Tsoureki, the brioche-like Easter bread, occasionally kneaded into braids, snails or other shapes, once eaten only during major holidays, is now available all year and its preparation can be approached in a broad way. With all of its famous characteristics, it connects directly with our sentiments through the combination of chewy sweetness with a strong aftertaste, which penetrates straight to the soul and the memory as a savory balm.
Fluffy and plump, firm, fibrous or crispy, with or without dyed eggs (except during Easter), with black and white sesame seeds or almonds, made in petite or individual portions− of all the Easter bread I have ever tasted, I found very few to be interesting. I would rank even fewer as “fluffy and foamy”, disappearing in the mouth as you eat them −that you nibble, pulling off the fibers one by one, as if the outer shell of the golden-baked loaf is the peel of a fruit or the bark of a tree. Most often these are actually tastier during the following days, after they begin to contract, even though some of its ripe, full-bodied flavor is sacrificed for the sake of sparser fibers. Consequently, I deem the obsession with the hyper-rising of the dough a virtue that goes with the ready-made loaves and is the result of mass production, but naturally I override this when it functions at the expense of the real flavor.
This is our family recipe for Tsoureki, or Easter bread, that “fills the soul”, and as such, we do not spare ingredients and aromas, and besides −who wants anything miserable and stingy affecting his soul? The recipe was developed mainly because of my sister, who, when inspired by something she deeply engages in, literally takes it apart and cleans it up. And yes, by all means the dough rises, but this is not its real trump card.
The merit of this Tsoureki is its rich flavor, relatively blended texture, its amazing aroma of vanilla-like mastiha and the intense aftertaste. These features makes one crave it so much that it becomes impossible to stop eating before finishing the entire loaf. Among its pluses, I add the topping of hand-chopped almonds that liberally covers the whole surface of the loaf.
The trick for the preparation of tsoureki is the patience required for the rising of the dough. Making Tsoureki takes time, and of course it tastes better if prepared with friends while enjoying a cup of coffee or a drink, while waiting for the dough to rise to almost double in size. If you follow the recipe and don’t alter anything, you will make loaves of the best flavour and aroma ever!!!
According to our family tradition, Easter breads are shared with others, so set aside one or two to give away, allowing their unique aromatic sweetness to circulate.
Preparation: 45 minutes plus another 1½ hours for all the rest. The recipe is for 6 loaves to bake in the oven using the fan-assisted function, in two baking sheets. Each sheet takes 3 loaves. If you want to make bigger loaves make 2 per baking sheet and place them lengthwise. If you follow the steps of the recipe you will realize that it is not as difficult as it looks.
Ingredients (for 6 loaves)
1 kg strong (or bread) flour plus a little extra (around 1 cup)
250 gr unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup of lukewarm whole milk (test using your finger)
75-80 gr fresh yeast
400 gr caster (superfine) sugar
2 tbsps ground mastiha
1 level tbsp mahlepi
1 level tsp salt
2 tsp orange zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
80 gr whole almonds coarsely chopped (crush lightly on mortar or chop by hand)
1 egg yolk, beaten with 2 tbsp of water
6 red-dyed eggs for the finish
Preheat the oven in 50º C.
To prepare the dough: Pour the lukewarm milk in a bowl, add the yeast and stir to dissolve.
Put butter and sugar in a large bowl (or basin if you want to make a larger quantity) and whisk with a mixer for about 5 minutes, until well combined. Start adding the eggs, one at a time, and whisk in high speed until the mixture acquires a uniform texture and starts rising (10 minutes).
In another bowl, shift half of the flour, add mastiha, mahlepi, salt, vanilla extract and orange zest. Stir with a spatula and form a whole in the middle.Pour in the milk and yeast mixture. Use the mixer with the hook to mix and form a dough (2-3 minutes). Form dough into a ball, cover with a kitchen towel and put in the preheated oven at 50° C for 15 minutes.
Remove the dough from the oven and add the remaining flour and the eggs, butter and sugar mixture, mixing first with the dough hooks and then by hand. Add extra flour, if necessary, until soft, elastic dough is formed that almost pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
Note: The quantity of the extra flour depends on the size of the eggs and can reach up to 1 cup. The dough that is formed is loose. Wash your hands and flour them to knead the dough and become easy to handle it.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. When the dough starts to pull away, dust the top with flour. Dust a working surface with flour and pour over the dough. Using a knife divide the dough into six equal pieces. Knead each piece into a ball and place on the sheet (3 balls per baking sheet, leaving space between them). Put both baking sheets into the oven at 50° C for 20 minutes.
To prepare the tsoureki loaves: Dust lightly a working surface and roll each ball into thick ropes with your hands. Braid in double or triple braids or give any shape you like. Transfer carefully with caution into the baking sheet and push one red-dyed egg into one edge of each braid. Brush with the beaten egg yolk and sprinkle with coarsely chopped almonds. Allow to rest for 35-45 minutes to rise again.
Note: If the weather is cold put braids again in the oven at 50° C.
Turn the oven heat up to 175°-180°C, using the fan-assisted function.
To bake the tsoureki loaves: Place both baking sheets with the tsoureki loaves in the preheated oven and bake for 45-50 minutes (depending on the oven), switching position of the sheets at half time (around 25 minutes). Start checking them after 40 minutes and every 5 minutes after that to keep them from overbaking.
Transfer carefully into a wire rack to cool completely. Wrap with a kitchen towel or in cling film to preserve (if they are not eaten immediately).