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Tsoureki - Greek Easter bread

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Tsoureki - Greek Easter bread
14 April, 2014 13:46

Tsoureki - 14 April, 2014

Tsoureki [Gr: Τσουρέκι, meaning brioche] is the traditional bread of Greek Easter. Tsoureki is a rich yeast bread flavoured with orange and a delightful spice called mahlepi (mahlab).

Rich brioche-like breads (often braided) are known by various Greek names that represent three major holidays for Greeks: Easter (tsoureki, and tsourekaki: easter cookie), Christmas (christopsomo) and New Year's (vasilopita).

Mahlab is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a species of cherry. The cherry stones are cracked to extract the seed kernel, which is about 5 mm diameter, soft and chewy on extraction. The seed kernel is ground to a powder before use. Its flavour is similar to a combination of bitter almond and cherry. It is used in small quantities to sharpen sweet foods.

In Greece it is called μαχλέπι (mahlepi) and is used in egg-rich yeast cakes and cookies such as Christmas vasilopita and Easter tsoureki, and special Easter cheese pie or cheese cake called φλαούνες (flaounes).

In Crete, for one week before Easter, the local bakeries' ovens become a community oven. From all around the neighbourhood, people bring in large, black baking sheets covered with tsoureki, finger-like tubes of dough that will be coiled into large, buttery, yellow cookies. Some people prefer to bake their tsoureki at home, but most bring them to the bakery. "It's the smell of the wood fire, the taste from the olive wood," the older folks say. It's our tradition."

People bring in so many sheets of tsoureki that they get piled high in stacks, waiting for oven space, waiting for the baker. On each baking sheet, a little slip of paper is placed with the family's name, otherwise it would be impossible to know which is which. Each sheet has at least 50 tsoureki, and there are many stacks of sheets, 10 to 12 a stack. And then more people come, and more. There are thousands of tsoureki. But people help if they can, and there is much good humour.

For those abroad, who prefer to make it at home (and do not have a baker with his community oven):

8 cups all purpose flour (plus more for counter)
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups milk, warmed (not hot)
3 envelopes dry yeast
1 2/3 cup unsalted butter (3 sticks plus 3 tbsp)
1 2/3 cup sugar
zest of one orange
zest of one lemon
1 tbsp mahlab (mahlepi)
5 eggs, lightly beaten
1 egg, beaten with a splash of water
whole sesame seeds for sprinkling
1 red egg (optional)

1. Sift the flour with the salt in a large bowl and set aside.
2. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. (Be sure it is lukewarm, not hot). Add 1/2 cup of the flour and 1 tbsp sugar to the mixture. Cover tightly and set aside until it becomes bubbly and foamy.
3. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat. Stir in the sugar, orange zest, lemon zest and mahlab. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs. Cool slightly.
4. Add the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add in the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Slowly incorporate the flour until the mixture forms a smooth, wet dough.
5. Cover the bowl and let rise until it is about double in size - about 2 hours in a warm place.
6. Turn the dough out on to a well-floured counter and punch down. You will need to keep sprinkling the dough with flour to keep it from sticking. It will remain a loose, wet dough.
7. Separate the dough into four equal parts. Shape into rounds and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Once rested, divide each round into three pieces. Roll the pieces out into long cords about a foot long. Braid the three ropes together to form a braided loaf. Place the braids on baking sheets to rise again.
8. Once the dough has risen to about double, carefully brush the surface with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Gently press a single red egg in the upper section of the braid.
9. Bake in a preheated 180°C oven for about an hour until the crust is nicely browned all over.

Partly after: [neoskosmos.com]

The Easter Egg is associated with beliefs of particularly ancient origin. The egg was an important symbol in the mythologies of many early civilizations, including those of India and Egypt. It was commonly believed that the universe developed from a great egg and that the halves of its shell corresponded to Heaven and earth. The egg was also connected with the springtime fertility rituals of many pre-Christian and Indo-European peoples, like the old Cretans, and both the Egyptians and the Persians made a practice of coloring eggs in the spring.

Greeks mainly color eggs red (scarlet) to signify the blood of Christ. They use hard-boiled eggs (painted red on Holy Thursday) which are baked into twisted sweet-bread loaves or distributed on Easter Sunday; people rap their eggs against their friends' eggs and the owner of the last uncracked egg is considered lucky.

From: [www.sfakia-crete.com]

All the best,

webmaster Sfakia-Crete.com

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