Tsoureki (Greekstyle Sweet Brioche Bread) Sweet Mahlab Bread
There’s a few things I will say about this bread and I few things I won’t. Let’s do the won’ts first to get those out of the way shall we. I won’t talk about how my family had this during the holidays because we had this bread all year round so I don’t have memories of this bread associated with any particular holiday, although in Greek/Orthodox culture it is most commonly made and eaten during Easter season. We loved this bread growing up and my mom and aunts would make it all the time. We always had frozen loaves in the freezer and we enjoyed them all year round - and so this bread should be enjoyed. It’s fragrant and delicious and it’s brioche for goodness sake and it most definitely should not be limited to an annual indulgence!
Lets now go on to what I will talk about. Very simply the smell of this baking makes my heart sing and I could literally eat the whole loaf myself especially if it’s fresh out of the oven. I remember my aunt always sending us home with freshly baked and frozen loaves every time we would visit her and the fresh one would be totally eaten before we got home. Granted it was an hour drive, but still I think I’m painting a clear picture here. I would stick my head in the bag my aunt wrapped it in and breath in the goodness that is tsoureki.
Ok so what is tsoureki really? It is Greek-style egg and butter enriched sweet bread or brioche that is flavoured with mastic/mastica, mahlab/mahlepi, cardamom and orange zest. Those flavours make this bread so fragrant and are classic to the Greek version of this style bread. There are many variations but those are the flavours I have alway known to be included. Mahlab/mahlepi/mahleb is actually ground kernels of cherry stones and brings the most unique flavour to the bread - without it and the mastic you will not get that classic Greek style tsoureki fragrance. Some replace it with ground anise seed but it truly stands on its own when it comes to flavour - it cannot truly be substituted. You can find it at any Middle Eastern shops and Greek bakeries will usually sell it too - but not if you live in Trinidad. I learned that quickly and could not get my hands on any when I wanted to make some over my break last summer. Needless to say I stocked up on that and mastic when I was back home. I researched a lot about substitutions but the ingredients that kept coming up were not worth searching for cause they were more obscure than the ingredient itself (like Chinese almonds - if we ain’t got Mahlab here we ain’t going to have ground Chinese almonds/ground apricot seeds).
The mastic also brings a very unique flavour to the bread too. You only need a little and it goes a long way. Too much could add bitterness to the bread so be mindful. It is an aromatic gum or resin which exudes from the bark of a Mediterranean tree, used in making varnish and chewing gum and as a flavouring. In the bread it’s the latter - just in case you needed me to clarify. Mastic tastes similar to licorice and is usually sold in small pouches. It looks like clear or white pieces of stone. I usually put mine in the fridge before I grind it in the food processor or in a mortar and pestle so that it doesn’t turn too gummy or sticky too quickly when working with it. You can find this in the same places I mentioned you could find mahlepi.
Ok can you make it without those two items? Yes it will still be a delicious texture with a hint of sweetness as it usually is but it will not have the same flavour. The cardamom helps but doesn’t compensate for those two. I mentioned texture above and tsoureki has the most delicious texture that is very similar to brioche. It’s soft, light, and stringy. You can pull it apart like your pulling away layers of mozzarella. It’s so fantastic and the texture really is what matters when you make it. The working of the dough is what helps this texture actually happen so it’s critical to knead by hand or electrically for the time shown below. Basically get ready for an arm work out if you don’t have a standing mixer. A handheld mixer helped but I still had to work it cause it’s such a sticky and glutinous dough. I actually thought that my hand mixer would not survive it but she did just fine with dough hooks.
This was my first time making this and nailed the texture. What that means is that if I nailed it on my first try then anyone can do it. Just be brave and power through, especially if you’re kneading by hand. I had trouble with the braid. I was already nervous making it without my mom via FaceTime guiding me along (she was in Germany visiting my grandmother who has no internet) plus it was so hot inside my kitchen that the dough was literally rising as I braided it. This didn’t affect the taste, texture or flavour just the aesthetics. I was ok with that and I know I will get more practice with that as I make more and more loaves!! I do have one last bit of mahlepi and mastic left so those loaves will be rolling out again soon. With more practice I may update the post but below is the most basic recipe I experimented with and researched and the closest to how I remember my mom making it. So come along my tsoureki adventure and give it a try!
Makes 2 loaves
For the starter
- ½ cup of milk (lukewarm)
- 1 tbsp active dry yeast (instant)
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp All purpose flour
For the dough
- 1 tbsp mahlepi
- ¼ tsp of ground mastic or 1.5 grams of rock mastic ground
- 5 cardamom pods
- ½ tsp salt
- 4 cups bread flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¾ milk (lukewarm)
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- Zest of one orange
- 2 oz or ½ stick of butter cubed and at room temperature
- 1 egg yolk plus 2 tbsps of water whisked for eggwash
- Sliced almonds to sprinkle over loaves
In a large bowl whisk together all the starter ingredients until fully combined and let sit for approx 10 minutes until the yeast mixture is foamy and yeast is activated.
Meanwhile in a small food processor/mini chopper process the mahlepi, mastic, cardamom pods and salt until everything is ground to a powder. Alternatively use a mortar and pestle to grind the mastic and then the cardamom pods separately, then whisking them together with the salt and then setting aside
In a large bowl whisk together the bread flour, sugar, mahlepi, ground mastic and freshly ground cardamom, salt, orange zest until well combined.
Once the yeast is activated, add all the rest of the ingredients to it and if you are using stand mixer mix using your dough hook attachment on low for 8 minutes. Continue mixing and then add the softened butter and then increase speed to medium and knead for another 2 minutes. Dough will be very elastic and will start to pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl.**
Brush a bowl with olive oil or melted butter and transfer the dough into it and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a warm spot and let it sit and double in volume - approx 1 ½ - 2 hours.
Once ready remove plastic wrap and save then punch down dough and transfer to a clean working surface. If the dough is very sticky you can flour the working surface but add very little at a time - adding no more than a total of 2-3 tbsp.
Roll out the dough into the shape of a baguette and then fold over and roll out in to shape of a baguette again repeating this 5-8 times which helps create chewy threads and texture in the bread.
Cut the dough in half with a large knife or bench scraper, then cut each half into 3 equal pieces. Cover 3 pieces with plastic wrap while you work with the remaining 3.
Gently shape each piece into a rough log with your hands, then roll it out into long ropes (I use my baking pan to measure the length), working slowly so your dough rolls out evenly. If you notice your ropes shrinking or pulling back too much when you remove pressure or feel them pull against you, leave them sit for a few minutes and come back to them. Wrap with plastic wrap if letting them sit and rest for a few minutes so they don’t dry out.
Place the ropes next to each other, pinching the ends on one side to seal. Tuck ends under for a smooth finish, and spread out the ropes as wide as possible on your counter. Loosely braid your ropes together, laying one strand on top of the other, not pulling or stretching them. You want a braid free from gaps, but you don’t want to strangle it too tightly either. Adjust your ropes throughout so they stay wide on your work surface, which will make for a more even finished product. When you reach the end, pinch the ends together and tuck them under as you did the other side. (This I have to still master - but I think that texture is way more important than aesthetics when it comes to tsoureki. Once you have the texture the braid you can practice and get better at overtime)
If you’re making straight loaves, simply transfer the braid carefully onto a greased or lined sheet pan. If you’re making springform rounds, transfer to the prepared pan, leaving about a ½ inch of space between the outer edge of your bread ring and the perimeter of the pan. Cover each loaf with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap and place back in your warm spot to let rise until doubled in size, about 1- 1 ½ hours.
Preheat oven to 350˚F
Brush loaves with eggwash and sprinkle generously with sliced almonds and transfer to oven and bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown (brown on the puffy parts and still light in the creases). Bake one at a time or both at the same time depending on how large your baking trays are. My two fit it in at the same time.
Remove from oven when done and transfer to wire rack to cool for 30 minutes and then slice and enjoy!
If using hand mixer with the spiral hooks like I did I mixed for 10 minutes and on medium high speed as I turned the bowl and then added the butter and continue to mix for another 2-3 minutes. If you are kneading by hand knead in a bowl or on counter top for at least 15 minutes to achieve a elastic texture and the gluten has formed well.