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.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Day 54: The Red Eggs, Τα Κόκκινα Αυγά

There are many families that dye Easter eggs in beautuful, vibrant colours.  The range of colours avaialble through food colouring, through egg dying kits, and through paints is amazing.  But, what happens when you don't want to use one of the kits with chemicals that may be harmful, or you don't want to spend five dollars for food colouring that you will use one time a year.  Or, maybe you are alone and there is no joy in such an elaborate activity?  Well, if you are Greek Orthodox, you already know the answer -- you pick one nice colour and stick to it; and that colour is red.

Why red?  Well, we have paraphrased the explanation taken from  the story according to Phyllis Meshel Onest, a well-known, published Director of the Office of Religious Education in the U.S.  Eggs have a worldwide association with new life.  The Resurrection of Christ brings a new life to all of us who celebrate.  The red colour is to symbolise the blood that Christ shed for us.  Therefore, the first thing we eat to break our fast is a red coloured egg to bring to us our new life along with Christ's new life.  It's the same reference to His shedding blood as we hear each Sunday, just before we take Holy Communion -- when the Priest says, "... this is my blood of the new covenant, that was shed for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins."  (We must note that Holy Communion is actual blood and body of Christ, the red dye on the eggs is merely symbolism.)

Now, back to making eggs.  There are, as we said, several ways to obtain the deep red colour that we (Greek Orthodox) use for our eggs at Pascha.  Today, we are going to try two ways to see if either is more effective, or if they are just different.  The first way is the one we all know and find so easy.  It is through the use of the packets of red dye that you can find at the supermarket.  Our local Greek/Italian market carries these different brands, and has a variety of colours available.  We are traditionalists and just make red eggs.  

The other way to dye your eggs red is by using onion skins.  We have read in books, we have heard people discuss, and we have seen on-line that using onion skins is an easy, natural way to colour eggs.  Having never tried this before, we thought this would be a good opportunity to.  We have skins from yellow onions as well as red onions, just to see if there is a difference.  We are following the directions from because they were clear and easy to understand (and we have all the ingredients!).  

Here we go.

For the packets, follow the directions.  First of all, according to the NIKH brand egg dye's instructions, there is enough in the packet to colour 30 eggs.  We aren't using 30 eggs, just one dozen.  Therefore, we expect a much deeper, darker red colour.  

  The directions tell us to boil the eggs.  We do this by using room temperature eggs, to start.  Every time we use eggs, they are room temperature.  Place them in a pot.  You want to put the eggs in before putting the water, that way, the eggs don't bounce on the bottom of the pot and break before boiling.  

So, put the eggs in the pot, and then, fill it with water.  This should be enough water to cover all the eggs completely.  We add salt to the pot before putting it on the stove.  Why?  Well, the salt does a couple of things -- first, the salt will help to make the eggs super easy to peel (we believe).  Secondly, it makes for a more firm egg when cooked.  We want firm boiled eggs, so we add salt.

While the eggs are boiling, mix the packet of dye with some vinegar and water.  It should be enough water to cover the cooked eggs, and about 2 teaspoons of vinegar per cup of water.  We have found over the years that the more vinegar you add, the deeper the colour you get.  So, we are sticking to the ration of 2 teaspoons vinegar per cup of water.  

Mix the water, vinegar, and dye very well.  Then, put the cooled, boiled eggs in the dye.  Let that stand for 5 minutes -- but NOT more!  (as per the directions).  Remove the eggs from the dye using a slotted spoon, a pair of tongs, or a strainer.  

Place the coloured eggs on a cooling rack that is on top of some newspaper or paper towels.  By putting them on a cooling rack to drip dry, it is less likely that you will get that one white spot where the egg rested on a plate or a towel.  

Lyra brand egg dye (imported from Greece by Krinos Foods).
The other brand of egg dye is the Lyra (Lira) brand which is imported from Greece by Krinos Foods.  The directions on this packet are very similar to the NIKH brand, and are written in Greek, English, and French.  This packet should be enough to dye 50 eggs, but we are not making 50 eggs, so we expect that this, too, will give us a richer, deeper colour.  The eggs should be boiled to use this dye.  The directions, as we understand them, are like this:

Start by mixing the packet of colour in a small bowl of warm water to dissolve the powder.  We guessed at using half a cup of warm water.  This solution will be mixed into the large bowl of cool water to dye the eggs.  It should be enough water to cover 50 eggs.  We used the same 6 cups of water that we used for the other brand.

Then, add a glass  of vinegar.  How big of a glass, we don't know.  So, we used 8 ounces (equal to a drinking glass).  We have the dissolved dye, one glass of vinegar, and a big bowl of cool water mixed together.  Then, place the boiled eggs in a single layer in the dye.  Let them stay in the dye for 10-15 minutes.  

Check out this weird pattern that was left on top of the liquid -- you can see exactly where we dropped the eggs into the dye.

Using a slotted spoon, tongs, or a strainer, remove the eggs and place them on paper to dry.  (We still used a cooling rack on top of newspaper, trying to avoid those white spots.)  Allow the eggs to dry, then shine them using an oil-dipped cloth.  

Well, the two packets of egg colouring are used, and what do we have?  We have beautiful red eggs for Pascha.  It's so exciting to see these vibrant reds.  Although they are different shades of red -- one is orange-red and the other is blue-red.  They are both beautiful.  Once we shined them with some oil, they were so pretty, we didn't really want to use them to play the egg game.  But, we will.

And, just because we were curious, we boiled some more eggs and put them in the two dyes for a second round a few hours later.  Guess what?  The colour still came out a beautiful shade of red, more toward the pink side.  This was true for both dye packets.  They were not quite as deep in colour, but they were still a very attractive reddish-pink.  We think these two dyes made some of the best reds that we have ever achieved on the first round!  They were easy to use and clean enough.  Only our fingertips are red this year!  We now know that definitely we will buy these brands of egg dye again.

Now, for the onion skins...

First, we had to peel a lot of onions.  The directions tell us to use 15 onion skins.  But, we wanted to try both yellow and red, so that meant 30 onion skins.  Actually, it was not as bad as that.  You use only the dry skin that falls off.  Half the work is done for you by nature and gravity, all you have to do is take the onions out of the bag you bought them in.  Or, go to the grocery store and take the skins from there.  A lot of people peel off the dry crumbly skins and leave them with the stacks of onions.  So, you could just go by the store with a small bag and pick up other people's discards.  We use onions in almost everything, so we have been saving the skins specifically for this blog entry.  Now that we have them, what do we do?
Add vinegar.

Add water.
First, put 15 onion skins and 2 tablespoons of white vinegar in 4 1/2 cups of water in a pot.  We have two separate pots on the stove at the same time, so that we can see the red onion skins and the yellow onion skins.  We used the exact same amount of vinegar and water with the skins.  And, yes, we used the same amount of onion skins, too! 

Next, we allowed the pot to boil for about 5 minutes. Then, we put a cover on the pot, turned down the heat, and let the mixture simmer for 30 minutes.  We had to peek inside the pot to see what was happening with the onion skins...

Yellow onion skins
Red onion skins
We are surprised how much the red onion skins and the yellow onion skins look very much alike at this point.  They have another five or six minutes to simmer before we strain the liquids into a glass bowl (measuring cup) to cool to room temperature.  So, we wait...

Strain the yellow onion skins, but keep the liquid.
Strain the red onion skins, but keep the liquid.
Liquid from yellow onion skins on the left, and from red onion skins on the right.
Now that 30 minutes simmmering time has passed, we are going to strain the mixtures.  We are keeping them seperate just so we can see the actual results.  Also, by straining the liquid into measuring cups, we can see how much of the 4 1/2 cups of water remains.  By looking at the two mixtures, we see that 4 cups of each remain for us to colour our eggs.  They do have different hues, though.  Now, allow these to sit for a while until the liquids are room temperature.

Yellow onion skins
Red onion skins
Once the liquids reach room temperature, it is time to cook and colour the eggs.  First, put the eggs in the pan.  You need to keep a single layer, and make sure that there is enough liquid to cover the eggs.  We had a little bit less liquid than we needed, but did not have a smaller pot.  Oh well, we moved on regardless.  So, you put the eggs in the pot and then pour the onion skin juice over the eggs.  Put that on the heat and bring it up to a boil.  When the liquid reaches a boil, turn down the heat to simmering (low) and cover the pot.  Allow the eggs to simmer in the liquid for 20 minutes.  Then, pull out the eggs and allow them to cool.  If the eggs are not dark enough for your liking, then leave them in the dying liquid and put them in the fridge until they are the desired colour.

Red onion skins

Yellow onion skins
We are very impressed with the relative ease of this method.  Although the colour was not quite red -- it was more brown and the other was "burnt auburn."  They were interesting colours that looked very nice when combined with our variety of reds.  The addition of the browns really tied together the entire colour pallet that we had today.  Interestingly enough, we read and re-read the directions for the onion skin egg dying activity, and each of the pictures we have seen online have been of red eggs.  Initially, we could not figure out how the eggs would become that red from yellow onions.  That's part of why we wanted to try the red onion skins, too.  But, to our surprise, that was just a darker brown.  The deepness, the richness of the colours was impressive.  Too bad they just were not the exact shade we wanted.

So, when Pascha rolls around next year, and we are ready to dye our eggs, we are going to the grocery store fist to buy a couple of packets of dye from Greece.  They were easy to use, give us the colour we wanted, and took very little time or effort.  We want red that is deep and blood coloured to remind us of what Christ did for us.  The way we can get that is by purchasing a packet of dye for the eggs.

Holy Thursday

And as they were eating, he said, "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me." And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, "Is it I, Lord?" He answered, "He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Is it I, Master?" He said to him, "You have said so." Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

The reading is from Matthew 21:30.