Describing how a traditional British Easter is celebrated can be a bit nondescript. Obviously it is the most important festival in the Christian calendar, and this four day holiday weekend is wonderful for spending time with friends and family. But for those that aren’t particularly religious, it can come all down to consuming a ridiculous quantity of chocolate Easter eggs.
In Greece things are quite different – and not just because there’s a lot less chocolate.
It is THE time of year for family get-togethers and, because most city dwellers are from ‘somewhere else’, a trip back to ‘the village’ or ‘the island’ is pretty standard.
Holy Week is marked not only by daily church services but also by an awful lot of cooking. With the tradition of Lenten fasting in mind – and this should mean, more or less, a vegan diet for the full forty days – Easter is the time for indulging in buttery biscuits, brioche-like bread and glorious cheese pies. So Greek kitchens in Holy Week – ‘Big Week’ as it’s called – are incredibly busy places.
One of the ‘must-have’ things at Easter is tsoureki – a sweet, egg and butter enriched bread. As iconic as it is, it is also a quite hard thing to make, and I have really struggled with it over the years. Getting the right levels of sweetness and achieving a well-risen, fluffy dough is quite tricky. However, I believe I have cracked it and I’m not going to claim credit for the recipe.
Easter after Easter I have gone round the houses, trying all sorts of recipes both from home cooks and professionals, with varying degrees of success. Finally, I think the one from Argiro Barbarigou is the best for flavour, texture and reliability. She prefers using fresh yeast – and I think that is probably a good call. But also she talks you through everything very clearly and gives really detailed advice. The link to her version in English is here. However it is written for American readers, so I have taken the liberty to translate the original Greek recipe, with its metric weights etc.
Try it out – there’s nothing better with your morning coffee at Easter – or any time of year !
Argiro Barbarigou's Tsoureki
For activating the yeast
- 100 gm fresh yeast
- 40 gm sugar
- 80 ml warm water
For the dough
- 250 gm butter
- 300 gm sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 350 ml milk
- 1,100 gm strong flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 masicha 'tears', ground to a powder 'Tears' are crystalised masticha gum. They are not absolutely essential to the recipe, but they do give part of the distintive taste.
- 2 tsp ground mahlepi Mahlepi is an essential spice for the distinctive tsoureki flavour. It can be bought on line or from any good ethnic grocer.
- 50 gm melted or softened butter This is to grease your hands for kneading the dough.
- flaked almonds To scatter on top of the bread before baking.
The egg glaze
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 dessert spoon sugar
- 2 table spoon water
Activating the yeast
- Start by activating the yeast. Blend the yeast with the sugar and then add the warm water. Mix well so that it has a creamy consistency. Cover and leave for about 5-10 minutes until the surface is covered in frothy bubbles.
Making the dough
- Sift the flour into a very large bowl - remember that the dough will triple in volume. Add the salt, the groung mahlepi and the masticha, if you are using it.
- Put the butter in a pan and warm gently to melt it. Add the sugar and heat it very gently until the sugat has dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow it to cool slightly.
- In another bowl, whisk the eggs and the milk and then add the sugar/butter mixture. Mix it really well.
- Next combine all the liquid ingredients and add the dissolved yeast, and add them all to the flour.
- Mix it all together really well with a wooden spoon until you have a well-combined dough.
- Cover the bowl with the dough in and leave to rise in a warm place for about 2 hours. It should treble in volume.
- After a couple of hours put the risen dough onto the kitchen work surface. Now put some of the extra melted butter on your hands, and knead the dough really well. It should be a soft and buttery, and not stick to your hands.
- Now decide how to shape the dough. The most popular shape is a long plait. So divide the dough into two, and then divide each half into three equal parts.
- Line 2 baking trays with baking parchment
- Make long 'sausages' and, using three for each loaf, make a plait and put on the baking trays. Now cover the loaves and allow them to rise for another few hours. They will treble in size.
- When they have risen, put the oven on at 160°, leave it to warm up. Now make the egg glaze.
Make the egg glaze
- Put all the ingredients into a bowl and whisk really well
- Brush the risen loaves with the egg glaze - it's good to let the dough recover a bit after you've glazed them as brushing the surface knocks it back a but.
- Sprinkle with the flaked almonds and bake for about 40 minutes.
- When the loaves are lovely and brown, take them out of the oven, peel off the baking parchment and allow to cool.