Tsoureki – The Bread That Swallows Its Tail

Tsoureki… Greek Easter Bread

Yesterday, in preparation for the Greek Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) celebration, I made the traditional braided Greek Easter Bread known as tsoureki. I baked three loaves, one for my wife and I, one for our goddaughter, and one for our godson. As is typical, along with the bread, I dyed a dozen hardboiled eggs red. There is nary a Greek home anywhere on the planet that will not have these two elements present in the Holy Week to come. Easter is the most important religious celebration in Greece, and the customs and practices related to this period of the calendar are as diverse as the topography and regional differences within Greece. Yet, the dyed eggs and the plaited bread are universal.
The reason we braid the tsoureki is to symbolize the Resurrection of Life that comes with springtime. The wedding of this symbolism to the Orthodox Christian Calendar and the figure of Jesus Christ is not a coincidence. The tradition of plaiting bread is old; it predates the arrival of the Gospel among the Greeks. The ancient, pre-Christian Greeks also baked braided breads (στρεπτικιος αρτος), and though some may have a problem with my referring to it in this context, when making tsoureki, I am always reminded of Ouroboros, the serpent which swallows its tail, one of the oldest symbols of the repeating cycles of Nature; the eternal renewal. From the dark and gloom of winter, we emerge into an increasingly illumined and awakening world that presages the coming of the summer sun, which gives us hope for the harvest to follow.
There are some who make tsoureki as more of a cake than bread, but that is too sweet and gateau-like for my tastes… This recipe for the traditional Greek Easter Bread is exactly that: bread. Ah, but what bread! The subtle mingling of the customary aromatic ingredients of orange rind, mahlepi and mastic add their nuances to the trace sweetness of this bread and it goes down real easy, especially with some Greek coffee.

1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) white flour
6 eggs
1 – 1 ½ cups (250-375 ml.) sugar
1 cup (250 ml.) butter
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons (30 ml.) finely shredded orange rind
2 tablespoons (30 ml.) yeast
1 – 1 ½ tsp. (7 ml.) ground mahlepi
½ tsp. powdered mastic resin
  1. Dissolve the yeast in 1 cup (250 ml.) of lukewarm water.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, slowly add 3/4 cup (175 ml.) of flour to the yeast while mixing well to form a thick, smooth batter.
  3. Cover the mixing bowl with a kitchen towel and put in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes.
  4. In a saucepan, melt the butter and sugar together then remove from heat, add the milk, orange rind, mahlepi and mastic then stir well and pour mixture into a large mixing bowl; let stand to cool but not completely; the mixture should still be slightly warm for our purpose. (Warm, mind you, not hot…)
  5. Retrieve the risen yeast and add it to the slightly warm and aromatic butter-sugar mixture along with the beaten egg yolks, mixing well all the while. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites into stiff peaks, and then slowly alternating between them add the egg whites and the rest of the flour a bit at a time to the mix until the dough is neither very soft, nor overly hard. [You may need to add a splash of lukewarm water to the mix if you find the dough is too hard to work properly.]
  6. Cover dough with a towel and let stand ina warm place to rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours. It should at least double in bulk before being ready for use.
  7. Once it has risen, do not knead the dough, simply divide it into nine (9) balls of equal size and prepare a well-floured board or surface to roll each of them into 1 foot (30 cm.) long strands, approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm.) in diameter.
  8. Working with three dough strands at a time, place them side by side and pinching them tightly together at one end, proceed to braid the strands in an intertwining fashion, then pinch the loose ends together and fold both pinched ends slightly under the loaf. Spread a piece of parchment paper on (or grease) a large baking sheet and place each braided loaf on the sheet. When all three loaves have been thus prepared, cover them with a towel and place in a warm spot to rise for another 90 minutes. Each of the loaves should at least double in size.
  9. Beat and dilute one egg yolk with a slight bit of milk (about 1 tablespoon or 15 ml.) then brush the top of each of the loaves with the mixture; this is what gives the tsoureki its distinctive glossy brown colouring when baked.
  10. Place the loaves into an oven pre-heated at 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 30-40 minutes until done.
*Note: Optionally, you can sprinkle some chopped blanched almonds overtop of each loaf after brushing them with the egg-yolk mixture before putting them in the oven. I didn’t do this as my godson has a nut allergy.
Well, there you have it, a tsoureki to break bread with on Easter morning. For all those who are celebrating Greek Easter, I want to take this opportunity to wish you a Joyous Resurrection!

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