Recipe first, tidbits second. Enjoy!
Tsoureki (Greek Easter Bread) Made with All-Purpose Flour
Tsoureki is a beautifully braided sweet loaf similar to brioche and challah but with a distinctive flavor thanks to two unique spices – mastiha and mahlab. Traditionally served on Orthodox Easter and steeped with religious symbolism, this wonderful bread is delicious all year round as an appetizer, side or standalone dessert.
- Prep Time: 1 1/2 hours
- Rise Time: 6 hours
- Cook Time: 1/2 hour
- Total Time: 8 hours
- Yield: 2 loaves 1x
- Category: Bread
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: Greek
- 1/2 tsp mastiha*
- 1 1/2 tsp mahlab*
- 1/2 cup + 1 tbsp lukewarm water, divided
- 2 1/2 tbsp dry yeast
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
- 9 1/2 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup milk
- 5 large eggs, divided
- zest of 1 orange
- 4 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
*See notes below
- Using a mortar and pestle grind the mastiha and mahlab together into a fine powder. Set aside.
- Mix together 1/2 cup lukewarm water, yeast, and 1 pinch of sugar in a small bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to let yeast rise. (DO NOT use hot water, this will kill the yeast.)
- In a small saucepan over medium low heat combine the sugar, butter, and milk. Stir occasionally until the sugar and butter have completely dissolved. Remove from heat and transfer mixture to a large mixing bowl; let cool. (If the mixture is hot for step 4 it will spoil the eggs and yeast.) TIP – place the bowl in the fridge to cool if you’re in a rush.
- Once the butter mixture has cooled enough so you can comfortably hold the bottom of the bowl, add 4 eggs, yeast mixture, orange zest, mastiha, and mahlab; whisk to combine.
- By hand or with a stand mixer, knead in flour 1 cup at a time. The dough should be slightly sticky to the touch and not shaggy. If the dough seems too wet and sticks to the sides of the bowl, add extra flour 1 tbsp at a time; if the dough seems too dry and falls apart, add extra lukewarm water 1 tbsp at a time. Once all the flour is added continue to knead the dough for another 5 minutes.
- Shape the dough into a large ball, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside somewhere warm until the dough doubles in size (about 4-5 hours). TIP – if your home is cold preheat the oven to 350 degrees for about 2 minutes, turn off the oven and place the covered bowl inside; be careful not to make it too hot and melt the plastic wrap!
- Layer 2 large baking trays with parchment paper.
- (For steps 8 – 12 refer to the pictures below for extra guidance.) Gently deflate the tsoureki dough with your hands and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Cut the dough in half and set one half aside.
- Working with the remaining half of dough, cut off 1/3 of the dough. You should now have two pieces, a 1/3 and a 2/3 size piece.
- Holding the ends of the 2/3 size piece, gently shake the dough to stretch it into about a 2 foot long rope. Shaking the dough instead of rolling it helps tsoureki develop its famous stringy texture. Lay the dough rope in a horseshoe shape on one of the prepared baking sheets.
- Shake the remaining 1/3 of dough into about a 1 foot long rope. Place one end of the dough rope on the curve of the horseshoe you made in step 10 and lay the rope down the middle.
- Braid the three strands of dough rope together and gently tuck the three ends back under the bread loaf. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside somewhere warm until the dough doubles in size (about 1 hour). TIP – feel free to repeat the oven trick.
- Repeat steps 8 – 12 using the other half of tsoureki dough.
- Preheat the oven to 310 degrees F.
- Whisk together the remaining egg and 1 tablespoon lukewarm water in a small bowl. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg mixture all over the tops of both tsoureki loaves being careful not to deflate the dough.
- Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until golden brown.
- Remove from oven and let loaves cool completely on a wire cooling rack before serving. Store for up to 6 days at room temperature tightly covered.
- Where to buy mastiha – Mastiha, sometimes known as mastika, is resin from the mastic evergreen, a shrub native to the Greek island of Chios. It may be purchased at Greek or Middle Eastern markets or here on Amazon.
- Where to buy mahlab – Mahlab is the fine ground pit of a cherry and it goes by MANY names such as mahleb, mahalepi, and mayleb depending on where in the world you are. It may be purchased at Greek or Middle Eastern markets or here on Amazon.
- No mortar and pestle? – Try using a coffee grinder to grind the mastiha and mahlab together, just make sure to clean your grinder before and after.
- How to knead dough – Kneading tsoureki dough is just like kneading any other bread dough. Gently punch the dough into a flattened oval shape, fold the dough crosswise, and repeat.
This Recipe’s Roots
Tsoureki is one of those magical foods that stamps its name on your tongue to be remembered forever after. Traditionally served on Orthodox Easter as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, I can’t think of any other food more worthy of the honor. What starts as a relatively humble dough rises and transforms not once, but twice into a beautiful golden braid that tastes like a miracle.
Even if you’re not the religious type I assure you the tsoureki alone is worth attending any Greek Easter celebration.
After a statement like that you can imagine my alarm when the pandemic made it impossible to order our annual loaf. In times of despair what’s a person to do?
Learn how to make their own tsoureki.
(Obviously not being able to order a loaf of tsoureki was not the worst effect of the pandemic but still, it sucked.)
I started, as most of us do these days, with internet recipes. The fact that many of them were in Greek wasn’t the problem but that the measurements were in metric. I concede the metric system is more intuitive and efficient and we should all use it but for the love of all that is holy I still have zero sense of how big a gram is.
Needless to say my first loaf of tsoureki did not turn out well. Or my second. And so began the elusive journey to produce a loaf that didn’t embarrass my husband when I served it to my first generation Greek in-laws. (I joke… mostly. Our family is wonderful and gracious but my first loaf of tsoureki really was terrible.)
After two years of trying this and that and leaning on my knowledge of bread making in general, I finally produced a recipe that evokes tsoureki’s magical flavor and characteristic stringy texture.
I hope you love it as much as I do and remember, practice makes perfect in the world of bread making.
Taking a Closer Look
Tsoureki all starts with its two signature spices – mastiha and mahlab. Mahlab goes by many names and can be bought already finely ground but mastiha is usually sold as little crystals you grind yourself.
Given how much mastiha contributes to tsoureki’s stringy texture and that it can also be used as chewing gum you’d think it’d be difficult to grind. However as you can see, even after only one pass with the pestle (say that five times fast) it readily transforms into a fine powder.
Mastiha is well known as the world’s first chewing gum and you may be curious to try it. If you have dental fillings, DON’T DO IT. (Ask me how I know.)
After the mastiha and mahlab are ground together it’s time to activate the yeast. As you know if you often make bread at home, the best trick to keeping yeast happy is to keep it warm (not hot) and to give it a pinch of sugar. If your yeast is alive it should double in size in about 10 minutes. If not, toss it and use different yeast.
I prefer to use this active dry yeast that I buy in bulk from Costco but really any kind of yeast should work.
While the yeast is doing its thing melt together the butter, sugar, and milk. Nothing special here, just try not to let the mixture get too hot. Go low and slow and then you won’t have to wait as long for the mixture to cool to be used in Step 4.
Next up we transfer the butter mixture to a large mixing bowl. This is my extra large mixing bowl that everyone makes fun of for being too big… until they see it in action. Tossing salads, hanging fresh pasta, mixing and rising a double batch of tsoureki, you name it – I use this mega bowl all the time and I highly recommend investing in one yourself. I found this one at Marshalls forever ago and I’m not sure of its exact capacity but this 16 quart bowl from Amazon looks comparable.
Once the butter mixture has cooled enough so that you can comfortably hold the bottom of the bowl without burning your hands, whisk in the eggs, yeast mixture, orange zest, mastiha and mahlab. Then start adding the flour 1 cup at a time.
By the 3rd cup of flour I usually ditch the whisk for a wooden spoon and then by the fourth cup I start kneading with my hands. You’ll notice that some of the flour sticks to the sides of the bowl – that’s fine and actually makes it easier to get the dough out of the bowl after it rises. Incorporate as much of the flour as you comfortably can and don’t worry about the rest.
Shape the dough into a ball and cover the whole bowl with plastic wrap to rise somewhere warm. If you’re familiar with bread making this should be very easy. If you’re new to it, my best advice is to work with the dough and not against it. If your dough ball has an obvious seam down one side (which it usually does) roll that part to the bottom and shape it into a ball the best you can. So long as the dough is moist enough, it should be slightly sticky to the touch and not shaggy, the dough will correct its shape as it rises.
See? Don’t worry about it, just have fun playing with “adult” Play-Doh.
When you uncover the tsoureki dough after the first rising put your head in that big bowl and take a whiff. The smell is positively divine and a great preview of what the final product will taste like.
Isn’t tsoureki dough dreamy?
This next step will ruin its perfect appearance but don’t worry, it’s just the passing ugly duckling phase all children go through. Take a deep breath and gently slide your fingers between the edges of the dough and the bowl. I like to pretend I’m doing the doggy paddle and peel back a little more dough each time, working my way all around the bowl. When the dough is totally free of the bowl scoop it out onto a lightly floured work surface. It’ll look really ugly and flat but don’t worry, it’s just a phase.
Section and braid the dough as instructed in steps 8 – 12. For those of you more visually inclined here are step by step photos. I like to use a cutting board when slicing through the dough and then switch over to a pastry mat which has more surface area to work on. You can use a sharp knife to cut the dough but if you plan on making bread a lot I recommend buying a dough scraper. Not only does it look really fancy but the physics make it simpler to cut dough and they’re super handy when you’re working with really wet dough.
Braiding and tucking the ends take a little practice but by the second loaf you’ll get the hang of it. When you’re done loosely cover the loaves in plastic wrap – loosely because you want enough flex for the dough to be able to rise upward rather than outward but genuinely wrapped because you don’t want the dough drying out.
I’ve always thought tsoureki dough and babies have a lot in common. Tsoureki loaves like to be swaddled (but not too tight!) and it’s equally important to keep them warm. Love your bread like you love your baby and it’ll be sure to turn out delicious.
After another hour or so resting somewhere warm the loaves will poof up again and it’s time for the egg wash. Use a pastry brush to apply it liberally all over but be careful not to push too hard and deflate the loaves.
Pop them in the oven for 30 – 35 minutes at 310 degrees F, pour yourself a glass of wine (you earned it!), and enjoy that fresh baking bread aroma. If you have the loaves stacked one atop the other in the oven I recommend switching them at the halfway mark – I’ve found this provides more even baking and prevents the bottom loaf from burning.
The loaves are done when they turn a beautiful golden brown. Trust your eyes and nose and don’t poke them with a toothpick to check for doneness. Like most other bread they’ll have the best texture if they’re allowed to cool completely before piercing/slicing.
What I Like Most About This Recipe
There are so many things I love about this recipe (like the fact that it’s in standard units instead of metric) but if I’m being brutally honest, my favorite part is the “Wow” factor.
Tsoureki is stunning.
As a whole loaf or sliced it makes a wonderful Easter table centerpiece. Between the colors, the texture, and the exceedingly unique taste it’s hard not to be impressed.
If you can master baking a loaf of tsoureki you’ve got an ace in the hole for any baking competitions. I’m thinking about entering a loaf in the Guilford Fair this year, I’ll let you know how it goes. I mean who could resist this beautiful crumb?
Many tsoureki recipes out there call for bread flour. In the middle of the pandemic I didn’t have any so I used all-purpose flour. I know bread flour’s higher protein content helps it produce more gluten and therefore superior bread but even today with a fully stocked pantry I almost always reach for the all-purpose flour.
Fun fact – the protein content of bread flour ranges from 11% to 13% and many all-purpose flours have a protein content within that range. For example, the protein content of popular King Arthur’s All-Purpose Flour (which like many other things I buy in bulk from Costco) is 11.7%. Check the protein content of your own all-purpose flour and you may be surprised to find it already has all the protein you need to produce a great loaf of bread.
Don’t let not having “the right kind” of flour hold you back. Start baking people, a beautiful loaf of tsoureki is waiting for you!
And after all, the world would be a better place if more people baked bread.
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