Saturday, 14 April 2012

Day 55: Theia Betty's Fool-Proof Tsoureki Recipe, Easter Bread, Τσουρέκι, Sweet Bread

Tsoureki is a bread that we enjoy for Pascha.  There are some families who make sweet bread and call it tsoureki (tsoo-reh-kee), but we are unclear whether or not these terms are interchangeable.   For our families, the word "Τσουρέκι" referred specifically to the bread we ate for Pascha, whereas a sweet bread is just ψομί (psoh- mee).   We recently learned that there is another term "lampropsomo" (λαμπρόψωμο; lum-broh-pso-moh) which refers to  two words put together, bright light and bread (lampro and psomo).  this refers to the bread for the bright light seen for Christ's resurrection.  

Today, we made our tsoureki for the season.  It took a while, but we did it!  In fact, we were so excited about getting the tsoureki done, that we almost forgot to take pictures for you!  But. don't worry, we did get a few pictures.

The recipe that we are using is from Theia Betty.  She is known for having the easiest recipe for this bread, in some circles.  She is not a fan of cooking or baking, but tells everyone that her recipe for tsoureki is fool-proof!  We knew that was true, because we have made this recipe for Pascha every year and for New Year's Vasilopita every year.  And, we give away many loaves along the way, which people love and comment about the lovely flavour.  So, that is what we are sharing with you today.  But, you have to give credit to Theia Betty, please.  It is her recipe.

Let's start with a few features of the bread.  First, there is that unique flavour.  That is mahlepi.  It is a flavouring that comes from the stone of a cherry tree that grows throughout the Mediterranean.  When combined with the butter, sugar, and milk in the tsoureki, the taste of the mahlepi just lingers in your mouth and takes you on a mini vacation through your taste buds.

Some people don't like the mahlepi flavour.  They choose other flavourings for their tsoureki, which is fine.  Some of the more common substitutes are anise (like Ouzo) or orange (using the zest, a little juice, or a flavouring).  We have also used almond flavouring, but then, you have to make sure to decorate the loaf with almonds.  If you do not have access to any of these, then a simple vanilla would work, too.  It is just a flavour to enhance the sweetness of the bread.

We should also make note about the look of the bread.  Each loaf is carefully braided, and may be circular or linear.  These are typically the only two shapes used for tsoureki.  The braid is with three strands, which differs from a similar bread called  Challah bread which is a six-strand braid. 

Our bread with the three-strand braid represents the HolyTrinity.  Then, in the middle of the loaf is the beautiful red egg.  That symbolizes the blood of Christ (see Day 54, Dying Eggs).   The bread can be sprinkled with sesame or almonds, and is generally baked to a dark brown colour.

So, can we make this for ourselves, or do we just fall into the easy way of going to a bakery to buy our bread?  We said before, and we'll say again -- this recipe is fool proof!   One time, we forgot to add most of the yeast because of a miscalculation when increasing the recipe.  We added the yeast toward the end of the mixing, without having dissolved it, and the loaves still turned out beautiful and delicious.  We got it right today, but that one time ...

Now, let's look at what you need to make this recipe.  To make 3-5 loaves, depending on size, you will need:

1 cup butter (or margarine)
1 3/4 cup sugar
5 packets of yeast (each packet is 0.25 oz or 1 1/4 tsp.)
1 cup milk
about 3 pounds flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup lukewarm water
6 eggs
1 TBSP mahlepi (anise or orange flavours work, too)
You will also need:
sesame seeds,  or slivered/sliced almonds (optional) for garnishing
1 red dyed raw egg (do not cook the egg before colouring it)

The first step is to dissolve the yeast in the cup of lukewarm water.  The water should feel slightly warmer than your body temperature.  A lot of people use the method of "check it on your wrist" where it is most sensitive, but we are all different like that.  So, just above body temperature is a good level to know.  If the water is too hot, you will kill the yeast, and if it is too cold, the yeast stays asleep and won't work.  So, use lukewarm to tepid water.  Then, feed the yeast a teaspoon of sugar.

Dissolve the yeast in lukewarm water.
Feed the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar.
 Add enough flour to the yeast/water mixture to make a thin batter.  It should be about the thickness of a pancake batter.  Then, cover this mixture and let it sit for about 30 minutes while you get the next few steps under way.

Add enough flour to make a batter consistency.
Notice that the yeast mixture "bubbles and doubles " -- it bubbles up and becomes foamy, and then the ixture had soubled and tripled in size while sitting aside.
Once you have the yeast mixed and sitting on the side, you should get the next steps ready.

Cream the butter, sugar, and salt together in the mixer.

Add the eggs, mahlepi, and the milk, and mix well.

When that is all combined, add about 2 cups of flour.  Mix on low speed so not to make a powdery mess.  You should have a mixture that looks almost creamy.

Then, you can add the yeast mixture to the bowl.

Once that is completely combined with the butter, egg, milk mixture, then, you have to start adding the flour a little at a time.  We want to add about one cup of flour at a time.  You cannot go faster than this because you have to see the point when the dough cleans the side of the mixing bowl without sticking to anything else.  That's when you will be done adding flour, and that is why you can't just dump it all at once.  So, little by little, here we go...  

OH!  And, change the attachment on the mixer to the dough hook now, too!  It will make this process easier for you.

When the dough comes together and cleans the sides of the bowl as it turns, then you are done.  At this point, the dough should have gone around and around in the mixer for about ten minutes.  That is the kneading process.  Take the dough out of the mixer, remove the attachment and put the big ball on the counter or table top so you can work with it.  

Here is what you need to do.  You have to make the dough into a pretty ball shape.  It's a lot of dough, so it may take you a minute or two.  First, fold in all the sides and tuck them in to the center of the ball.  Now, repeat that same step -- turn in the new sides.  If you do this four or five times, then you will have kneaded the dough until you see it is rather smooth.  Then, turn the ball upside down, and this is what you should have:

A nice smooth ball of dough.

Take this ball of dough and put it in a big bowl that has been coated with a non-stick pan spray or a little oil.  This prevents the dough from drying out and sticking to the bowl as it sits for the next couple of hours to rise.  Also, you need to cover the bowl with a towel, some loose plastic wrap, something that allows room for the dough to grow, but stay covered.

After 2-5 hours of rising time (it depends how warm the room is -- the warmer the room the faster the time), turn the dough onto a working surface big enough for everything.  We used the dining room table.  You should see that the dough has doubled (at least) in size, and as you empty it on to the table,  you will see that the dough took the shape of the bowl it was in.  

Divide this dough into four pieces to make four loaves of tsoureki. If you want to make 6 loaves, then cut 6 pieces.  If you want 2 loaves, cut this dough in half.  We went with four loaves, so cut this into four pieces.

Now, cut each of those smaller pieces of dough into three sections.  These three sections will be the parts you make into the braid.  

Roll each little piece into long dough logs.  The logs have to be the same length, but do not necesarily have to be the same thickness.  If they are the same, that is better, but with a braided bread you can get away with different thicknesses in the pieces.  But, keep them the same length!

To make the braids, it is like braiding hair.  Although, some of you who are reading this may have no idea about that, some of you will understand.  But, for those of you who do not, here is the basic outline of how to make a braid:

Start by pinching the top ends together.  Pinch tight so they hold together.  Spread out the pieces so you can control where each one will go when you start the braid.

Take the first (right) piece and bring it over the centre, between the other two pieces, but not over the third (left) piece.   Go as close to the third piece as you can without crossing over it.   

Next, take the left piece and pull that one over the first piece that you just moved. (see above).  Go as close to that other piece as you can.  Then, pull the second piece over the third piece so that it ends up back in the middle again.  Then, repeat. 

Pull the strands of dough left and right as you go down the length of the braid.  This is what will give you a tight braid that holds its shape so well when rising and baking.  See how the strands go left and right?  Keep doing that until the bottom of the braid.

Continue this for the length of the bread logs until you reach the very bottom.  

When you reach the bottom of the braid, pinch the ends together, the same way that you pinched at the top.  Squeeze hard so it stays together.  Some people will actually tuck the pinched part under the braid so it gets hidden under the loaf.  You can do that, it looks pretty that way.

Then, if you want to make a circle, braid the bread like above, and instead of just laying it flat on the table, bring the bottom end around to connect to the top end.  

You can connect these by either trying to braid together the two ends, or you can pinch the two ends together so they stick together.  

Now that you have pretty braids, and you have the braiding mastered (it only take three loaves to master this), you have to know how to get them from here to the oven.  So , what's next?

Next, we are going to allow the dough to rise one more time.   Dust a little flour on the table, put the braided loaves on the flour, and then cover them with a clean, lint-free towel.  When we have made double the recipe, we have had to use an apron to cover the bread.

Let these loaves rise for about one hour.  You will see the dough become light, airy looking, and the loaves will become about 1 1/2 times the size of what they are now.  Just leave them alone and do something else in this hour and a half.

See how they have grown!  Now, get them on to a cookie sheet to bake.  We use parchment paper underneath, like we usually do  And, like we usually do, we reused the parchment paper that we used for the koulourakia (no sense in wasting good parchment paper!).  We line the pans with parchment paper because it makes the clean up so much easier!

Next, you want to brush each loaf with egg wash.  To make the egg wash, you mix one egg with 1/4 cup water or milk.  Milk makes the bread more brown, water makes the bread more crusty.  We chose milk for this batch.  So, take the egg wash and brush it all over the loaves, and don't forget the sides, too!  

Once the loaf is coated, sprinkle the sesame seeds all over the top. Of course, if you are using almonds or something else, sprinkle that instead.  But, cover the top evenly with the seeds. 

Then, put the egg in place.  There are different ways to do this, and some people choose not to include it at all.  We like the egg in the middle.  First, make sure that the egg is raw and coloured.  Yes, you can dye raw eggs...  So, we had dyed our eggs earlier, and they are all ready for the bread.  We washed the eggs prior to dying them, and then, let them air dry once they were coloured.  So, they are ready to go.  But, there are a couple of tricks that will help you to place the egg.  Although, you should know that getting it to stay there is a separate secret all together. 

To put the egg in place, you have a couple of options.  The first option is to just omit it.  For us, that is not an option.  If you leave out the egg, then all you have is bread.  With the red egg in the middle, then you clearly have Tsoureki.  

So, you can take the red egg and push it directly into the raised loaf of bread.  You don't want to place the egg before the dough rises, it will fall out.  After the loaves have risen (ha ha, just like Christ), then push the egg into the loaf.  

Choice number two is to take a pair of scissors and snip an opening in the loaf where you want the egg to sit.  Then, just like option #1, push the egg in place.  You can push kind of hard, but be careful not to break the egg -- it will ruin your tsoureki.

Lastly, if you have a round loaf, then you can just place the egg in the opening in the circle.  The bread does expand while baking and will sort of grow around the egg.  The difficulty with putting the egg is that people don't make time or want to make he time to colour the egg, make the bread, push the egg in place.  

Heat the oven to 350º F (about 175º C). Put the pan with the tsoureki (or tsourekia if you are baking several) and bake between 50 to 60 minutes until the tsoureki is golden brown. Pull out the tray out of the oven and let the tsoureki cool.

  1. Some people hate the discolouration around the egg after the tsoureki is baked.  We don't mind the spread of the red.  After it is all baked, smells lovely, and is wrapped in plastic, you kind of forget the colour is there.  And, the tsoureki all gets eaten, regardless of what colour the centre was! 

Then, because you have some extra loaves, and you want to share the easiest recipe for tsoureki that there is (Thank you, Theia Betty!),  you will want to wrap a few loaves to share.  We wrap ours in plastic wrap after the tsoureki has cooled and then put it in some tissue paper or a gift bag to give.  It won't matter how you wrap the loaves, it is the point of sharing that makes the tsoureki beautiful.  And, with this fool-proof recipe, you will want to share with everyone you know! Let us know when you want to deliver our loaf!

Tonight is Good Friday. The Good Friday Lamentations always bring a sense of awe to our heart and soul every year we hear them and chant along. The Εγκώμια (Lamentations) that we are sharing below are by a young talent from Greece, Nektaria Karantzi, and coordinated by Father Nikodimos Kavarnos.


  1. Has anyone here ever made a gluten free Tsoureki ? I never have made Gluten free anything, but now have a friend who is gluten free and would like some bread. I just don't know how the dough will hold up, as this bread is typically a heavier sweet bread. Do all I need to do is use gluten free flour? Just wondering if anyone had any experience with this. Thanks Debbie

    1. Debbie,
      Thank you for asking about a gluten free tsoureki! We appreciate your interest. Although we have not tried gluten free flours to make this, it would be interesting to try. From our family and friends who follow gluten free diets, there are various gluten free flour blends specifically for bread. They tell us to look for high protein flours to give the bread the strength and texture of a traditional bread. When you try it, let us know how it turns out! We would love to hear all about it!

  2. What temp do you bake it at, thanks,