This is my favourite Easter bread. It is so soft and has wonderfully heady flavours because of the addition of two unique spices, mastic gum and mahlep. I am tempted to call this candy floss bread because when you tear into it, it pulls out in strands just like cotton candy. Mastic gum and mahlep gives the loaf a distinctive flavour and scent -pleasantly strong and this sounds odd but it reminds me of burning church incense which is not at all bad as I like the comforting the comforting scent of church incense. Don’t be appalled though as the bread taste exceptional! So delicious it was definitely worth the effort to seek and purchase the mastic gum and mahlep. My favourite way to eat Tsoureki is with cheese or jelly although I have read it should be eaten with honey. You eat it the way you want.

I know mastic gum is used in Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisines. Often to flavour sweets, desserts and breads. Mahlep I had not hear of. Now that I have cooked with it and tasted it, my interest has been piqued.  I intend to go through my cookbooks to find out more ways to use them. I wonder what ice cream with mastic gum taste like.

I don’t have to guess what Greek Mahlep Cookies taste like though. I have made them.  They are simply wonderful!

The addition of red dyed eggs is optional but as it is Easter, I add them in. Eggs after all, are a sign of renew and dyeing eggs is such fun. This recipe is an adaptation of many Tsoureki recipes. I do have to credit the addition of anise seeds (as a substitution for mastic gum and/or mahlep) to Tessa Kiros, author of Food From Many Greek Kitchens. 

Tsoureki, Greek Easter Bread

Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 20 – 25 minutes
Inactive: First rise 1.5 – 3 hours
Second rise 45 – 60 minutes
Level: Intermediate
Serves: ~8
Oven Temperature: 350F (175C), lower middle rack
Can recipe be doubled? Yes. Bake into 2 separate loaves.
Make ahead? Dough can be made a day ahead and left to rise in the refrigerator in a lidded container that is 2X the volume of the dough.
Once baked, keep tightly covered on kitchen counter 2 -3 days. Freezes well.

Ingredients

The dough
1 and 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1/4 cup (62.5ml) water
3 and 1/3 cup (15.87oz)(450g) bread flour
1 Tablespoon vital wheat gluten*
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (3.52oz)(100g) sugar
3/4 cup (187.5ml) milk
1 large egg (1/4 cup)(62.5ml)
2 teaspoons orange zest
1/4 cup (2oz)(56g) butter melted
1 Tablespoon (1/2 oz)(14g) chilled butter cut into tiny cubes
1/8 teaspoon mastic gum also called mastika**
1 teaspoon mahlep/mahlab***
To substitute mastic gum and/or mahlep
1/2 cup bitter apricot kernels*
OR
2 teaspoons anise seeds or anise extract**
For the tops of loaf
1/2 cup almond flakes
1/2 egg for egg wash
1 or 2 whole raw eggs (cleaned and free of cracks)
1 or 2 red dyed eggs (click here to find out how to dye them, Quickest Way To Dye Eggs With Food Dye)
* Scroll down to ‘Tips’ to find out more of what this is.
** This is a tree resin with a distinct aroma and taste. Impossible to get locally. I ordered mine from a Greek online store. I had bought a packet of similar looking gum from an Indian grocery store, it was labelled ‘Edible gum’. Totally different item.
***
Kernels of a particular breed of cherry tree. It has a unique taste and scent. Use too much and the bittersweet qualities will become overpowering. I had to order it online.
*
If you are using apricot kernels, add 1/2 + 1/8 cup of water into the instant yeast instead of 1/4 cup. If you have had Italian amaretti biscuits, they are flavoured with these to give it that sharp almost bitter taste. Apricot kernels taste very close to mahlep before baking. However, the taste becomes less intense after baking. Therefore, I prefer to use anise instead as a substitute. You might find them locally on some supermarket shelves. Traditional Chinese Medicine shops and Asian grocery stores will stock these.
**If you cannot get a hold of mastic gum or mahlep, I would either use only anise seeds or a combination of bitter apricot kernels and anise seeds. 

Method

Choose and prepare your spices

(1) Anise seeds or extract
This is my preferred substitute. Toast the anise seeds in a dry frying pan on medium high heat. Stir continuously and remove once the seeds smells fragrant. Grind until it is quite fine. A few coarse bits here and there is not an issue.

(2) Bitter apricot kernels
I had read that bitter apricot kernels could be used as a substitute for mahlep. While the raw smell of apricot kernels does have bitter and sweet undertones similar to mahlep, I discovered that a lot of the flavour is lost after baking. I do not want to add more than 1/2 cup of bitter apricot kernels to increase its flavour as I recall reading that apricot kernels should not be consumed in large quantities as it has traces of an element within them that is toxic. I doubt I would bake another loaf of Tsoureki with bitter apricot kernels as Anise would be a better substitute if I do not have Mahlep or Mastic Gum. Grind into a fine powder before using.

(3) Mahlep 
Mahlep and mastic gum is the traditional pairing. Having baked a Tsoureki using just these two spices, I can understand why Greeks associate these two spices with Easter. It bakes a loaf that smells and taste distinctively unique. I have never had anytime like it before. It was worth the effort getting them shipped to me and I can think of other ways to use it up – cakes, cookies, ice cream, etc. Grind into a fine powder. It is fine if there are still a bit of coarse bits as you are going to grind it again with the mastic gum.

(4) Mastic gum
As I had mentioned above (read ‘Mahlep’), Mastic gum and mahlep are traditional pairings and it is just wonderful! Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over the mastic gum and grind. Rolling pin works well here. I use my mortar and pestle. You will not be able to grind this very fine so to help it further along, add the powdered mahlep and continue to grind to as fine a grain as you can. Use a coffee grinder if you have one – so easy.


Activate yeast in water

1. Add the yeast into the 1/4 cup water (or 1/2 + 1/8 cup if you are using bitter apricot kernels) and set aside ~5 minutes or until if foams up -similar to the image below. Normally, instant yeast does not require a separate activation but I like to do so for this recipe as this is a rich dough high in sugar so a little initial yeast activation does help the rise. Set aside.

Prep ingredients
1. Mix the dry ingredients: flour, vital wheat gluten, salt, sugar and then the spices you have chosen to use into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Mix the beaten egg with the milk and orange zest.
3. Have the melted butter ready.
4. The cold cubed butter should be kept in the refrigerator for the moment.

Using a mixer
1. I use a standing mixer, my KitchenAid. A hand held mixer will not be powerful enough to work this dough.
2. Attach dough hook to beater shaft. Lock in the mixing bowl.
3. Transfer dry ingredients into the mixing bowl. Make a well and pour in the (1) egg, milk and orange zest mixture and (2) water and yeast mixture. Don’t add melted butter or cold cubed butter as yet.
4. Start the machine on low speed (dial 2).

5. Let the machine run without adding anymore water or flour. It will look wet and sticky but continue to let the machine run at low speed for 5 minutes.


6. With the machine still running at low speed, very gradually pour in the melted butter down the insides of the mixing bowl. This takes me 5 minutes.


7. As you add the butter, the dough will look like a wet mess at times. Do not be disheartened as as you continue to allow the machine to knead the dough, it will look smoother and silkier. Toggle between low and medium speed to help incorporate the melted butter.

8. After all of the melted butter has been added, run the machine for another 5 minutes.
9. Then, with machine still running, add the chilled cubes of butter gradually. Let the machine knead it in for 5 minutes.
10. Stop the machine and scrapped down the sides of the bowl with a buttered dough scraper. You will have a smooth, silky and elastic dough.

11. If the dough feels at all tight when you pull on it to stretch it, with the machine running, add 1 Tablespoon of water. Let the machine run for 1 minute and work in more water the same way if required. You want an elastic dough that gives you an easy stretch. The texture of the final dough should look similar to the image below.

12. Do not be tempted to add flour at any point as it would only bake a very heavy and dry loaf. I would rather butter the insides of the mixer bowl lightly, if at all, if I thought it was getting too sticky. Err on the side of a more moist dough. Keep in mind that the final dough will be a little sticky.
13. With the help of a buttered dough scraper, scrape sides of bowl clean, pick the dough up and form into a round ball. Tuck loose ends under the dough. Before returning dough to mixer bowl, butter the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap.

Let the dough rise
1. This dough will take 1.5 to 3 hours to rise on a hot and humid day. I prefer to leave it overnight in the refrigerator in a container with a lid. It allows the yeast to work slowly and this helps to develop the flavour and gives the bread a better texture (think ‘candy floss’). The container should be at least 2X the volume of the dough to allow for expansion.


Working dough by hand
(Corresponding images are above)
1. Place dry ingredients on a flat working surface or in a very large bowl.
2. Create a well in the centre of dry ingredients. Pour the egg, milk and orange zest mixture and the yeast and water mixture into the well. Do not add the melted butter or cold cubed butter at this point.
3. With your hands, work it all in slowly into the dry ingredients. It will be very sticky. Once you have incorporated dry and wet ingredients, knead it for 10 minutes.
4. To start kneading, you have to work with pushing the dough out with the palm of your hand and pulling it back with your fingers. As the dough will be sticky, use a butter dough scraper to help you pull the dough back and clean the work surface at the same time.
5. Gradually add the melted butter and work it in. This will take another 5 to 10 minutes of kneading. It might become frustratingly sticky at times but that is fine. It will get less so as you knead.
6. After all the melted butter has been added, knead another 5 minutes.
7. Thereafter, add the chilled cubes of butter gradually into the dough. It takes about 5 minutes.
8. After which, knead another 5 minutes and by this time the dough will be smooth, soft and silky dough.
9. I would hold off adding any flour otherwise you might end up with very dry and dense loaves. I would rather butter lightly. If you pull on the dough and if it feels at all tight, add a tablespoon of water and continue to knead. You will know you are doing well when you find yourself working with a smooth elastic ball that can be easily stretch without any tension. Shape into a round ball, tuck loose ends under the dough.
10. Butter your bowl which should be large enough to allow the dough to almost double in size. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let it rise in a draft free place until almost double in size. This dough is very rich and will take 1.5 to 3 hours to rise on a hot and humid day. I prefer to leave it overnight in the refrigerator in a container with a lid. It allows the yeast to work slowly to develop the bread, giving it a better flavour and texture. The container should be at least 2X the volume of the dough to allow for expansion.

After the first rise
1. The dough after 1 and 1/2 to 3 hours.

2. This is what the dough looks like after 16 hours of refrigeration. It will not rise as high as the one left to rise at room temperature. That’s fine.

Plaiting/braiding the dough
1. Flour your work surface lightly. Punch the dough down and flatten it out on the work surface into a small rectangle, working out the air pockets as you do so.
2. Divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. I use my kitchen scales.
3. Roll each piece into a smooth sausage the length of your arm. Keep it to an arm’s length unless you have a baking tray and an oven with a generous length. This dough will expand larger than you expect. Gather the ends furthest away from you together.

4. Bring the left log towards the centre and rest it there.

5. Bring the right log toward the centre and rest it there.

6. Bring the left log toward the centre and rest it there. Repeat the same procedure as indicated above until you reach the end of the logs.

7. Secure the ends well by pinching them together and tucking them under.

8. Transfer to a parchment paper/silpat lined baking sheet. Cover with a tea towel and let it rise for 45 minutes to an hour or until it has almost doubled in size.

After the second rise

1. Only when it is oven ready, egg wash it gently and sprinkle almonds generously. Nothing like a good crunch on bread.
2. Even more gently, pry open and I do mean pry open a small gap in between the plaits/braids to nestle the raw egg(s) 1/3 way in. If you were to just stuff the eggs in, you might deflate the dough. As long as your eggs are free of crack lines, the eggs will get ‘hard boiled’ in the oven without fear of them bursting open. I choose to not insert dyed red eggs to bake with the risen dough as the red dye will bleed quite significantly into the baked loaf.
3. Bake immediately at 350 (175C), lower middle rack for 20 to 25 minutes until the tops are a nice golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped.

4. Cool completely before you remove the eggs and replace them with red dyed eggs. If you don’t the red dye will bleed into the loaf. Click here to find out how to dye eggs, Quickest Way To Dye Eggs With Food Dye)

Tips

What’s Vital Wheat Gluten?
Vital wheat gluten is derived from the endosperm of the wheat berry and is often added to bread dough to give it more volume. 
All  loaves recipes will work without the vital wheat gluten. It will taste the same but you might not get the same rise and softness. It can be purchased at better stocked supermarkets. I use Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten. This does come in a 1 lb 6 oz (623g). It is a large bag so keep sealed and refrigerated. I use it often in my wholemeal loaves.

Other recipes using Vital Wheat Gluten
(1) Take a look at my recipe for Moroccan Inspired Wholemeal Round Loaves. It bakes beautiful, light wholemeal loaves with the addition of vital wheat gluten.

(2) For the same reason, I add vital wheat gluten into another sweet loaf, Braided Stollen With Three Logs Of Marzipan. I baked it last Christmas. It is a sweet loaf studded with fruits and threaded with marzipan.

(3) There is also my recipe for Hot Cross Buns which are neither traditional nor boring.

(4) Another Easter bread to try would be my Kulich, Russian Easter Bread. It can be a challenge to bake but it is spectacular looking.

WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?

Let’s dye some eggs!

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