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

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!