Tsoureki (Greek Easter Braid)
Happy Easter to all of you Western Christians and Kala Paska you all of the Orthodox persuasion. This year the Julian and the Gregorian calendars coincide so both Easters are on the same day. Here is a delicious Greek Easter bread that anyone would enjoy, similar to challah, braided, coiled around itself, bedecked with Greek red Easter eggs and perfumed with the Greek spices, mastiha (a resin from trees that grow only on the Island of Chios) and mahlebi (the tiny stones of Mahaleb cherries). The flavors of these exotic spices liken cinnamon, cloves and ginseng, and their scent is heavenly.
For one large loaf:
1/2 tbsp mahlebi (or mahlepi) stones
1 tsp crushed mastiha resin
1/4 cup water
5 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 packages yeast
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter
3 raw eggs total
1/2 cup sugar
a little vegetable oil for greasing
3 hard-boiled dyed eggs for decoration
Begin by crushing the mahlebi and the mastiha to a powder. Mix the yeast with the milk and proof for about 1/2 hour. Add the water and 1/2 cup of the flour to make a sticky mass called a sponge. Cover, and let double in bulk, about 2 hours.
Punch down and add the sugar, then two whole eggs, one at a time, being careful to fully incorporate each before adding the next, then add the white of the 3rd egg and mix. Reserve the yolk for the egg wash. Now, slowly add the 4 1/2 cups of flour, the mastiha, the mahlebi and the salt, mixing well to incorporate. Turn out onto a bread board and knead until you have a smooth, uniform texture. Grease the bowl then return the dough to it, cover and let double in bulk, again about 2 more hours.
Once the dough has risen, punch down and form into three even pieces. Roll each piece out on the board to long, even ropes (the length depends on you, I rolled really long, thin ropes so that I could coil the braid around itself into a pretty circle.) Pinch the ropes together and begin to braid, rather loosely, as this will puff and you'll need room to fit the eggs in. Music to braid your Tsoureki by: "Do You Love Coffee?" by Braid.
Place the braid on a baking sheet ideally on a piece of parchment paper and let rise again. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Once the braid is risen, fit an odd number of dyed-red eggs into the braid, brush with the egg yolk and bake for 30 minutes. If, after 15 minutes, the bread looks a bit too dark, lower the temperature to 300F and bake for another 30 minutes for 45 minutes total. Remove from the oven when you've achieved a rich brown color and the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. Enjoy with your Easter meal.
**Thanks very much to Julia of A Slice of Cherry Pie for hosting the Easter Cake Bake!