I love sweet bread, not sweetbreads, which I learnt the very important difference between a long time ago. Greeks make a few sweet loaves, generally to represent each of the major holidays, but tsoureki has always been my favourite. Tsoureki is just that, a sweet loaf, an almost-brioche, infused with orange peel, vanilla and filled with eggs and butter.
In trying to describe this bread, there is a key ingredient that comes into play. It’s called mahlepi, and it’s the component that gives tsoureki its characteristic aroma and taste. It’s unlike anything else, so it’s hard to describe, but it’s powdery, similar in form to something like almond meal, which makes sense, as mahlepi is nothing more than the ground stones of cherries.
I found this information amazing when I first discovered what mahlepi was. How could so much flavour come from something like the pip of a cherry, which instantly gets spat out when eating the fresh fruit? And as always in culinary questioning, who’s brilliant idea was it in the first place that grinding cherry stones could be edible?
I know of no other recipe that uses mahlepi, though I’m sure some exist, and because of this, it is a smell that instantly transports me to Easter and delightfully renders me a child once more. It was hard to contain my excitement when puffs of baking bread were escaping my oven, and filling my house with all those memories of family, love and the traditional cracking of red eggs.
The week long fast has now officially been broken, and as we return home from midnight mass, our cheeks flush from the crisp air, the divine flame collected from the church burning brightly in the middle of the table, our bellies are full of delicious egg-lemon chicken soup and all that’s left to do is a have a cup of tea, an Easter biscuit, and a slice of freshly baked tsoureki.
This recipe has been based on one from Pam Talimanidis, in her book A La Grecque. I really admire Pam; she is not Greek, but married into a Greek family, and has been running a restaurant with her husband in Airey’s Inlet, coastal Victoria. She seems to have embraced the culture and the food lovingly, and her book is beautifully traditional and carefully thought out. I always find it wonderful when a non-Greek gains appreciation for authentic Greek food, as I feel in general, as a cuisine, it tends to be rather underrated, and constrained purely to the realm of gyros in a pita bread (which look, is not too terrible a meal in itself!). In A La Grecque, though, she tackles a vast array of dishes, and does them well.
For my tsoureki, as I often do, the recipe was used only as a guide, as I like to put my own spin on things. While it’s a bit labour and time intensive, it’s a labour of love, and one that comes only once a year.
40g dried yeast
190ml warm milk
1kg plain flour (plus extra if needed)
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest of 1 orange
2 teaspoons ground mahlepi
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
350g unsalted butter, softened
1 extra egg for glazing
Warm some milk, then dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon of the sugar in it. Set aside, and leave for about ten minutes to froth up.
Sift the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the rest of the sugar, orange zest and mahlepi. Add the frothed yeast, beaten eggs, orange blossom water and vanilla. Mix well, then knead, either by hand, or using the dough hook on a mixer, for about 10 minutes until the dough comes together to form a smooth, elastic dough. Add extra flour, tablespoon by tablespoon to bring the mixture together if you find it’s too wet.
Oil a bowl, shape the dough into a smooth ball and place, covered in plastic wrap, in a warm place for two hours until the dough has doubled in size. It was a rather cold day when I made this, so I turned the oven on and sat the dough by the door to prove.
Have a cup of tea while you wait.
Punch the dough down then turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten it out with the palm of your hand until it’s a disc, about 4cm high. Smear the surface with the softened butter, which may seem like a lot of butter, and it is, but hey, it’s a special occasion.
Fold in the edges to enclose the butter, then place back in the mixer, or with floured hands if you’re mixer-less, and knead until the butter is completely incorporated. The dough will be rather sticky, and you may end up with a few globs of butter on your Kitchenaid, but it does come together to form a dough that should pull clean away from the dough hook.
Finish off kneading for a few minutes by hand, until it’s smooth and glossy once more, then place back in an oiled bowl and leave to rise for at least five hours, or overnight if you can, in a cool place like the fridge.
Now you’re ready to bake!
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius, and lay some trays with baking paper. Divide the dough into nine pieces, three for each loaf. Roll each piece of dough into a long sausage, about the length of a ruler. Gather three pieces, stack three tips on top of one another and pinch to join. Weave the length into a plait. If you have red Easter eggs, great! Pop one in one end for a spot of colour, but it is perfectly fine without, too.
Repeat the weaving process for the other two loaves. Place the loaves on their trays, then brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with caster sugar.
Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place (such as by the oven, again) to rise one final time, for 30 minutes.
Bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 160 degrees celsius before baking for a further 25 minutes til the loaves are a beautiful golden brown.