
300 gr. sugar
1 tsp ground mahlab (mahlep? We call it “mahlepi” in Greece)
1 tsp cardamom
1 more egg
About 1 Tb olive oil
Some butter for the baking sheets
Here’s what you need to do:
First things first: Heat your oven to 50 degrees Celsius. When it is heated, turn it off and keep the door shut. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the 2 Tb of sugar, cover with some cling film and put it in the oven. Cute little trick to activate the yeast, yay!
While this is in the oven, put the butter in a small pan and melt it, along with the sugar. Do not boil it or any of this, actually do not boil anything while making tsoureki – we don’t want that. While the sugar and the butter are sloooowly melting, put the milk in another small pot and heat that too (not too much, like I said, just heat it through) and place the flour, the mastic, the mahlab and the cardamom in a large bowl.
When everything is heated and melted, make a small well in the middle of the flour and pour your liquids in there, including the yeast – which must be foaming by now.
Mix everything together with your hands and work the dough with your hands for a few minutes. What you have there is a very very sticky dough. You don’t need to work it much, just until it is all in one piece and soft. The dough needs to be a little sticky. If you feel that there’s something wrong with it, that it is waaaaaaay too sticky or runny, add some more flour. Really, trust yourselves as cooks – and if you do something wrong, really, who’s going to know? ;)
Transfer the dough in a pretty large bowl (I used a large pot), cover it with cling film and leave it in a warm place for about 2 hours, until it triples in size (we heated the oven – 50 degrees – once again and put it in there).
When it has tripled in size, empty the dough on a floured surface and divide it in two or three parts, depending on how many tsourekia you want. We had three. At this point you can weave the tsourekia or shape them if you want. My mom and I made braids: three long dough strips, you join them at the top and braid them, like hair. Use your imagination, but remember that tsourekia are always meant to be braided! In Greece, we also place a (red) dyed egg on top of the braid, or at the center, if you braid it and put it in a circular pan. Be warned, it will rise in the oven, much like a cake!
Didn’t use parchment paper for this one – the third – because we were out. It didn’t matter one bit. It did grow a lot in the oven, though! A. Lot!
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius (the fan function). Butter the sheets and cover them with parchment paper. Place the tsourekia on the sheets and leave them there, for another ten minutes, to rise even more. Remember to leave some space between them. If they don’t all fit on the sheets, well… batches! :D
This is how we left ours to rise. That there is the oven door, open. There’s heat coming out, but the oven is not on, just hot.
Once the oven is heated and the tsourekia well risen, mix the egg and the oil, brush your tsourekia, and put them in the oven for 40 minutes. At the bottom of your oven place a small tray or pan filled with water. That is supposed to make your tsourekia shiny.
Down there, in the darkness, you can see the water – thingy.
What you are looking for is a dark brown – black at places color. Before you take them out, stick a knife at the center of the tsoureki, to make sure it’s done.
This is the tsoureki that was up there, it expanded and rose so much that the baking sheet could not contain it! It even incorporated a small cookie we had placed on the side, made from what was left of the dough, you can see it there, on the bottom left.
After you take them out, let them cool a little and them turn them on their head, on a different tray or plate, so that the bottoms don’t get soggy.
Enjoy them a million different ways! And happy Easter all!
This is what a store bought tsoureki looks like. It looks better, but the taste is pretty much the same!
This is my table after working the dough on it. I had to use a wooden spatula to clean it!