Greek Tsoureki, a sweet, egg-rich bread usually prepared around Easter, is a showy, sweet loaf that is just as delicious as it is beautiful. But good looks aren't even this loaf's best asset. Just wait until you cut it open to oohs and ahhs of family and guests, taste the sweet dough, and inhale the citrusy, cinnamon scent. Whether you grew up eating this bread around the Easter holiday or are looking for an afternoon of baking, this sweet and yeasty bread is a good place to start.
What sets this bread apart in comparison to other sweet and yeasty Easter breads is the flavor. It's a heady mixture of citrus, sesame, and cinnamon paired with the classic hint of nutmeg that makes this bread taste distinctly "Greek." Historically, the Easter version uses a few additional spices that are pretty unusual. Don't worry if you aren't familiar with them or don't have them — you can omit them or try substitutions in a pinch, but just in case you're feeling adventurous here's the scoop.
- Malheb is a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern spice that tastes like a mixture of bitter almond, cherries, and a touch of anise. If you don't just happen to have a full-on larder of spices on hand, feel free to sub in a teaspoon of real almond extract (real bitter almond, if you can find it, works best) and 1/4 teaspoon ground anise seeds. Fear not, leftover malheb need not languish unused after Easter — add a 1/2 teaspoon to your favorite sugar cookie recipe, add it to a linzer torte dough, or use it in Greek almond cookies or snowball cookies).
- Mastic, the other ingredient, is harvested from sap, and it's what makes chewy ice cream chewy, and can be used as a base for chewing gum. Here, it adds a little herbaceous taste, somewhat like rosemary. Although I enjoy using it here, you can sub in about 1/4 teaspoon of finely ground dried rosemary, or even thyme. Mastic (or any of the substitutes) gives the bread a savory note and a little balance, but I've made this bread many times without it to great success.
Notes on Baking Eggs
For new bakers, or just bakers new to this bread, baking raw eggs might be the most novel element in this recipe. Traditionally, eggs are included in many Easter bread recipes because they symbolize the Easter story, new beginnings, and the rebirth associated with spring.
Once baked, the eggs take on the texture of very hard-boiled eggs. If you plan to eat them, keep in mind that you should eat them right away on the day of baking or remove them from the bread and store in the fridge. Since the presentation of this bread with the eggs nestled inside is a part of its visual appeal and tradition, often time the eggs aren't consumed.
Shaping Your Loaf
The three braided loaf is the traditional shape for Easter. If you've ever braided someone's hair, the three-strand braiding is easy to master, but if you've never tried it before, this Challah bread recipe uses a dough that can really get worked a lot, making it a good place to learn to do it. Once you get that down and you are feeling fancy, make the three-strand braid and then wrap it into a wreath or configure it into a cross shape.
Like many European Easter breads, this is an extra-special version of a holiday bread and it has many names and variations and shapes, so when it comes to add-ins and flavors, feel free to make this your own, but most commonly, the key flavors are orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, mastic, and mahleb. For Greek New Year, you'll find versions of tsoureki with walnuts, almonds, and cherries. The red Easter eggs are reserved for just Easter.
No matter what shape you choose, just make sure to give the bread a super-generous, over-the-top coating of sesame seeds, not just a few dainty sprinkles. The seeds will get roasty toasty as the bread bakes, perfuming your kitchen, and what those little seeds do for the loaf is even better: The earthy sweetness of the sesame gives the bread balance, supports the flavors inside, and works as a textural contrast. Sesame seeds are a real powerhouse in this bread!
You can always make a few loaves without the red eggs — just the dough and seeds — and wrap them in foil and freeze for up to two months. Defrosted, sliced tsoureki makes insanely memorable sandwiches, piled high with a medley of cheeses and meats and grilled until it's all melty and delicious. I love using it for French toast, and serving it with honey instead of syrup and some yogurt. Try it in bread puddings too! It's a quick and easy way to change the usual flavor and texture.
Did you grow up eating a bread similar to this for the Easter holiday? What did you call it?
Greek Tsoureki (Easter Bread)
Makes 1 (15-inch) braided loaf; serves 8
- For the bread:
plus 2 tablespoons milk
finely grated fresh orange zest (from 1 large orange)
(3-inch) cinnamon stick
scrapes from a whole nutmeg, or 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
bay leaf (optional)
1 (1/4-ounce) package
active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
3 1/2 cups
plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for dusting
mahleb, ground to a fine powder (optional)
powdered or pulverized mastic (optional)
(3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
- For the egg wash and sesame topping:
water or freshly squeezed orange juice
white sesame seeds, preferably toasted
Place the milk, zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, and bay leaf if using in a small saucepan over low heat until warm to the touch but not hot (between 105°F and 115°F on an instant-read thermometer), about 4 minutes. Set aside off the heat.
Place the water, yeast, and 3 tablespoons of the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until fully combined, about 1 minute. Let sit until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, place the remaining 3 1/2 cups flour, sugar, salt, mahleb, and mastic if using in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
Add the eggs to the yeast and flour mixture and mix on low speed until fully combined, about 5 minutes. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf from the milk mixture. Pour the milk mixture into the yeast mixture and mix on low speed until fully combined, about 1 minute.
Switch the paddle attachment to the dough hook. Add 1/2 of the flour mixture and mix on low speed to combine, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and mix on low speed until fully combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining flour mixture and mix on low speed for 5 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-high and mix into a very soft, smooth, slightly sticky dough that still sticks to the bottom of the bowl but not the sides, 10 to 12 minutes.
Coat a clean, large bowl with cooking spray. Transfer the dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel. Set aside to rise in a warm but not hot (between 70°F and 80°F) place until doubled in bulk, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. (The dough can also rise in the refrigerator, where it will develop even stronger flavors, for 12 hours. Let come back to room temperature before baking.) Meanwhile, line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
Dust a work surface with flour, about 2 tablespoons. Place the dough on the work surface and divide into 3 pieces (about 12 ounces each). Roll each piece of dough into a long rope roughly 1-inch thick and 16 inches long, making sure that the ropes are of somewhat equal thickness from top to bottom. This is a very sticky dough, and adding too much flour will toughen the dough, so use the flour sparingly, and use a very lightly oil-sprayed bench scraper to assist you in picking up and moving the dough when you first start rolling each section of dough. As you roll the dough and work with it in your hands with some vigor, the dough will become tighter, come together, and be soft in your hand and still easy to roll.
Place the ropes side-by-side on the center of the parchment. Lightly press the ropes together at one end. Starting at that end, braid the ropes together tightly, like braiding hair, then gently press the other ends together when complete.
Lightly coat a piece of plastic wrap with cooking spray. Place it sprayed-side down over the dough. Set aside to rise in a warm place until puffy and pillowy, 35 to 40 minutes. Twenty minutes before the dough is ready, arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 375°F.
Uncover the dough. Nestle the red eggs into the bread, spacing them evenly down the loaf. Place the egg yolk and orange juice or water in a small bowl and whisk to combine to make an egg wash. Brush a liberal amount on the dough, making sure to coat the sides and in all of the cracks and around the dyed eggs. Let sit for 5 minutes, then brush another coating of egg wash to ensure a complete coating. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, avoiding the dyed eggs.
Bake until the bread is a deep golden-brown and puffed, about 30 minutes. The center should register between 190°F and 200°F on an instant-read thermometer.
Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before using a flat spatula to transfer the bread to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Egg safety: The whole eggs baked in the bread are edible the day the bread is baked, but do not consume after that.
Storage: The bread is at its best the day it is made, but will keep for 2 days loosely covered at room temperature.