Either pull, or slice
Tsoureki is the traditional Greek Easter bread.
Easter in Greece is a worth living experience, especially if you can be part of a family or a group of locals so that you get to know some of the numerous customs and traditions. Most of the time it coincides with the entry into Spring and people take advantage of the good weather to visit the villages and enjoy the countryside. Easter has a strong spiritual and religious component and Greeks follow the rituals during the Holy Week in commemoration of Christ’s Passions, and then they celebrate His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
It is on that day that an abrupt change takes place in the eating habits of most people. That is because the Holy Week is the last week of the so-called Great Fast, the most important fasting season in the Eastern Orthodox Church that lasts for forty days. During that time, mostly driven by religious beliefs, but not only, people are deprived of animal products. If we put it in modern terms, they become vegans for 40-days. However, the majority goes vegan only for the last week, following in a sense day-by-day the passions of Christ, until the moment of resurrection finally arrives. Then, with the switch of a button, we go from the Great Fast to the Great Feast. The Greek Easter table fills by itself a big chapter in our culinary tradition and is characterised by exaggeration and deliciousness. It can send you to heaven, so well as to the hospital!
The undoubtful king regarding the sweet side of the table is the Easter bread, known as tsoureki. It is baked traditionally at home during Easter but it can be found in bakeries throughout the year. Similar breads are found in many countries, all over the world. Most of them have the characteristic braided appearance, with the braids varying in number, and folded in various, simpler or more elaborate ways.
This braided pattern gives to the bread not only its typical look but also a unique crust structure and texture, with threads of baked dough that can be pulled apart by hand and eaten as such.
Tsoureki, as well as other Easter breads, has a deep golden-brown crust due to the egg-wash that is normally applied before baking. In Greece, it is toped usually with either very thin slices of almond or with sesame seeds.
The recipes for all Easter breads are slight variations of a typical brioche dough. That is an enriched dough containing, except flour, eggs, milk, butter, and sugar.
Because of all these components, the dough comes out relatively heavy and tacky and makes hand-kneading quite difficult. It is a type of dough that develops better by using the dough hook of a machine. If you go by hand, be prepared for a full 15-min kneading period.
The recipe asks for baker’s yeast as a leaving agent, which works well for a heavy and strong dough that requires lots of carbon dioxide to rise. However, a healthy and active sourdough starter can do the job equally well.
What differentiates Greek tsoureki from other Easter breads are the aromatic spices in the dough that contribute to the characteristic flavor and aroma of the baked product. There are several that are typically used, either in combination or separately. Mahlepi (Mahleb) is always there. It comes from the seeds of a cherry species and it gives the characteristic aroma to tsoureki, a kind of combination between bitter cherry and almond. Then, most recipes contain Mastiha (Mastic). This is a resin product coming from the homonymous tree, which is grown solely on the island of Chios. It is used in lower amounts than mahleb because it has an intense flavor that can turn bitter if too much is added. Finally, sometimes ground cardamom seeds can be also added into the mix.
Even though the recipe stays more or less the same, the types of tsoureki that you find in Greece are mainly two. The first is super soft, light and spongy so that the knife cannot find any resistance and cannot cut through. To eat this tsoureki, you have simply to pull apart by hand chunks of dough, revealing the characteristic structure made of long and thin threads.
To get this style of tsoureki, you assemble a dough that is relatively softer or has a higher liquid-to-flour ratio compared to the standard. Additionally, something that worked perfectly for me is to bake the tsoureki within a bain-marie setup as to have constantly some steam in the oven that prevents the crust from forming.
The second type, known as politiko tsoureki, originates from the Greeks living in the previous century in Turkey. After coming back to settle in Greece they brought with them a whole culinary tradition that makes up a big part of the modern Greek food culture. Politiko tsoureki is denser and feels more like a proper bread. This, you slice it up with a knife and eat it as such. It is richer in flavor and in its modern versions can be found glazed on top with layers of dark or white chocolate.
Whichever type of tsoureki you get to eat or you try to bake, the only thing I can guarantee you is to feel pleasantly overwhelmed by the amazing aromas from the spices.
Taking also into account the mild sweetness of the bread itself, you will probably finish it up in no time, no matter how big it is!
for two medium-size tsourekia
600 gr bread white flour *
150 gr active sourdough **
100 gr sugar ***
60 gr extra-virgin olive oil ****
270 gr milk
2 eggs for the dough plus 1 for the egg-wash
4 gr salt
zest from a big orange
aromatic spices *****
sesame seeds for topping
* Use a flour with at least 12% protein content.
** Be sure that your sourdough is highly bubbly and active. Ideally, grow it beforehand for a couple of days at room temperature, doing a feeding with new flour and water twice a day.
*** This amount of sugar makes the bread enough sweet for my preference. Adjust accordingly to your sweet tooth.
**** The classic tsoureki as well as brioche recipe uses butter. Here, I use olive oil because I love it and I have it always in abundance.
***** A combination of ground mahleb, mastic, and cardamom. Personally, I do not like to use all of them together, but either only one or maximum two at the same time.
- In a large bowl add the flour, milk, eggs, olive oil, sugar, salt, ground spices, and orange zest. Mix with a fork or by hand until most flour is incorporated. Continue with your hand until a shaggy dough is formed.
(The milk and the eggs should not be cold).
- Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured surface and start kneading by hand. If the dough feels too sticky, add some more flour but not too much. Knead for a good 15-min until a firm, pliable and shiny dough forms that it does not stick to your hands.
(Tsoureki dough is strong and heavy and needs good muscles. Take some short brakes during kneading. This way the dough relaxes and you can knead it easier. The whole process gets much easier if you use instead a machine with the dough hook attached).
- Transfer the dough back into the slightly oiled bowl, cover it and let it ferment in a warm place for 5-8 hours, until it gets roughly 1.5 times its original volume.
(The dough is heavy and it takes more time than a typical bread dough to rise. Therefore, be patient and let the dough to rise nicely and to bounce slowly back when poked with the finger).
- Once risen, scrape out carefully the dough onto an oiled surface. Split it into three or more equal parts depending on how many braids you like.
(Instead of flour, I lubricate well the working surface with olive oil to avoid sticking. I oil also my hands).
- Using oiled hands, shape each piece (for 3 braids) into a ca. 40cm-long - 5 cm in diameter rope. If it gets too elastic and bounces back during shaping, let it relax for a few minutes and start again.
- Braid the ropes using a technique or style you fancy. Check this video for ideas.
(Do not braid too tight so as there is a room to rise).
- Place the shaped tsoureki on a baking tray or into a loaf tin, cover with a clean, wet towel or plastic film and let it rise again for a couple of hours or until it rises roughly by 1/3.
- When ready to bake, preheat your oven at 160 °C (set to fan) and using a soft brush apply the egg-wash (a beaten egg) carefully as not to deflate the dough. Sprinkle some sesame seeds if you fancy.
(Depending on how dark color you want on the crust, you can apply the egg-wash a couple of times. If so, let it dry for 4-5 min before each application).
- Bake for ca. 45 min, until nicely golden-brown. Remove it from the oven, place it on a rack and let it cool down for an hour before enjoying it.