There is something special about food traditionally made for holidays. Even though you could make it at any time of the year, you don’t because it would just be all sorts of wrong to do so.
Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee) is a brioche like bread that is made for Easter morning breakfast. It is enriched with butter, eggs and milk, and since Greeks will have been fasting from animal products to some degree for Great Lent, this tender and lightly sweet bread is a wonderful way to break that fast.
A typical meal for this special morning would also include hard boiled eggs that are dyed red, chunks of feta or other cheese, Kalamata olives, a crusty bread, dolmades, koulourakia (Greek butter cookies), and sliced deli meats. That’s just breakfast. There will be much more to come!
Tsoureki (which is singular, tsourekia is plural) is traditionally made on Holy Thursday before Pascha (the Greek word for Easter), which is also the day that the hard boiled eggs are also dyed in deep red, to symbolize the blood of Christ. This timing works perfectly since some of the eggs are used to decorate the bread. If you are wanting to make this bread for a non-Easter occasion, the eggs can be left off, no problem! (By the way, the dish in the background of the video below is Greek Gigantes Beans, and it’s very good!) Be sure to check out this recipe for a great way to use your leftover tsoureki!
Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread) Recipe
- 2 packets of active dry yeast (4 1/2 tsp.)
- 1/2 cup warm water, at about 110 F
- 1/4 tsp. sugar
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup salted butter
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp. ground mahlepi (this spice can be found at Greek or Middle Eastern food stores, 1/2 tsp. ground anise can be used in its place)
- 6-8 cups all purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 1 Tbsp. milk
- sesame seeds
Put the first three ingredients in a small bowl and mix gently to dissolve the yeast and sugar. Set the bowl aside.
Put the next four ingredients (milk through salt) into a small sauce pan and gently heat until the butter is completely melted and the sugar dissolved. Do not let the mixture get too hot. If the mixture gets above 110 F, allow it to cool first before using in the rest of the recipe.
Put the eggs in a bowl and beat them on high speed until they are foamy and lemon yellow in color. Lower the mixer speed to medium and add the milk mixture, yeast mixture, and mahlepi. Mix only until combined. If you are using a stand mixer, change out your attachment to the dough hook.
Measure the flour by fluffing it up with a whisk and then scooping it into a measuring cup. With the mixer on low speed, add the first 6 cups of flour one cup at a time, allowing the flour to be mostly mixed in before adding the next cup. Stop and scrape flour down from the sides as needed. Add the next cup of flour in 1/4 cup increments, allowing it to be mixed in completely before adding more. Continue to add more flour in little bits until the dough starts to cleanly separate from the sides of the bowl. If you are doing this by hand, you want to add in enough flour to eventually have a smooth dough that is no longer overly sticky. Usually no more than 8 cups should be used. It will be a very soft dough.
Put the dough into a greased bowl, turning the dough to coat all sides with oil. Cover with a towel, and place in a warm, draft free place. The oven with the light on often works very well. Let the dough rise for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in size.
Remove the dough from the bowl, and with slightly oiled hands, lightly punch it down into a ball. Divide the ball into three equal portions, then divide each portion into another three pieces each. Roll three of the pieces into long rope shapes about 16 to 18 inches long and braid them. Crimp and tuck the ends so that the pieces stay together. Repeat with the other pieces of dough. See the video above.
Lay each braid on a baking sheet about 6 inches apart and place a dyed, hard boiled egg at one end (optional). The ones in the pictures were too close together and so the loaves ended up joining together when they baked. This isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make for a neat loaf. Allow the braided loaves to rise again, uncovered, in a warm place until almost doubled, about 1 hour.
Remove the loaves if they were in the oven and heat the oven to 350 F. Mix the last egg and milk in a bowl and use a pastry brush to coat each loaf with the mixture. This egg wash will give the loaves a dark brown color as they bake. Sprinkle the loaves with sesame seeds. Bake the loaves for 20-25 minutes, or until they are dark brown on the surface and a toothpick inserted into the loaf comes out clean. The best place to test will be in one of indents between two strands of the braid so the hole doesn’t show. The bread will still be soft, so don’t be tempted to over bake to make it firm.
Remove the loaves from the oven and allow to cool for just a minute or two before carefully transferring to a cooling rack (use spatulas to help support the braid). Do not cut into the bread until completely cool, and it will actually taste best if allowed to sit for at least a day. Wrap the bread in plastic wrap after it’s completely cooled to room temperature, or else the bread will get soggy. Tsoureki is typically sliced across the short width before serving, and the egg is fine to eat since it has now been cooked twice. Enjoy!