A favourite part of my childhood was always the Easter holiday, which in Greece is celebrated even more than Christmas. While there's amazing traditional food to be had in Greece during the Christmas period, the Easter festivities bring with them so many special smells and memories. One of my favourites is a sweet Easter bread, tsoureki, which has a very distinctive taste that comes from the addition of mahlab (or mahlepi in Greek), a spice made from the dried stone kernels of a specific type of cherry (Prunus mahaleb) found in the Mediterranean and Middle East.
All the women in both my mother's and my father's family would make their tsoureki during the Holy Week leading to Easter, and they would take pride of place in their tables during the eagerly-awaited Easter dinner. Traditionally tsoureki is decorated with red Easter eggs (in Greece that's the colour of choice, meant to symbolise the blood of Christ), one - or more - of each being placed inside the bread, and baked along with it.
This is a simpler version that omits the eggs, and can be made into one larger bread, or into more smaller ones. A little twist in my mother's recipe, that has been handed down through the generations, is the addition of icing sugar on top of the flaked almonds. This dries in the oven and gives the tsoureki a "snowy" appearance and slightly sweeter taste which I love! Since I moved to the UK I try to make this bread every Easter; it's one of the very few Greek traditions that I try to keep alive, and it's even weirder that this recipe produces something very close to the taste of pan de muerto, Mexico's "bread of the dead" (according to my Mexican boyfriend, who devours it every time!). So, two birds with one stone, tsoureki and pan de muerto all in one!
The recipe might seem complicated and it takes a bit of time to make it (like all bread, it nee time to rise and some kneading is involved) but it's definitely worth it. My mom's recipe measurements come in cups and I religiously keep to them, as I can never get it right if I measure it otherwise. Use a medium-sized teacup, and it should work fine.
Tsoureki (Greek Easter bread)
Source: My mother's recipe, passed down to her by my grandmother
Makes 1 big bread (or 4-5 small ones)
- 1.5 cups of milk
- 1.5 cups of sugar
- 1.5 cups of butter
- 0.5 tsp salt
- 12 cups of flour (around 1 kilo + 1 cup)
- 50g of fresh yeast (or 14g of dried yeast, I used 2 sachets of Allinson Easybake Yeast)
- 0.5 lukewarm water
- 1.5 tbsp of ground mahlab (you can find it in Greek/Turkish or Middle Eastern shops, if not, substitute with finely grated lemon zest, but you won't get the same fragrant special taste)
- 6 eggs (3 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks), beaten
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tbsp milk
- Flaked almonds
- 4 tbsp icing sugar
Warm up the milk with the sugar, butter and salt, and when fully incorporated move to a large bowl. Add the yeast to the lukewarm water and let it dissolve, then add this to the bowl with the milk mixture (which should be also lukewarm) and stir until combined.
Add half the flour to the bowl and beat with a mixer until it becomes smooth. Add the beaten eggs (3 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks) and the mahlab (or lemon zest).
Keep mixing and pouring in the rest of the flour (change to a dough hook attachment as soon as you see the dough starting to form) until a smooth dough forms. Knead for around 15 minutes.
Cover the bowl with a towel and put it in a warm place, until the dough doubles in size. Knead again for 10 minutes and form into different shapes. Traditionally the Greek tsoureki is shaped into a braid or twist. You can make the braids by shaping the dough into long ropes, and then braiding sets of three ropes to form loaves, tucking the ends in underneath each loaf. For the twist start in the same way, but make a longer rope and fold it in half, twisting the two ends gently.
Put the breads on a tray lined with greaseproof paper and leave until they rise again. Mix the egg yolk with the milk and brush the breads with it. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds and sieve the icing sugar on top.
Bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for 35-40 minutes (the big ones) or 20 minutes (the smaller ones). They shouldn't become too browned, otherwise they'll be hard. If you piece them with a skewer and it comes out clean, that means they're done.