The Easter Season Continues with the Flavors of Eastern Orthodox Tradition

Growing up I always thought it was weird that Easter came twice. Let me clarify why. If you read the previous Easter post, you might remember that Western Easter follows the Georgian calendar. This is the same calendar for Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, and any other Protestant denomination you can think of. Eastern Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, follow the Julian calendar. It sounds fancy but it basically is just different math. Easter is one of those ‘moveable feast’ holidays, and that’s why it’s different every year anyway. But back to two Easters. My father was raised Protestant, and my mother is Greek Orthodox. For most things, there’s very little difference. Christmas is the same, you still go to church on Sundays, but Easter and the holy week events following it are on different days than most of the rest of the country. So when I was little we’d have Easter with egg hunts and Easter candy at home, and then a couple of weeks later, the Easter Bunny would show up at my grandma’s house and leave me more candy! Of course, then we’d go to church and I’d get to smell the incense and listen to the Greek words that I couldn’t understand.

After cocktail hour at church – during which I would stuff myself full of lemon or cream cheese Danishes – we’d stop off at the bakery and pick up our Easter bread. You guys know by now that I love food. It’s not often I wax poetic about something as common as bread, but this bread? Sigh. It was perfect. Moist, sweet, light but still dense. And the crust? Perfect. The ‘icing’ on this bread cake was the fact that this bread had an egg in it! That’s right folks, a beautiful, red hard-boiled egg was baked right into the top of the bread.

Tsoureki is a magical bread. I think it’s the Mahlepi (otherwise known as Mahlab, Mahleb, Maglepi, Machlepi, and basically any permutation you can think of). This ingredient, technically a spice, is used a lot in Greek and Turkish cooking - specifically in baking. It’s pretty magical. They make it out of cherry pits. Yeah. Cherry pits. Did you know that inside that hard shell is a little nugget of goodness? Oops, sorry. I meant a seed. There’s a seed in that hard shell. So the Greeks discovered this little seed tastes really good when it’s all dried and ground up and added to bread. It’s a mixture of bitter almond, cinnamon, nutmeg and cherry flavors, and is somewhat similar to marzipan.

Now, I’ve been unable to find a Mediterranean grocery store that carries Machlepi, so I’ve been unable to try this recipe. But I’m in a big city this weekend, so I’m going to try to find a store that’s hopefully not sold out because of Easter. I’m gonna pull out my bread pans, or maybe I’ll use a springform pan since this bread is supposed to be round. The following recipe is from my aunt’s Greek Orthodox church in Morristown, New Jersey.

Tsoureki (Easter bread)

4 eggs and 1 beaten egg
2 C milk
1 C sugar and 2 Tbsp sugar
2 sticks butter
6 Tbsp dry yeast
1 tsp machlepi
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
Sifted flour

  1. Put milk and butter in a small saucepan and heat until warm (not hot or boiling).

  2. Beat the 4 eggs and 1 cup sugar together.

  3. Mix the yeast, 2 Tbsp sugar, 2 Tbsp flour, and a little warm water. Mix until blended and let the yeast proof.

  4. Add milk/butter mixture and egg/sugar mixture to the proofed yeast. Add flour as needed to create loose dough. (This will mean you probably won’t be able to knead the dough. It’s supposed to be like that.)

  5. Cover dough and let it rise to double its size. Pro tip: to decrease the time it takes for the rising step, place the bread in a warm place. Pro tip 2: don’t cover with a dish towel. It’ll totally stick all over that. Use plastic wrap instead.

  6. Punch down and reshape to whatever shape you want. Let rise once more to double its size again. The traditional Tsoureki is cut into fours, and then each fourth is cut into 3 pieces. Each piece is rolled into a long thin snake, and braided with the other pieces. Then each braid is placed into a pan that’s lined with parchment or wax paper. Traditionally the pan is a round one, and each braid is long enough that they go around the pan completely. You then place each braid on top of each other. The middle of the pan won’t be empty after the second rising step.

  7. Brush the bread with 1 egg and bake at 325°until the crust is golden brown.

This bread is best eaten toasted and buttered. In the morning. For breakfast, with coffee. Mmmm.

Posted: Sunday, May 01, 2016