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. As always when using sourdough in your bread recipe, the dough requires long time to rise. Particularly for tsoureki, the long fermentation period comes with an extra advantage that is the lack of requirement to hand-knead the dough too much in the beginning. Time will simply do the job and allow the dough to develop its gluten structure which is required for a soft bread at the end.
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
600g strong bread flour *
150g active sourdough **
100g sugar ***
100g eggs (roughly 2 eggs of medium size) plus an extra egg for the egg wash
zest from a big orange
aromatic spices ****
sesame seeds for topping (optional)
* Use a flour with with a protein content more than12.5% .
** 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 equal amount of flour and water twice a day.
*** This amount of sugar makes the bread enough sweet for my preference. If you have a sweet tooth you might want to add some more.
**** A combination of ground mahleb (10g), mastic (2g), and cardamom (1g). 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 eggs, the sugar, the salt, the milk, the spices, the orange zest, and the sourdough. Mix using an egg beater.
(The milk and the eggs should be at room temperature and for sure not cold)
- Add the flour and the butter. Mix with a spatula or by hand until flour is well incorporated and a shaggy mash is formed. It will be very sticky. Do not work it further, just cover the bowl and let it rest for half an hour.
(The butter can be added melted but should not be hot)
- After the resting time the dough should be more coherent and easier to work. Transfer it onto a lightly floured surface and start kneading it by hand, using some stretch-and-fold motions. Knead for a 5-10 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 a clean, slightly oiled bowl, cover it and let it ferment in a warm place for 6-10 hours, until it becomes at least 2 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)
- Once risen, scrape out carefully the dough onto an oiled surface. Split it into two equal parts. Divide each piece in two or three smaller pieces, depending on how many braids you want to make.
(Instead of flour, I lubricate the working surface with oil to avoid sticking)
- Roll out each piece into a long 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 nicely)
- Place the shaped tsourekia 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.
(To speed up this stage you can transfer them inside the oven together with a pot of boiling water that will create steam)
- Preheat your oven at 180 °C using the basic (up and down) heating function. Using a soft brush apply the egg-wash (a beaten egg) onto the surface of each dough, carefully enough so as to avoid deflating them. 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).
- When ready to bake, transfer the tray into the oven and decrease the temperature to 160 °C. Bake for ca. 45 min, until the tsourekia obtain a deep goldern-brown crust. Remove them from the oven, place them on a rack and let them cool down for an hour before cutting them.