greek easter bread: tsoureki

Greek Easter Bread - Tsoureki
I find it hard to window shop or merely browse at Phoenicia, my local Turkish and middle eastern grocery in Kentish Town, north London. Inevitably I return home clutching a bag of interesting spices or a jar of preserved vegetables although without any clear idea of what I am going to do with it. The lime powder sat in my larder for over six months before it emerged dustily blinking into the light only to be lobbed into a cold drink for summer and my posh popcorn recipe (more of these another time).

It has got to the point that I make sure that I have my digital camera with me so that I can record what I see and research those unfamiliar items when I get home. It means that now I actually buy things with a much better idea of what they are and what I can do with them.


Recently I saw a little packet of mahleb. The name rang a bell but I couldn't remember why. The spice looked a bit like misshapen coriander seeds. I decided to play safe and ask one of the guys serving customers what mahleb were for. The chap screwed up his face as he thought about it and said "hmmmn, very special. Turkish cooking. Greek cooking. In bread and cakes I think." Not enough information for me this time I'm afraid. So I took a quick picture and trundled home to do some research.

It turns out that the mahleb are the pits of a particular type of cherry and are widely used in Greek and Turkish cooking. Ground up they have a slightly bitter taste like almonds with a hint of sour cherry drops. Oh thank you lord, I think I may be in love!

Greek Easter Bread - Tsoureki
This is a timely discovery as I wanted to make braided Easter bread from Greece called tsoureki, very like brioche, which contains ground mahleb. The bread also contains mastic, a type of hard resin, which is also ground up and used in bread and cakes. Without even tasting the stuff, I knew I wanted it. How could I fail to love an ingredient that is also known as "tears of Chios"? However, this is an ingredient that should definitely be used in moderation as it has a strong pine resin flavour.


So I baked my loaf and it turned out rather better than I had hoped. As for flavour, well it was quite indescribable. No, really. I do not have the words to describe the subtle, flowery flavour of this enriched bread. Except to say, it was gorgeous, delicious and really rather wonderful.


Skill level: Medium (unless you are used to working with enriched doughs)

ingredients:
150ml warm milk
1 tsp fast-action yeast (or fresh equivalent)
500g strong white bread flour (plus extra for rolling out)
4 tbsp sugar
75g butter, at room temperature
a pinch of salt (if using unsalted butter)
juice and zest of 1 x orange*
½ tsp ground mastic (I used 3 small pieces, ground up)
2-3 tsp mahleb seeds, ground with a little sugar
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 eggs, beaten
decoration
3 x red-dyed eggs
egg wash1 x egg, beaten with a splash of milk
orange sugar syrup
dissolve sugar in the juice of 1 orange* (see above)

directions:

  1. Place 1 tsp of sugar in a jug with the warmed water and stir well to ensure that the sugar has dissolved before sprinkling over the dried yeast. Give it a quick whisk and set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. (The yeast should be activated by the combination of warm milk and sugar; it will begin to look frothy after a few minutes.)
  2. My mahleb and mastic came in whole format so I needed to grind them down, which I did in a food processor, together with the fennel seeds and a tablespoon of sugar, to give the grind some "purchase" - sweet spices always seem to grind better with added sugar.
  3. I use a hand-held blender to beat the rest of the sugar together with the softened butter, until well combined and creamy.
  4. Add the eggs to the butter and sugar mixture, a little at a time, making sure that all of the egg is well combined.
  5. Add the milk and yeast mixture and stir well.
  6. Sprinkle over the ground spices and orange zest and make sure that they are combined, before adding about one third of the flour (and a pinch of salt if using). When the flour has combined with the egg mixture, add another third, and then the remainder of the flour.
  7. I then use the dough hooks on my hand-held blender to start kneading the dough. Continue to knead for about 10 minutes until the dough is smooth and pliable. Set aside until doubled in size. (In a warm kitchen, I find this takes about 2 hours. Or you could put the bowl in the fridge and leave to rise overnight.)
  8. Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment.
  9. Lightly flour a clean work surface. Lightly knead the dough to knock out any air bubbles, before dividing into 3 pieces. (I weigh mine to ensure that the dough strands are of an equal size.)
  10. Roll and pull out each piece of dough into a rope strand, about 30 centimetres long. Try to ensure that the dough strands are of an equal width and length.
  11. Plait the 3 pieces of dough together and place in a circle on the lined baking sheet, tucking the ends under each other. I put an oven-proof ramekin in the centre of the dough to stop the dough from spreading as it cooks and to keep the open circle intact. You could bake the loaf as a long plait rather than my preferred ring shape.
  12. Insert the coloured eggs firmly into the dough strands.
  13. Leave to rise for about 1 to 2 hours.
  14. Pre-heat the oven to 180C / Gas Mark 4.
  15. Brush with the egg wash.
  16. Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until golden brown.
  17. Leave to cool on a wire rack.
  18. As it is cooling, brush over simple orange sugar syrup and dust with a little extra caster sugar.

tips:

  • Some tsoureki are scattered with flaked almonds just before baking.
  • If your plait looks a bit uneven, then just re-roll the dough and start again!




1 comment:

Janice Pattie said...

That sounds very good indeed. You are so lucky to have a shop like this that you can visit and try new ingredients.