Homemade Tsoureki "Easter Bread"

Greek Holiday Foods
Easter is right around the corner, and today in the Orthodox church we remember the crucifixion of Christ. The church always holds services the previous night for the actual day that the events will occur. Today, this morning actually, is the remembering of the last supper. We ascend to Mt. Zion with Christ and the chosen twelve to enter into the upper room for a special gathering. Once there, we witness the example of Christ abolishing the practice of the Old Covenant and establishing the ritual of the New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah, through the Mystery of Holy Communion. The faithful who have prepared also partake in communion during tonight’s evening service. This also will include the memorial of the underserved suffering of Jesus Christ, endured for our sake, so that we might be reconciled anew to God the Father. The Gospel readings go through each account of his arrest, his trial, his conviction, and finally his torture, crucifixion and death at the hands of sinful humanity. Tonight ends with a very heavy heart and understanding of the crucified Christ. Below are the icons of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion of Christ. I hope to make a blog dedicated to the explanation of Byzantine icons and what they represent; I have come a long way from being confused and irritated by the veneration of icons to finally understanding their meaning and place in the church. More on that later though. 
Thankfully though, we know what is coming on Saturday evening/Sunday morning. . . Christ WILL and HAS ALREADY risen!!! With this is mind, we continue to prepare for the great feast of Easter. We dye eggs, we make tsoureki, and we continue to prepare our spirits and minds for a new awakening and celebration of the truly Risen King. 
I made tsoureki before we left the island and will share with you the recipe I used. Although it was my first time and I combined a few different recipes, the bread turned out quite beautiful and tasty, if I do say so myself … and I do! 
Before the recipe, let me tell you what I have learned about the history and meaning of this wonderful Easter Bread. Τσουρέκι (pronounced tsou-RE-ki) is also called Λαμπρόψωμο (proniunced lam-BRO-pso-mo) meaning the “Bright or Shining Bread” named after “Bright Easter Sunday” when Christ Rises!!! It is made to symbolize the light given to Christians by Christ’s resurrection and the passing from what we are to what the Risen Lord wants us to be: “partakers of the divine nature”. It is braided with three strands to represent the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Typically, it is decorated with brightly dyed eggs and sliced blanched almonds, but sometimes you can even find chocolate covered! The dyed eggs represent the blood that Christ has shed for us and the new life we begin at the resurrection, and well, the almonds and chocolate, they just look and taste great :) 
Tsoureki is a rich, sweet, brioche-like bread that is traditionally flavored with an essence drawn from the seeds of Mediterranean wild cherries, called μαχλέπι (Maxlepi, pronounced mahk-LE-pi). The combination of maxlepi, Chios mastic, cardamom, and either vanilla or orange zest makes for an incomparable sweet bread. Greece also celebrates Christmas with a similar type of bread called, Christopsomos, meaning literally Christ bread. Sometimes the New Year’s coin is also hidden inside of a sweet bread instead of a cake too. 
I used a combination of 2-3 different recipes, and the end result was beautiful and tasted good. The only fault I made was not adding enough sugar. I ended up covering it in chocolate and it was PERFECT!!! Lesson learned = add more sugar if you will be serving plain or use less sugar if you plan to cover in chocolate!  
Okay, Okay… finally to the recipe :) 
Greek Easter “Tsoureki” Bread Recipe: Makes 1 loaf
1/2 cup more milk (about 100-110°)
1 T. sugar + 1/2 – 3/4 cup if you want sweet bread
1 1/2 T. active dry yeast 
1/2 – 1 cup bread flour + 3-4 cups more to make dough
2 eggs + 1 to brush on dough
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1-2 tsp. maxlepi*, optional
1 tsp. mastic, optional
1-2 tsp. cardamom*
1-2 T. brandy*
1 T. orange zest*
dash of salt
1 tsp. vanilla* (or more if not using zest or spices) 

*The spices I used

Mix 1/2 – 1 cup flour, yeast, 1 T. sugar, and warm milk together until a thick, wet batter is formed, rest 30-60 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and enough flour to form a dough. Knead for 5-8 minutes and cover to rise for 1-2 hours, until doubled or almost tripled in size. Punch down dough and divide into 3 equal parts. Using as little flour as necessary, roll the dough into about 12-14″ long ropes. Gently braid the ropes together forming a loaf and tuck under the ends making sure to seal them well. Preheat your oven to 400°, let braid rise for 20-30 minutes, then brush with your beaten egg: use the egg white for a light colored bread, use the whole egg (I did) for a medium colored bread, or use only the yolk for a deep brown colored bread. Place sliced almonds all over your bread and strategically position your eggs! Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce heat to 350° and bake for another 25-35 minutes or until golden brown and hallow when tapped on the bottom.

PS. A trick used to make and keep the bright red eggs shiny is to rub them with olive oil!!!

We are now in Halkidiki with the in-laws and the sun is shining and Meli is barking :) This is the first time our inside pup will experience the joy of being an outside dog! She has already made the garden chickens her friends, and I use the term friends very loosely…. she observes them more from afar and barks when they come too close!

Kali Anastasi (Good Resurrection) is a common greeting over the next few days! 


Greek Holiday Foods
New Years Day Cake … 2011

Greece has a wonderful tradition of making a cake with a hidden coin and cutting it on New Year’s Eve. The “Vasilopita” commemorates a miracle performed by St. Basil while serving as a bishop. The legend varies as to how St. Basil became the guardian of all the gold, silver, and jewelry of Caesarea. There became much confusion upon returning the riches, and everyone began to get upset. St. Basil suggested that the women bake cakes and put the coins inside. When the cakes were cut, everyone found the exact money they were due!

Today a single coin is baked into each cake to remember the miracle, and whomever finds the coin is considered blessed for the new year! Cool, eh?

So, anytime a family or group is gathered (on New Years or following weeks after) they cut a Vasilopita. First, the cake is given the sign of the cross with three fingers (representing the Trinity) for a blessing. Second, the first three pieces are always cut 1st for Christ, 2nd for Mary, 3rd for St. Basil. Next follows with the eldest family members or honored guests. It is always very exciting for the blessed person finding the coin!

This year I made our Vasilopita Cake, and it was delicious!!! We toasted with some champagne and enjoyed bringing the new coming year with a touch of sweetness.

All the way from Lesvos, Greece … we wish you a very blessed New Year 2011. May you strive to be the person God has made you to be, may He lead you in each step you take, may you listen closely for His voice and follow, may you choose to find the love, joy, peace, and patience in everything God allows to come across your path, and may this build your faith and wisdom every day of 2011. Our coin was in Christ’s piece, I guess that means we will all be blessed this year as long as we are following Him!

Vasilopita Recipe (Makes one large round cake or two smaller cakes)
4 cups flour, sifted (I use 1/2 cups whole wheat)
2 T. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon or all spice
1 cup butter, softened 
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1-2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 cups milk
zest of 1 lemon or orange
Confectioner’s sugar 
1 coin (cleaned and wrapped in foil)

Preheat oven to 350°F and butter or line your round cake pan. Sift dry ingredients in small bowl and cream butter and sugar in another bowl. Add eggs to sugar mixture gradually, then stirring in vanilla and zest. Alternately mix in the dry ingredients with the milk, beginning and ending with the milk. Bake for 40-45 minutes, remove and cool on rack. Decorate with powdered sugar and or icing.


Greek Holiday Foods

Greek Christmas Sweets.

These are one of two traditional Christmas sweets made all over Greece. They are a simple, delicious syrup cookie made with fresh juice, zest, and cinnamon and spices. Once baked they are crunchy, but after a light syrup bath and topped with nuts, they are transformed into a decadent Greek sweet.

This recipe makes 25-30 cookies, so you will have plenty to share. But if you are feeling a little Scrooge like and want to keep them all for yourself, they also freeze very well :) As you can see, I mixed in some cocoa for the remaining 8-10 cookies, and it gave them a nice chocolate oomph (but only do this with a few, otherwise you take away the traditional taste).

The trick is to make them soft but not soggy, light but not falling apart.

For the cookies:
1 cup olive oil
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
Zest of one orange
Zest 1/2 lemon
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup brandy (optional)
4 – 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 cup Semolina, fine grain
3/4 cup walnuts, ground coarsely ( I mix with almonds too)

For the syrup:
1 cup honey
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
2-3 whole cloves
1 2-inch piece lemon rind


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter and oil with the sugar until well mixed. Add the orange juice, zests, spices, and brandy mixing well.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Slowly incorporate the flour cup by cup until the mixture forms a dough that is not too loose but not quite firm either. It will be dense and wet but not sticky. Once the flour is incorporated fully stop mixing.To roll cookies, pinch a portion of dough off about the size of a walnut. Shape in your palms into a smooth ball, then roll along the side of your zester to give a slight texture and flattening slightly. Fill an ungreased cookie sheet, repeat. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 25 – 30 minutes until lightly browned. (The cookies will darken when submerged in syrup.)

While the cookies are baking, prepare the syrup.

In a saucepan, combine the honey, sugar, water, cinnamon, cloves, and lemon rind. Bring the mixture to a boil then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon, cloves, and lemon rind. Place the ground walnuts in a shallow plate or bowl next to the stove top. When the cookies come out of the oven and while they are still very warm, carefully float the cookies in the syrup and allow the cookies to absorb syrup on both sides.

Using a fork or small spatula, remove the cookie from the syrup and place on a platter or plate. Press ground walnuts lightly into the tops of the cookies (syrup will help it adhere) and sprinkle lightly with ground cinnamon. Do not refrigerate Melomakarona as they will harden. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.