Celebrating Orthodox Easter with traditions such as Tsoureki, a Greek brioche
Spring is here and brings along with it several religious holidays: Easter, Ramadan and Passover. Western Easter was several weeks ago, but Orthodox Easter is being observed on May 2 this year. I recently spent time talking with my friend Dina and her husband about their traditions related to Greek Orthodox Easter, including one of their families' favorite loaves of bread, made especially at Easter and other special holidays, Tsoureki. This slightly sweet Greek brioche is made during great feasts of the church, but during Easter often includes a dark red dyed egg tucked within its braids.
Dina and her family have Greek roots and will be including many time-honored traditions in their Easter observance this year. These begin weeks before Easter and culminate the week before Easter, or Holy Week, and include fasting or a modified diet to avoid animal products, olive oil and alcohol. Meals during this week often include legumes such as beans and lentils.
Preparation for Easter Sunday occurs during this week and includes dyeing white hard-boiled eggs dark red, often using special dye found in Greek markets. This traditionally is done the Thursday before Easter. The eggs themselves symbolize the renewal of life, and after dyeing them, red represents the blood of Christ shed on the cross.
This week culminates with the Anastasi service, held at midnight on Saturday, where parishioners light white candles and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Following this service, even though it is very late, a traditional meal including a delicate soup made from chopped lamb parts is served, but the food doesn't end there as Easter dinner will be served later that same day.
Dina's traditional dinner includes bone-in roast lamb seasoned with olive oil, oregano and garlic inserted into tiny slits cut into the roast. Roasted potato wedges tossed in olive oil, garlic, oregano and lemon zest, and a green salad with scallions and dill symbolizing spring and drizzled in a lemon vinaigrette are favorite side dishes. The centerpiece of the table is the beautifully braided and baked Tsoureki.
Tsoureki is not served with dinner at Dina's house, but rather as part of a dessert with butter cookies, often braided and topped with sesame seeds, alongside galaktoboureko, a smooth milk custard.
After dinner, everyone in attendance selects a red egg to play a fun game called tsougrisma. Eggs are cracked together, large end to large end, and small end to small end. While breaking the eggs, one person says, "Christos Anesti" (Christ has risen!), while the other person says, "Alithos Anesti" (Indeed he has risen!), symbolizing Christ's emergence from the tomb. The player who successfully cracks both ends of an opponent's egg is declared the winner and, it is said, will have good luck during the year.
When I asked Dina and her husband their favorite part of the Easter meal, they both responded, "Tsoureki!" For many years they followed Dina's mother-in-law's recipe. Still, it was very labor-intensive and required three rises, so after discovering the recipe shared today on dimitrasdishes.com, along with her helpful tips, they have added this recipe to their list of traditions.
For Dina and her family, it is a multigenerational way of carrying on an ancient tradition, but they also love the flavor of this once-a-year treat.
The flavor is truly unique due to the zest of an orange and two spices I had never heard of before: mahlepi and mastiha, or mastic gum.
Mahlepi is the aromatic spice found in the seeds of the St. Lucie cherry. The cherry stone is broken open to reveal a tiny seed inside. This seed is then ground up and used in baked goods. If you can, purchase the mahlepi seeds whole and grind them up yourself in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle. Grinding them yourself will ensure a fresher taste. Unfortunately, I was only able to find the ground variety, but my bread still tasted wonderful.
Mastiha (or mastic gum), the other key ingredient in tsoureki, is also available in whole pieces, which you can grind up using the same spice grinder or mortar and pestle. The pieces themselves are slightly translucent, resembling bits of broken glass, but the powder is snowy white when crushed. Mastiha is the resin of the Mastic tree, which is found only on the island of Chios in Greece; it has a Protected Designation of Origin in the European Union. Mastiha has a slight anise flavor but is not overly strong.
The bread comes together in a traditional manner, getting the yeast going, adding dry and then wet ingredients, followed by kneading. It is, however, an enriched dough containing eggs and butter, resulting in it taking longer to rise. But it is worth the wait.
The dough is easy to work with, making the braiding process relatively simple. The braiding is especially meaningful at Easter, with the three sections representing the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The previously mentioned website shares tips and techniques to make your rising process smooth and time-efficient, so be sure to take a look.
Dina and her family slice the Tsoureki and enjoy it with their dessert, no butter needed, and her husband added how much he enjoys it for breakfast the next day with a cup of coffee or glass of milk. I think it would also be great used in French toast.
Dina has had as many as 20 people gathered around her Easter table some years and has made six to eight loaves of bread to feed her crowd, but this year it will be her immediate family and her parents, who live next door.
I want to thank Dina and her husband for sharing their traditions and recipe with me so I can share it with all of you. Even if you do not celebrate Orthodox Easter, this is worth the effort if you would like a delicious bread recipe. Like Dina's, your family will love it!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.