If you happen to be in Greece this weekend, hoping to celebrate Easter, you’ll be disappointed because although Christians in the Western tradition will indeed be scoffing chocolate eggs and roasting lamb tomorrow, the Greek orthodox celebrations won’t get underway until May.
In both traditions, though, Easter is a time to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and feast after the fasting of Lent. In Greece, the fast is broken after a midnight church service when the priest declares “Christos Anesti” (Christ is risen) and distributes candles to symbolize the eternal light. The first meal always includes Tsoureki, a sweet, lightly spiced bread decorated with hard-boiled eggs which have been dyed red to represent the blood of Christ.
Tsoureki is a rich bread similar to Brioche. Traditionally, it is flavoured with mastic, a resin from the lentisk tree found mainly on the Greek island of Chios. When dried, the resin forms into tiny hard balls known as “the tears of Chios”, which can then be ground and used as a distinctive aniseed-y flavouring.
Tsoureki should also contain Mahlab, the ground seed kernels of a sour cherry, which gives the bread a slight bitterness. As neither of these ingredients was at hand here in Delhi, a little jugaad (improvisation) was called for. I used a combination of fennel (saunf) and cardamom, that most godly of spices. The bread is made from a three-strand braid to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
Tsoureki is a tricky bread to make as the dough is extremely soft and sticky to handle but happily, if you don’t nail it this weekend, you’ve still got a few weeks to practise before Greek Easter.
Makes 2 loaves
For the initial yeast sponge mixture
200g plain flour (maida)
7g (1 sachet) of fast action or instant yeast (available in gourmet stores)
200ml warm milk
For the bread dough
125g caster sugar
1 tbsp fennel (saunf)
Seeds of 4 green cardamom
300g plain flour (maida)
¼ tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
90g unsalted butter, melted
Finely grated zest of one orange
2 eggs (for red eggs)
Red food colouring
A little extra melted butter for kneading
An extra egg, mixed with a little water, for glazing
First make the yeast sponge—this stage is important because it allows the yeast to get to work fast before the sugar and butter are added and slow it down. Put the 200g flour and yeast into a bowl and stir in the warm (not hot) milk. Mix it well, then cover and leave for 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the heat in your kitchen) until the batter has puffed up and is sporting bubbles all over the surface.
Put the caster sugar, fennel seeds and cardamom into a mixer and grind to a fine powder. Mix this with the 300g flour and salt. Add the flour and sugar mixture to the sponge mixture, then add the orange zest, eggs and melted butter and mix to a soft, sticky dough. Spread a little melted butter on to a clean work surface and tip out the dough. Knead well with your hands for about 5 minutes until the dough is really elastic—use more melted butter to stop it from sticking if necessary. Lightly butter a clean bowl and put the dough in to prove (rise): Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place for 1-2 hours until it has doubled in size. You could also prepare the dough the evening before you want to eat the bread and leave it to prove slowly in the fridge.
While the bread is proving, make the red eggs by boiling white shell eggs in a pan of water containing a generous amount of red food colouring. Leave to dry completely.
If you have refrigerated the dough, let it come back to room temperature before proceeding. Gently pat the dough into a ball and divide into two pieces. Then divide each piece into three. Roll all six pieces into smooth cylinders about 12 inches long. Take three pieces and pinch them together at one end. Then make a tight braid and pinch together the three strands at the other end. Repeat with the remaining three strands.
You will now have two roughly 12-inch-long braids. You can either leave them like this, tucking the ends underneath, or twist the braid into a round (this way it looks more like Christ’s crown). Brush the surface of the bread with the beaten egg and water and leave to prove until doubled in size again.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Glaze the bread again with the egg and water, press a red egg either into the middle of the crown shape or one end of the long braid. Bake for about 20-25 minutes until the top is brown and shiny. Tsoureki will keep for a day or so and is delicious toasted with butter and marmalade.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.