It's that wonderful time of year again, Easter (or Pas-ha in Greek). Whether you are religious or not, it is a time which represents change in seasons (summer, I've missed you!) and for me, growing up as Greek Orthodox in South Africa, Easter is by far the most important and most enthusiastically celebrated religious festival on the Greek Orthodox calendar. It's a time when the whole family comes together, we attend numerous masses at church, for days before and after Easter day itself. The most important thing, as in any Greek family, is the food. Lots and lots of food. Too much of it, mainly because it's foods which are difficult and time consuming, so mom only makes them once a year for this special occasion where we will all eat together for many meals.
This year I've decided to share with you the Greek Easter bread, Tsoureki. It's a sweet bread, like a cake actually, and we have it with tea or coffee.
It's most often baked several at a time and given as a gift to family and friends, a blessing for the festive season. In my family we make a few and store them in the freezer, only defrosting them as we need them throughout the year.
Among the countless variations on the recipe are the addition of chocolate as an icing or filling, a scattering of flaked almonds or sesame seeds over the top, or the addition of spice to flavour the dough.
While cardamom and mastic are sometimes used, the most popular flavouring is mahlepi, an aromatic spice ground from the seeds of the European cherry Prunus mahaleb. A small amount goes a long way, not just in the slightly floral flavour of the bread, but in filling Greek kitchens with the warm, nostalgic smell of Easter.
The bread itself is laden with symbolism. It has a three-strand braid to represent the Holy Trinity and hard-boiled eggs, which have been dyed red to symbolize the Blood of Christ. The egg is also a symbol of renewal and rebirth.
This recipe is from the Australian magazine Gourmet Traveller, by Alice Storey with photography by William Meppem.
- Combine flour, yeast and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook, form a well in the centre, set aside. Add milk, eggs, sugar, orange rind, mahlepi and 100ml lukewarm water and mix until a soft dough forms (5-7 minutes). Gradually add butter, a little at a time, mixing until a smooth soft dough forms (3-5 minutes), place in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside until doubled in size (40 minutes-1 hour).
- Meanwhile, for red Easter eggs, follow instructions on packet to cook and dye eggs then set aside to cool completely.
- Knock back dough and divide into 3 pieces. Roll each piece into a 45cm-long cylinder, plait pieces together, then bring ends together to form a wreath and squeeze to join. Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper and set aside to prove slightly (20 minutes).
- Preheat oven to 180C. Brush wreath with eggwash, gently push red Easter eggs (unpeeled) into wreath and bake until wreath is golden and cooked through (25-30 minutes). Cool on a wire rack, serve with butter. Greek Easter bread is best eaten the day it’s made.
Note Mahlepi is available from Greek delicatessens. You can substitute a flavouring such as mastic or cardamom. Red egg dye is available (usually around Easter time) from Greek and Italian delicatessens. Instructions and the quantity required vary from brand to brand.