Chocolate-Ouzo Greek Easter Bread (Tsoureki)

tsoureki

 

The History:

After a hard day of work revising a manuscript, I was sipping a well-deserved ouzo-orange cocktail and eating chocolate. Then, I had a eureka moment, arguably similar in magnitude to the creation of fire or stiletto shoes. Namely, could these fabulous flavors somehow be combined in a food?

The answer, dear blog reader, is yes. And so, chocolate-ouzo with a smidgen of orange Greek Easter Bread came to be.

The Controversy:

Elderly Greek women, like Sia, don’t like changes to traditional recipes. In fact, one accused me of committing a mortal sin (martia) by messing with the tsoureki. For those not familiar with the sin scale, that one would send me below ground level into the inferno.

My Defense:

Unless you want to argue that God created humanity and tsoureki on the same day, it wasn’t always around. I mean, someone had to come up with the original recipe, right? The only difference between old and new recipes is time. That’s it. PLUS, a lot of ouzo is in this recipe. As all Greeks know, monks invented ouzo. You can’t get holier than a monk. Quite fitting, then, to make it a central element in an Easter celebration recipe. One might even say, it’s traditional.

This easy-to-make yeast bread is moist and tender. Greeks like to dip it in their coffee or hot chocolate, but it pairs beautifully with pretty much anything. The recipe makes a 9 by 5 inches loaf pan size or slightly larger braided bread. It takes only fourteen minutes or so to make the batter. You’ll need to schedule two to two and a half hours for both risings.

Ingredients:

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour; 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder; 1/3 cup sugar; 1/3 cup melted butter (warm or room temperature); I egg; ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice (one medium orange); ¼ cup warmed milk; 2 ounces ouzo (for more on ouzo, see below); 2 tbsp orange zest (one medium orange); ½ tsp ground mahlepi*; ¼ tsp salt; 1 ½ tsp active dry yeast, 1/8 cup warm water, ¼ tsp sugar; for the topping, one beaten egg, a bit of milk, sesame seeds or almond slices

*Mahlepi is a spice made from the seed kernels of sour cherries. The flavor is mainly bitter cherry with a slight taste of almond.

Instructions:

1.Get in the right mood by listening to Greek music. Don’t have any handy? Free internet stations abound (just do an internet search). I’m more than a little obsessed with traditional Greek folk and blues (rembetiko) songs, but click on different stations and see what gets your own fingers snapping.

2. Test the yeast. Put 1 ½ tsp dry active yeast into 1/8 cup warm water. Stir with ¼ tsp sugar. Let sit for ten minutes, until doubled in size. If the yeast isn’t good, it won’t budge an inch, and you’ll need to repeat the process with a different package of yeast.

Don’t skip this step. I know some Greek bakers just throw in the dry yeast with the wet ingredients, and they think it will be probably okay. That’s a risky assumption.

As an aside, bread makers might raise their eyebrows at the amount of yeast relative to flour. Cocoa powder inhibits the leavening properties of yeast, so you need more than usual. In fact, a bit more yeast (up to another ½ tsp) might improve this recipe.

3. Beat one egg with 1/3 cup sugar. Add the melted butter.

4. Then beat in the orange zest, mahlepi, and salt.

5. Add the orange juice and milk.

6. Beat in 1/3 cup cocoa powder and 1/3 cup flour.

7. Toss in the ouzo with attitude.

8. Beat in the flour in 1/3 cup increments. Don’t add all at once or you’ll end up with tough rather than soft bread.

9. Do you want to braid this bread? Then you’ll need to add a bit more flour in order to manipulate it. Two tablespoons should do the trick.

10. Knead the bread for 6 to 8 minutes, until pliant. (Full disclosure: I used a standing mixer appliance. At this stage, I switched over to the dough hook for kneading.)

11. Cover and place in a draft-free location for the first rising. You can create a warm place in your oven by placing a pan of boiled water on the bottom. The steam will create the perfect environment for the bread. It will take around 90 minutes to double in size.

12. Punch down the dough. It’s kind to be cruel since an airy dough will taste awful.

13. Is your design decision a loaf pan or braid?

Braiding is the traditional route. The three-strands traditionally used for tsoureki represent the Holy Trinity. If this is your choice, you should have added extra flour (see step 9). It will still be sticky, but workable. Divide the dough into three pieces. Place them on parchment paper, stretch each one into a long strand and braid. With large loaves, Greeks often add red-dyed hard-boiled eggs (the red symbolizes the sacrificial blood of Christ). This loaf will be too small to permit this option, unless you want to double the ingredients and thus its size. Place the braid on a parchment lined sheet.

If using a loaf pan, line it with parchment paper. Be sure to allow some overhang. You want use these bits to lift and check the loaf for doneness.

14. Cover and place the bread in a draft-free place to rise again. After 60 minutes or so, it’s time to throw it in the oven.

15. Before doing so, beat the egg with a bit of milk. Brush some of this egg-wash over the top of the bread and then sprinkle on sesame seeds or almond slices.

16. Snap your fingers together three times while saying opa. Now, you can place the pan in the oven without fear of mishaps 😉

The bread will take about 25 to 35 minutes to bake in a 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven. Check that it’s cooked all the way through by rapping its bottom. When it sounds hollow, it’s done.

TIPS: Don’t give way to temptation and slice it for eating right away. That’s a martia. Unlike regular bread, tsoureki is a dish best served cold. By the way, this bread freezes well.

A Little Bit about Ouzo:

What’s ouzo? It’s an liquorice-flavored aperitif with a complex mixture of spices and herbs. No two ouzos taste exactly alike since each distillery has a unique, secret recipe. And yes, this delectable drink has quite an alcohol kick with strengths ranging up to 50%.

The origins of ouzo are shrouded in legend. Back in the middle ages, monks on Mount Athos developed ouzo. Clearly, divine inspiration is responsible for this heavenly creation! That’s all we really know for sure until the nineteenth century, dear reader. Ouzo distilleries emerged full-force after the Greek Revolution of 1821. Faith, freedom and ouzo are thus intertwined in the Greek cultural consciousness. Having a drink of ouzo is like taking the oath of allegiance for Greeks. (That’s a bit of an artistic stretch, but not by much!)

Ouzo’s massive popularity also can be attributed to its renown as a cure-all for many common ailments. (It’s likely the drink’s monkish origins contributed to this reputation.) Have a bad tooth-ache? Rub some ouzo on it. Cut yourself? Disinfect it with ouzo. Have a cold? Drink lots of ouzo. Have a back-ache? Massage ouzo into the skin. You get the idea.

No wonder that ouzo is Greece’s national drink. In fact, only ouzo made in Greece can be legally designated as such.

I used “Ouzo of Plomari” in this recipe. The biggest ouzo distillery in Greece, they’ve been in business since 1894 on the island of Lesvos. Their recipe hasn’t change in over a hundred years. Why should it? It’s perfection, after all. Based mainly on the usual anise-seed, this version includes fennel, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and other delicious cannot-be-divulged ingredients.

Drink ouzo icy cold, but without any ice, please. Alternatively, trendy Greeks, particularly in Australia, are creating new delicious ouzo-based cocktails every day. Live like a free Greek and give ouzo a try.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know how this tsoureki recipe worked out and any innovations you might develop. I promise never to say “that’s a martia” to you!

ouzo

Fig & Feta Doughnuts (Loukoumades): Food Fit for the Gods!

Fig Donut

I’m filling in today for Sia and Helen. They’re busy dealing with one doozy of a family crisis. Maria, Helen’s daughter, is the sweetest young woman–beautiful inside and out. She doesn’t know it, though, and only sees her flaws rather than all the good stuff. You probably have a friend just like her. Anyway, Maria has the worst taste in men, and this time around, her choice has landed the whole Papas family in a murderous jam! Angel’s on the case, and fingers crossed it works out for everyone.

Since I have a rare opportunity to post my own recipe, I’m going to provide you with one of my favorite childhood comfort foods: honey doughnut-holes (loukoumades). In this version, these melt-in-your-mouth-morsels are dressed up to new sweet and savory heights, allowing you to make them the dazzling focal point of an appetizer spread or to conclude the meal on a dessert high note.

Doughnuts are made with yeast or baking powder/soda. Bakers refer to the latter as cake doughnuts. The traditional Greek type is made using yeast. The ingredients list for loukoumades is fairly consistent across regions in Greece, baring some variations in spices and the use or not of feta cheese.

As mentioned in previous posts, Greek immigrants to other countries make interesting changes to the old country’s recipes. When making loukoumades, they’ll often use a higher ratio of flour to water, as much as 1:1 as opposed to the original 1:0.5 ratio. It results in a lighter doughnut.

I’ve adapted a recipe by Greek-Australian Kathy Tsaples from her wonderful Sweet Greek Life cookbook. Kathy makes these doughnuts downright airy by using sparkling spring water, and cuts back the preparation time by switching over to baking powder from yeast. No more sitting around for an hour waiting for the dough to rise with these Greek “cake” doughnuts!

This recipe will take you less than twenty minutes cooking time from start to finish. Like the best rustic cuisine dishes, they are inexpensive, simple to make, and simply spectacular. I actually had to make two final batches, since I ate the first one before photographing them!

Ingredients (makes around twelve doughnut-holes)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour; 1/2 tsp baking powder; 1/8 tsp salt; 1/2 tsp anise seed*; 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese*; 1/2 cup cold sparkling water; 1/2 cup chopped fresh figs (cut into pieces about the same size as the crumbled feta)*; honey*; vegetable oil for frying

*Optional Ingredients

As always, I encourage you to change the recipe to suit your own taste. After all, cooking shouldn’t be fascist in character, so feel free to experiment. That’s how great new cuisine is created! Here’s a few suggestions to get you started.

For grown-ups only: ouzo is a Greek anise-flavored aperitif. Adding a bit to your honey will complement the doughnuts’ anise spice, lifting them into the stratosphere of culinary delights! If you’d like to give this a try, warm the honey to a thinner consistency and stir in the ouzo.

Alternatively, if you want to make these doughnuts more savory than sweet, drizzle them with balsamic or pomegranate reduction sauce.

While we’re on the subject of spices, perhaps licorice-flavored anise isn’t to your taste? So, use another spice more to your liking: pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg…(you get the idea).

Want to get even more radical? Go old school and eliminate the figs, using just feta cheese, one cup of it, to be precise. More of a ricotta cheese sort of person? Switch out the cheeses and be sure to incorporate a spice that complements the milder flavor of ricotta.

Finally, I’m using Greek flavors here and so figs were literally thrown into the mix. Your food, your choice of fruit.

Instructions

1.Turning a stove top’s element to medium-high, heat about two inches of oil in a deep saucepan (for safety reasons, the oil shouldn’t be higher than the pan’s mid-point). This will take a few minutes to warm to a suitable 375 degrees Fahrenheit, giving you ample time to make the doughnut batter.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and anise seed.

3. Add the feta cheese and gently toss the crumbs in the flour mix.

4. Pour in the water and stir with a spoon.

5. Taking care not to mash the fruit or cheese, incorporate the fresh fig pieces.

6. The batter should be thick but still fall off the spoon easily (you might need to push it all off using another spoon). Too thin? Add more flour. Too thick? A bit more water should make it just right.

7. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, test the oil with a drop of batter. When it sizzles, you’re good to go! Drop in walnut-sized amounts. They’ll end up different shapes, which adds to their rustic charm.

You’ll have to turn over the doughnuts to ensure even cooking. When a doughnut is a golden brown color on all sides (that takes a minute or two), remove it using a slotted spoon, placing it on paper towels to drain.

Be sure the frying oil doesn’t get too hot. If that happens, the insides of your doughnuts won’t cook, even as their exterior burns. For this reason, I usually reduce the element heat to slightly below medium-high, right after putting in the second batch. Don’t turn it down too low: your doughnuts then will take a long time to cook and absorb a lot of oil in the process, becoming a greasy mess.

8. All done? Now, you’ve reached the best stage in cooking–eating! Have them plain or drizzle with the sauce of your choice.

These doughnuts are best served warm. Have company coming and want to make them in advance? Keep them nice and toasty in an oven heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Serving Suggestions

Stack the doughnuts in a triangle-shape and drizzle with honey or sauce for a sensational focal point on the table.

Live like a Greek and make mezes (appetizers) the entire meal. It’s a fabulous, easy way to entertain, too. Serve loukoumades alongside dishes with complementary flavors. I suggest Greek olives sprinkled with lemon zest. Include some sort of Greek cheese garnished with Cretan balsamic vinegar (it has a lovely sweet, spicy taste) and pomegranate seeds. A dish of toasted walnut pieces wouldn’t go amiss in this Greek-inspired grouping. Roast the nuts in the oven with a bit of olive oil and your preferred spices. I like them with cinnamon, a tiny bit of sugar, and chili or paprika.

What to drink with this feast fit for the gods? Greek sparkling rosé wine, of course. Like all Greek wines, it’s still vastly underpriced compared to similar excellent wines from other countries. My current kryptonite is Akakies, which retails for well under twenty dollars. I love it so much, I bought an entire case–don’t judge me! Made by the Kir-yianni vineyard, they also use Greek xinomavro grapes to make a delectable non-sparkling rosé.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. I’m especially interested in learning about your own innovations to this recipe as well as doughnut recipes from other places in the world.  Let’s share the doughnut comfort love!

 

 

 

Greek Good Luck Cake for the New Year (Vassilopita)

Greek Good Luck Cake

 

New Year’s Day is an important one for Greeks, so it’s no surprise a special dessert was created for this special day. Popular belief holds that this day’s luck sets the trend for the year. To encourage good things to come their way, the Papas family, like other Greeks, eat delicious food, enjoy leisure pastimes with friends and family, and hope to win the symbolic lottery: a coin hidden in the New Year’s sweet.

Either at midnight on January 1st or sometime that day, the vassilopita (which translates literally as the bread of St. Basil, whose feast day falls on the first) is divided among members of a household. One person carries out this task. It’s a honor to do so, and elderly Sia’s in charge of the distribution for the Papases.

Each person’s name is called out as their piece is cut. If the knife happens to hit the coin, that individual wins the good luck jackpot! If not found then, it will be as the sweet is quickly consumed.

The first slice is symbolically dedicated to whomever or whatever the family most values. Greeks often give it to Christ. If it contains the coin, it’s donated to the church. More wedges can be likewise allocated when the vassilopita is large. Children usually receive their pieces in order of age, and guests get a chance either before or after the family’s served–a good way to gauge your host’s generosity!

Vassilopita can be made as a sweet bread. Helen, like most descendants of Greek immigrants, makes the cake version. She doesn’t deviate much from tradition, to Sia’s relief, excepting the decorative chocolate swirls. Helen thinks it’s an easy addition to dress up this non-iced cake, and I agree.

The result is a simple, elegant cake almost as dense as bread, somewhat similar in texture to pound cake. Moist and redolent with orange notes, it’s perfect with coffee or Greek rosé wine.

Sia and Helen just left the room, so I can share a secret. You don’t really need to win that coin to change your luck, although this New Year’s cake is a fun tradition.

Every person faces different hurtles to achieving her or his dream. My New Year’s wish for you is to find the courage and means to live that aspiration in 2018.

That’s getting lucky!

Ingredients (makes six servings):

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour; 2 1/2 tsps. baking powder; 1/2 OR 3/4 cup unsalted butter (softened)*; 1/2 cup sugar; 4 large eggs (yolks and whites separated); 1 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed is best); 1 tbsp. orange zest; one washed coin, wrapped in foil; 1 1/2 ounces melted chocolate of your choice (Helen likes to offset the orange with the slight bitterness of semi-sweet chocolate. When making this cake with kids in mind, she uses their preferred milk chocolate. Any kind you like is just perfect, though.)

Optional Ingredients: 

*Most vassilopita recipes use the ratio of almost 1 cup butter to every 2 cups flour. This is the classic butter-flour ratio for pound cakes. Helen slashes the fat by fifty percent with her use of a half-cup of butter. I prefer 3/4 cup butter–it’s a nice compromise. Use whatever your diet, health, and budget allows.

Helen forms the numbers of the new year on the cake with sliced almonds, attaching them with dollops of melted chocolate. Alternatively, you can use chocolate kisses, icing, or skip this step altogether.

Greek women often add up to a tablespoon of Metaxa to the batter. As discussed in my November 7th recipe posting, this brandy’s flavors meld beautifully with citrus notes.

You might choose to spice up your vassilopita with the holy trinity of Greek baking (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). Helen doesn’t want to overwhelm the cake’s subtle orange taste, so she bypasses this addition. If you do want to include spices, she suggests doing so sparingly.

Instructions:

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember to lower the temperature by 25 degrees when using a dark-colored pan. Butter an eight-inch round or square pan.

2. Combine the flour and baking powder in a small bowl. This is also the place to add spices.

3. Melt the chocolate to a pouring consistency, and put aside to cool.

4. Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.

5. In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar.

6. Beat in the egg yolks. Add the orange juice and zest. If you’re including Metaxa, this is the time to do so.

7. Now you add the flour combo to the wet ingredients. Do so in three or four stages to keep the cake tender. Adding all the flour at once will make for a tough cake…and eating experience! For a similar reason, you want to avoid overbeating the batter. Helen stirs in the flour to prevent this problem. And yes, regardless of whether you use a blender or old-school spoon, the batter is cookie-dough thick. Stay calm!

8. Fold in the stiffened egg whites, and breathe a sigh of relief as the batter loosens. You’ll still need to spread the thick batter in the pan with a spoon. Before you do so, be sure to add the wrapped coin.

9. Drizzle the melted chocolate on top of the batter. Use a knife or skewer to swirl the chocolate through the top of the cake. Isn’t that easy and pretty?

10. Bake around 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in a non-chocolate area of the cake comes out clean.

11. Allow to cool before eating (room temperature highlights the cake’s delicate orange flavor). You can also make this dessert well in advance, freeze and then defrost.

Do you have a dish and associated tradition for the new year? Please share by posting a comment.

And while you’re waiting for your fortune to change, why not bring a bit of luck to others?

Not sure where to begin? Consider adopting a shelter cat or dog or helping an abandoned animal get off the streets. That’s where I found my Athena, a starving kitten living under a porch. Can’t afford to take in a pet permanently? Animal rescue groups are desperate for foster homes.

If you have other suggestions on how to help someone’s luck change in 2018, don’t hesitate to send them in. Opa!

Athena 2
Athena Calli, my lucky charm!