For us Greeks, Pascha (Easter) will be this Sunday. Lent is finally in its last days and comes at the end of the week, the whole country will be roasting lamb on a spit or in the oven and eating kokoretsi. After Easter lunch, the tsoureki will make its appearance.
I have been meaning to post about tsoureki for the past couple of years but I never got around to it. Thankfully, this year I prepared it just in time and I can share it with all of you. Tsoureki is a sweet, braided, Greek Easter yeast bread that is traditionally made on Holy Thursday (along with the dyeing of the Easter eggs) and eaten on Easter Sunday. It is made with eggs and sugar and it is flavoured with mastiha (a mastic-tree resin from the Greek island of Chios) and mahlepi, a highly aromatic spice made from the seeds of wild cherry trees.
Every family in Greece has their own recipe for tsoureki and of course, my family has its own. Our version is called Politiko tsoureki (Politiko refers to the type of Greek cuisine I grew up with, of which you can read all about here) and it is one of two types of Greek tsoureki. The second type, called simply tsoureki, bears a strong similarity to brioche, having a very soft and stringy texture and is customarily sprinkled with blanched slivers of almond before baking.
The Politiko tsoureki is by far the best of the two in my opinion, but of course, I’m biased. This is the tsoureki I grew up with; this is the tsoureki my grandmother taught me to make; this is the only tsoureki for me. No, this is not a wannabe brioche bread, it is the authentic Politiko tsoureki. There mustn’t be confusion between the two.
Politiko tsoureki is a slightly dense and chewy sweet bread with a beautiful brown semi-soft crust. It’s not overly sweet, it has a rich and full flavour of mahlepi and mastiha, and just before baking, it is glazed with a mixture of egg and milk and sprinkled with lots of sesame seeds. When you put it in the oven, the intense aroma of all the sweet spices permeates the house and disappears only after the last piece of tsoureki has been consumed. That characteristic smell always makes me miss my home and family.
This is for all of you out there who long for this type of tsoureki and of course for those of you who have yet to discover its wonderful flavour. Have fun making it!
Kalo Pascha (Happy Easter) to all my fellow Greeks and to everyone who will be celebrating Easter this Sunday!
Politiko Tsoureki – Greek Easter Sweet Bread
This tsoureki will last at least 3-4 days in top shape, without getting hard or stale or dry. The flavor will actually improve and it will be even more delicious as days pass.
Some useful tips about tsoureki baking:
- Don’t buy pre-ground mahlepi. The taste and smell can’t be compared to that of freshly ground mahlepi which is by far superior.
- The same goes for mastiha.
- Use hard-wheat bread flour. This type of flour has a higher protein content 12-14% and more gluten, which helps the tsoureki rise and hold its shape and elasticity.
- Use fresh yeast; don’t be afraid of it. It will give more flavor to the tsoureki and a better rise.
- If you have a stand mixer, don’t waste your time kneading the dough by hand. The dough for the Politiko tsoureki is a stiff dough that needs a lot of muscle to handle. If you need the workout then go for it.
- The dough should not be wet; it should not be sticking to your hands. It must be firm, pliable with a shiny and smooth texture.
- Allow the dough to rise properly. Don’t rush it. Leave it in a warm place but not in, near, in front, or on top of your oven or radiator. Wait patiently for it to rise. It may take 3 to 4 hours.
- Make sure you leave the dough to rise in a draft-free place.
- When you start shaping the ropes for the braided tsoureki, the dough shouldn’t be sticking at all to your hands. If by any chance it does, sprinkle a little flour on your work surface and try to shape the ropes again. Sprinkle a little flour at a time, just enough to be able to shape the dough into ropes.
- Don’t braid the ropes too tightly because they need space to rise during the second proofing of the dough.
- Braid the ropes of the tsoureki on a large piece of baking paper. It will be easier for you to transport your tsoureki to the baking sheet.
- It’s best if your baking sheet or tray doesn’t have a dark colour. Dark-coloured trays retain more heat which may cause the bottom of your tsoureki to catch or burn.
- If you apply two layers of glaze before baking the tsoureki, it will have a darker, richer colour. If you want your tsoureki to have a lighter-coloured crust, glaze it only once.
- Once baked and cooled, keep the tsoureki covered with a clean kitchen towel. This way it will keep a nice and moist texture. Don’t cover it with aluminium foil or keep it in a plastic bag.
- Finally, I would like to point out something that I never enjoy saying but that’s extremely important to keep in mind. Not all ingredients are or behave the same. We all use different brands of flour, sugar, butter, and milk that do make a difference in the end product. What you need to do is follow the recipe but also trust yourself and your instincts when you’re baking a tsoureki. Use your sight and touch to tell if there’s something wrong with the dough. For example, if you feel that the dough is too dry, add a little more melted butter, or if the dough is sticking too much to your hands, add a little flour and knead it again. Whatever you do, don’t panic and don’t do anything rash. If you add extra flour to the dough, add a little at a time, knead it and judge if it needs more. Remember, you can add ingredients but you can’t take them out.
- In Greek, the sponge (wet batter that has yeast added to it) is called prozymi (pronounced proh-zee-me)
- -Tsoureki (singular) – Tsourekia (plural)
Makes 2 large tsourekia, about 1.2 kg each
- 1.150 g white strong bread flour
- 84 g fresh yeast (or 22 g instant dried yeast)
- 250 ml fresh, whole milk, lukewarm
- 400 g caster sugar
- 9 g sea salt
- 6 g mastic, freshly ground
- 8 g mahlepi, freshly ground
- 5 medium-sized eggs
- 230 g unsalted butter, melted
- 1 egg yolk for glazing the tsourekia
- 1 ½ Tbsp fresh, whole milk for glazing the tsourekia
- Sesame seeds for sprinkling over the tsourekia
Special equipment: mortar and pestle or spice grinder, stand mixer (optional), baking paper, two large baking sheets or trays, soft pastry brush
Before you start making the tsoureki, read the recipe carefully. Then weigh your ingredients, heat the milk, melt the butter, and grind the mahlepi and the mastic.
If you grind the mastic with a mortar and pestle, add a tsp of the sugar. It will be easier to grind and it won’t stick to the pestle
Make the prozymi (sponge)
- In a large bowl, add the fresh yeast and crumble it with your hands. Add 2 Tbsp of the sugar, 2 Tbsp of the flour and 200 ml of the lukewarm milk. Mix with your hands, dissolving the yeast in the milk.
- Cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave the bowl in a warm place, away from drafts. If your kitchen is too cold, find the warmest place in your house and keep the bowl there.
- Allow the dough to triple in volume. This will take about half an hour.
Make the dough
- In the meantime, in the bowl of your stand mixer, or in a very big bowl if you’re going to knead by hand, add the flour, the sugar, the salt, the ground mahlepi and ground mastic. Stir the ingredients with a spatula to mix and make a well in the middle.
- Add the eggs, the rest of the lukewarm milk, half of the melted butter (it should be warm and not hot) and the proofed prozymi.
- Attach the dough hook to your mixer, or if you’re going to knead by hand, prepare your hands for the workout.
- If you’re using a stand mixer, start the machine on a low speed until the ingredients mix and come together as a dough.
- Add the rest of the melted butter little by little and then switch to high speed. Keep mixing at high speed for 8-9 minutes. If you’re kneading by hand, you’ll need to knead the dough for approximately 15 minutes. You should end up with a dough that is not sticking to your hands, a dough that is firm yet pliable and elastic, smooth and shiny.
- Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and leave it in a warm place to proof and double in volume. This will take 3-4 hours. The tsoureki dough is very heavy, that’s why it needs so many hours to proof.
- Once proofed, empty the dough onto a clean working surface and knead with your hands for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into 2 pieces. It is preferable that you weigh the dough and divide it by weight. Take each piece of dough and divide it into 3 equal pieces.
Shaping the ropes and braiding the tsoureki
- Take the first set of dough and one by one, shape each of the 3 pieces into a 45cm-long rope, 5-6 cm in diameter (check note No9).
- Place the 3 ropes on the baking paper, connect the 3 ropes on one end and braid them, making sure not to braid too tight otherwise they will not have room to rise. Tuck the ends underneath. If desired, place one red-coloured egg at one end of the braid.
- Take the second set of dough and do as above.
- Transfer the two braided tsourekia on two different baking sheets or trays and cover them with clean kitchen towels. Leave them at a warm place for 1-1 ½ hours, until they rise by 1/3 (not doubled).
- In the meantime, preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Glaze the tsourekia
- In a small bowl, add the egg yolk and the 1 ½ Tbsp of milk and mix well with a fork.
- Once the braids have been proofed, using a soft brush, apply the glaze over the braids carefully so as to not deflate the dough. See note No13.
- Sprinkle with lots of sesame seeds.
Bake the tsourekia
- Place the baking sheets on the low rack of the oven and bake the tsourekia for 25 minutes.
- Then transfer the sheets to the middle rack of the oven, cover the tsourekia with a piece of aluminium foil so they don’t catch on top and bake for 20 minutes more. They should have a golden-brown colour.
If you have a small oven, like me, then bake the tsourekia one by one.
- Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow to cool slightly in the sheets.
- Then move the tsourekia on wire racks to cool completely. Move them carefully so they don’t brake apart. They will be a bit soft at this point. They will firm up as they cool.
- Once they cool completely, cover them with a clean, thin kitchen towel.
- If you try the tsoureki hot or warm from the oven, it will taste unsweetened to you. Don’t worry about that, it’s natural. As it cools down and especially on the second day, its true flavour will come out and it will be perfect.
You can keep it for five days to a week. On the fourth day, it will begin to harden a bit and it will be great with some butter and jam (especially strawberry). Also, you can toast it or bake it with custard and cinnamon, use it to make French toast, make a strawberry and currant tsoureki bread and butter pudding, or simply dip it into your morning coffee.
Originally published in My Little Expat Kitchen