I am a very lucky woman. I get to do something that I love for my job. I fell in love with bread when I realised that it was a challenge and that I could keep on learning about it forever more. Then I decided I want to spread the bread love and set up my bread making classes. All of this is my way of explaining why I am making a Greek bread that is usually made at Easter when I have barely taken down the Christmas decorations. I have to plan ahead in this game and as I popped an Easter Baking Day in the calendar last week I thought it best that I get cracking with perfecting the Tsoureki.
Tsoureki is traditionally braided and has a dyed red egg, to symbolise the blood and rebirth of Jesus, popped in the dough before the second rise so that it is nestled within the dough. The bread is enriched with butter, egg and milk and flavoured with mehlep and given a slightly stringy feel by the addition of mastic gum.
I already had the mastic gum and the mehlep seeds to hand because our lovely Cypriot Londoner friend Tony had bought some up for me when he visited. The mastic is the sap from an evergreen from the pistachio family grown only on the Greek island of Chios. It reminds me of the (very posh) sugar crystals my mum used to have for guests back in the 80’s. But pop one of the mastic gum crystals in your mouth and you get a chewing gum that is lightly scented pine forests (I am chewing, vigorously, as I type). Mastic gum has been used for centuries as a breath freshener and has anti bacterial properties and is said to be good for indigestion and stomach complaints, amongst a long list of other things. In the case of Tsoureki, you grind a small amount (I used three crystals) to a fine consistency and it imparts a delicate spicy, pine flavour as well as a slight stringiness to the soft dough.
The mehlep (aka mahleb) seeds are from the kernel of a species of cherry and have an almond flavour and impart a wonderful smell to this bread. Again you use them sparingly in this recipe. I ground five seeds along with the mastic and together they made about ¼ tsp (a pinch of each).
You can make the Tsoureki without the mastic and mehlep seeds, but it won’t have quite the right flavour or texture, so if you can get hold of them, then do. I think they are fairly easy to get online and if you are a keen cook can be used for other dishes.
550g strong white flour
1 sachet of easy bake yeast
10g fine sea salt
50g caster sugar
grated zest of 1 orange
3 pieces of mastic gum, finely ground to make a pinch
5 mehlep seeds, finely ground
150ml milk, warmed
50g butter, softened or melted with the warmed milk
50g caster sugar
50g (or ml) water
flaked almonds to decorate (optional)
Dyed red egg (if you want to be proper and traditional) or mini eggs to decorate
Place the flour, salt, yeast (keep the salt and yeast separate), sugar, orange zest, ground mastic and mehlep in a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer.
Warm the milk to hand hot, I add the butter to the pan to melt it but you can just add softened butter. Add the cool water to the milk to bring the temperature down. Check it’s not too hot (too hot and it will kill the yeast) and add to the flour. Add the egg. Now you can mix by hand or use a stand mixer.
If you use a stand mixer, then mix until well combined, turn off, leave the dough to rest for ten minutes (covered with a large bag), then mix on speed 1 for 1 minute. Leave dough to rest for ten minutes and then mix again for 1 minute. Cover the dough with large bag and allow to double in size.
If you are mixing by hand you can either mix with a clawed hand until combined and then knead for ten minutes until the dough is satiny smooth and a small piece stretches thinly before breaking or you can mix until well combined and leave to rest for ten minutes. Keep the dough in the bowl and take the half furthest away from you and stretch it over the half nearest you, turn the bowl a quarter turn and repeat the stretch and fold. Repeat this action 8-12 times until the dough starts to resist you. Cover the bowl with a large plastic bag and leave for ten minutes. Then repeat the stretches and folds. Leave to rest again and then repeat the stretches and folds. Cover the bowl and leave the dough to double in size.
Lightly flour your work surface and tip out the light and airy dough. Deflate slightly and separate into three even sized pieces. Roll each piece out into a long sausage and braid the loaf. I start from the centre and work to each end. Tuck each end underneath slightly. If you are using a dyed red egg place it in one end of the braid and the loaf will prove around it. Place the braid on a tray, cover with a large inflated plastic bag and leave to prove for about 30 minutes, until it is light and airy and has increased in size. Preheat your oven to 190°c, gas mark 5, or use the top of the baking oven of the Aga. Place a baking tray onto the shelf to heat up so you can put the tray directly onto a hot tray. It will make a difference to the rise of the loaf. Bake for 25 -30 minutes until dark golden and when pressed with a finger it resists your pressure.
In the last five minutes of baking prepare the sugar soup by placing the sugar and water in a small pan and dissolving over a gentle heat, then turn the heat up and simmer for a couple of minutes. Brush the Tsoureki with the sugar syrup as soon as it comes out of the oven. Decorate with flaked almonds, that you have toasted lightly and some mini eggs if wished. Place on a cooling tray to cool completely. It is delicious with or without butter.