Traditional Greek Easter Bread (Tsoureki)
Easter is almost here! For all us Greeks, Easter (called Pascha in Greek) is the greatest religious holiday of the year. Celebrating Easter in Greece, is a beautiful event, even for the non-believers. The mysticism surrounding the days right before the Resurrection (which is celebrated on Holy Saturday, at midnight) is truly unique. Easter is a huge deal; a great social event, rich in traditions.
After the Great Lent, which starts 40 days before Easter (on Clean Monday), is the Holy Week, the week before Easter. This is a time when most Greeks, even the most secular ones, are fasting, abstaining from meat and dairy consumption. Churches are packed with people every night; the priests read the gospels that tell the story of Jesus’s last days and His path to the cross and the Resurrection. These days have a great sense of community, as everyone awaits Jesus’ redemption.
After all, Easter is always on spring, so there’s a great relation between Jesus’s resurrection and nature’s rebirth as well, after the long period of winter. Celebrating Easter in Greece is filled with the smells of flower blossoms, like jasmine and lilac. Most people celebrate Pascha in the country, in their villages of origin, so they’re getting in touch with their roots, meeting friends and relatives in a huge (and loud!) Greek celebration:)
Holy Week's Traditions
Some of the most popular Easter culinary traditions begin on Holy Thursday. This is the day of the beginning of The Passion, so eggs are dyed red, to symbolize the blood of our Lord. Most people dye hard boiled eggs at home; but they’re also available (already boiled and dyed) in super markets and grocery stores.
Another Holy Thursday tradition, is baking the Easter bread “Tsoureki”, which is very similar to Challah. It’s a braided sweet bread, that’s served after the Resurrection. Placing a red dyed egg in the middle of the Tsoureki is also common. The aroma of this sweet bread is truly unique; it’s a combination of ground Chios mastic (a natural resin) and ground mahleb (also called mahlab or mahlepi, it’s ground wild cherry pits). This is the recipe we’ll be sharing with all of you this Easter. As for getting those two ingredients, don’t worry; you can easily order them online and get them delivered to your doorstep; they are widely available:)
Many people are also baking Easter cookies, called koulourakia on Holy Thursday. They’re butter based, braided and glazed, and are usually served on Easter Sunday.
Both koulourakia cookies and the sweet Tsoureki bread are also eaten all year round, as they’re very popular with coffee and tea.
As the Passion progresses on Good Friday, the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus, the fasting is much stricter. On this day, most people will abstain from any type of protein and fat (like olive oil). Most people eat simple salads, dried or fresh fruits, bread and nuts. It’s a day of mourning; the image of Jesus is put on a funeral bier and the bells toll solemnly throughout the day. The bier is called Epitafios (or Epitaphios/Epitaph), and it’s decorated by young girls with spring flowers. During this day, almost everyone will visit a church, after midday (when the decoration is over) to pay his or her respects to this symbolic Jesus’ bier, usually throwing some flower pedals on it, like you would do for a close person or a relative who has passed away.
In the evening, there’s the Perifora of the Epitaph. In every town or village, the Epitafios is carried on the shoulders of the worshippers, in a symbolic funeral procession which takes place in the main streets. The people carrying the Epitafios are constantly changing in this process, as it is a great honor to carry Jesus on one’s shoulders. The people following the bier are holding lit funeral candles, and chanting one of the most wonderful Orthodox hymns: "Ω γλυκύ μου έαρ" (O glyki mou e-ar), which literally means “My Sweet Spring”, mourning the death of Jesus on this most beautiful of seasons. Here’s the hymn:
On Holy Saturday, people are beginning the preparations for the dinner that follows the midnight service and the next day’s (Easter Sunday) feast. In this day, most people will prepare the Magiritsa soup. Magiritsa is a soup with dill or fennel, greens and lamb’s liver and/or other offal, in egg-lemon sauce (avgolemono). When we prepare this dish ourselves we only use liver, as we find that it tastes much better; but if you’re not into offal, don’t worry: there’s a vegetarian version as well, made with mushrooms that’s equally delicious!
At the same day, people prepare two of the main dishes for Easter Sunday: the lamb or goat, that’s usually whole spit-roasted, is prepared with spices and it’s put on a spit to drain. The other dish is the kokoretsi, that’s truly not for the faint-hearted:) Kokoretsi is lamb’s (or goat’s) offal, usually liver and lung, chopped in small pieces and placed in a spit, heavily seasoned and tightly tied together with the lamb’s small intestine (that’s thoroughly cleaned at least a day before). The reason for this, is leaving nothing to go to waste, but we do realize that it’s a tough sight for any non-Greek to see:)
On Holy Saturday evening, most people will visit a church before midnight, for the last Mass. This is a huge community event; everywhere you look, around midnight you’ll see families walking towards a church with lambades on their hands. Lambades are the celebratory candles (white or decorated ones), that will be lit with the Holy Fire just a few minutes before Easter. The children’s lambades are usually given to them by their godparents or their grandparents (if the godparents weren’t available).
The Holy Fire is miraculously lit during Mass on Jerusalem, on the actual site of Jesus’ tomb on Holy Saturday and it’s then flown to Greece and distributed to all the churches, a few hours before midnight (when Easter will be celebrated).
So, when the priest reads the gospel with the story of the Angel discovering that Jesus was resurrected, the Holy Fire is distributed to the people observing the Mass. The flame of the Holy fire is passed from person to person and all the lambades are lit and any other lights are turned off. It’s truly a mystical moment, that wins even the hearts of the most devoted atheists:) People you don’t even know (and probably won’t see again) light your candle and you exchange wishes with them (and then pass the flame, lighting the candle of the people next to you).
On midnight, the priest is chanting “Χριστός Ανέστη!” (Christos Anesti! – Christ is Risen!) and the Easter frenzy begins! :) First, you kiss and hug every relative that is with you in the Church. Second, you kiss and hug any neighbor or other familiar person from your town or village you see on the church as well:) The bells toll madly and joyously, in the ports the ships sounds their horns, fireworks go off everywhere, in the villages people fire their hunting shotguns(!)…you get the picture :)
And then the people start walking back to their homes with the lit lambabes on hand. It’s a wonderful sight to see, with all the smiling faces eager to start their dinner.
When people arrive at home, the tradition is to make the sign of the cross with the smoke of the Holy Fire on the door sill. At least one candle with the Holy Fire is then placed at the center of the dinner table.
The two main items on Holy Saturday’s dinner are the magiritsa soup and the hard-boiled red dyed eggs. The reason for not serving something like grilled meat (since the Lent is over after the midnight service), is to prepare one, after having abstained from meat for so long, with something lighter. So, the protein from the soup and the eggs is perfect; after all, this dinner is served very late at night.
But you don’t simply crack the eggs open and eat them; nope! :) Where’s the fun in that? On Easter, there’s a sort of “competition” at the dinner table. Here’s the deal: everyone selects a red dyed egg. Then, in pairs, people tap each other’s egg, intending to break the other’s without breaking one’s own. The last person with his or her egg intact, is the lucky person of the night:) When one taps the egg of another, one says “Christos Anesti – Christ is Risen” and the other answers “Alithos Anesti – It’s true that he is Risen”. Isn’t this wonderful?
And then, before you know it, it’s Easter Sunday morning! Early in this day, the men in the family prepare the fire and start roasting the kokoretsi and the lamb. This is traditionally a men’s work. The women prepare different small plates with meze, like eggs, dips and other goodies. These are the appetizers served before the big feast, that will follow when the lamb is ready. Most people try to eat less of those, and drink less wine and beer as well, to enjoy the roasted lamb when the table is set for the Easter Lunch.
When the lamb is ready, roasted to the point that the meat is falling off the bone, it is transferred to a table and carved into portions. The Easter table is then prepared, again with eggs, dips and other meze, salads and breads and A LOT of wine and beer. People stuff their faces with lamb, tell jokes and stories, and everything that you’d expect from a loud Greek family gathering. :)
Did we mention the music? Traditional Greek country music is played through speakers all over the country, throughout the day. This is the day when the distant uncle you’ve never seen before, is pulling your hand to stand up and dance with the rest of the family, as a courtesy to him:) Happy times, right? :)
When the feast (and the dancing) is over, which can easily take up to 12 hours (oh yes), there’s time for more: club sodas and dessert are finally served. Yes, there’s dessert as well! It all starts with the sweet tsoureki bread and continue with syrup-drenched sweets like baklava, kataifi, galaktoboureko and many more (even the non-traditional ice cream!).It’s not rare to see strange combinations at this point (perhaps the drinking has contributed to this!), like ice cream on baklava, ice cream on tsoureki, ice cream in your coffee etc.
The Tsoureki Easter Bread
But let’s get back to the wonderful sweet Easter bread: Tsoureki. As mentioned before, this is the recipe we’d like to share in this post (besides the traditions you just read). It’s a fantastic, fluffy bread, made with butter, milk, eggs and flour. The aromas from the Chios mastic, the mahleb and the orange zest however, are what make this truly unique (and delicious!).
Like we mentioned above, tsoureki is very popular and is also eaten throughout the year; you can easily get it at any bakery or pastry shop. People also bake tsoureki at home and serve it as a snack or with coffee or tea. Our favorite combination though is with chocolate-hazelnut spreads like Merenda or Nutella. You really don’t know what you’re missing if you never tried a slice of tsoureki with such spread! Please do try it.
If you never tried Tsoureki or Challah (that’s similar) before, making one might sound a bit challenging. Please don’t be intimidated though; with our step by step instructions, we’re confident you’ll bake a magnificent Tsoureki at your first attempt. Feel free to drop as an email or comment below, if you have any questions; we’re happy to help.
The secret for a really great Tsoureki is choosing a high-protein bread flour. You should check the package, with the nutritional info. The protein percentage should be at least 13% and the higher it is, the better. We usually buy a 14-16% protein flour ourselves. Also, don’t ever bake Tsoureki in a hurry. You should give the dough the proper time to rise if you want a fluffy and chewy texture.
So, let’s see the recipe for the authentic, traditional Greek tsoureki!
- 500g / 17.5oz / 1lb bread flour*
- 200g / 7oz granulated sugar
- 115g / 4oz (1 stick) butter
- 125ml (1/2 cup) milk, lukewarm
- 12g / 0.4oz (1 1/2 sachet) dry yeast
- 3 eggs for the dough
- 1 egg, beaten for brushing the loaf before baking
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground Chios mastic**
- 1 teaspoon ground mahleb/mahlab**
- zest from a medium sized orange***
* Choose the bread flour with the highest protein content; the more the better. We buy 14%-16% protein flour. The minimum for this recipe is 13%. Check the package to verify this.
** Don’t worry about finding these. If they aren’t available at your local supermarket you can easily get them online and have them delivered to your doorstep.
*** Take off only the rind of the orange's skin. Be careful not to take the white pith as well, as it is bitter.
Grind the mastic into powder, with a mortar and pestle. You can use 1 teaspoon (or 2) of the sugar to make this easier, as mastic tends to be sticky when ground (pic. 1-3).
Add the yeast (pic. 4) and 1/4 of the flour –that’s 125g / 4.5oz- (pic.5) to the lukewarm milk.
Mix well (pic. 6) and cover with film or a kitchen towel. Set aside, away from drafts. Let it rest for about 30minutes to 1 hour until it doubles in size. Melt the butter on low heat. Set aside to cool.
Use a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer and beat the 3 eggs, for a few seconds. Add the sugar (pic. 7) and whisk, on medium speed, for about a minute (pic. 8).
Add the salt, the mahleb (pic. 9) and the mastic (pic. 10),
the orange zest (pic. 11) and the melted butter (pic. 12). Whisk for a few more seconds.
Add the prepared yeast mixture (pic. 13). Replace the whisk attachment with the dough hook (pic. 14). If you don’t have one, you’ll have to mix well with a spatula.
Gradually add the flour, one tablespoon at a time (pic. 15), while mixing continuously. Knead with the hook for 10 minutes (pic. 16), on low speed. If you don’t have a dough hook, knead by hand for 15 minutes.
The dough must be firm, smooth and a bit elastic. Place in a bowl (pic. 17), cover with film or a kitchen towel and set aside for 2 – 3 hours to double in size.
Punch down to deflate the dough. Empty it on a working surface (pic. 18). You can also dust the surface with very little flour. Be careful though; too much flour will have an impact on your tsoureki. If the dough isn’t sticking much, don’t flour the surface at all.
Divide the dough in 3 pieces (pic. 19). Roll each piece to form a loaf-like shape. Hold the ends and stretch it a bit more, to form a rope-like strand (like the ones in the beginning, in pic. 20). When the 3 pieces are formed into strands, pinch their ends together at one end (again, like in the beginning of pic. 20).
Braid the strands, the way that is shown in the animated picture (pic. 20):
1. Take the right strand and bring it over the middle strand. Set this next to the left strand.
2. Take the strand that’s now on the right, and move it slightly further to the right.
3. Take the left strand and bring it over the middle strand next to the right strand.
4. Take the right strand and bring it over the middle strand. Set it next to the left strand.
5. Take the left strand and bring it over the middle strand next to the right strand.
6. Continue the process (left to the right-then right to the left), depending on how long your strands are.
7. Tuck the ends underneath the braided loaf.
Don’t worry if the above is confusing to you! Here’s an amazing video from Titli Nihaan that can make braiding super easy to anyone.
Repeat as many times necessary to get the idea (that’s what we did a few years back!)
Carefully transfer the braided loaf on a -lined with parchment- baking sheet. Cover with a damp kitchen towel and set aside. Let it rise, for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. Brush generously with the egg that’s left (pic. 21).
Bake in preheated oven at 190C/370F (in convection oven - fan assisted baking) for 35-40 minutes, until browned. Allow it to cool completely before cutting it.
Kalo Pascha! (Happy Easter!)
1. You really must try a slice of tsoureki with some fruit preserves or Nutella. The combination is divine!
2. Always wrap the tsoureki in film after cutting the slices you want to serve, in order to keep it moist, as it tends to dry out.
3. In case that’s rare!- there’s some tsoureki left after a couple of days, you can broil or toast it and make rusks. Those are perfect with your coffee or tea.
4. Choose a high-protein bread flour for this recipe. The more protein, the better.
5. If you liked tsoureki, and you like authentic bread recipes, you should also check out Karen Kerr’s amazing blog “Karen's Kitchen Stories”. Her food blog is one of our favorites and we often visit it to learn techniques and discover tips; especially those related to baking, as Karen is one of the top bakers out there. Take a look at this beautiful Challah for instance. Isn’t it wonderful?