After a long day of manuscript revisions, I was sipping a well-deserved ouzo-orange cocktail and eating chocolate. Then I had a eureka moment. Namely, could these fabulous flavors somehow be combined in a pastry?
And so, chocolate-ouzo-orange Greek Easter Bread came to pass. FYI, you don’t have to celebrate Easter in order to enjoy this Hellenic delicacy!
This easy-to-make version is moist and tender. Greeks like to dip tsoureki 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. It takes about three and a half hours from start to finish: fourteen minutes to make the dough; two to two and a half hours for both risings; and roughly thirty minutes to bake.
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour (plus two tbs for a braided style); 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 tbs 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.
1. Put yourself in the appropriate pastry chef mood by listening to Greek music. Don’t have any handy? Free internet stations abound. 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 bakers just throw in the dry yeast with the wet ingredients, and they think/hope 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.
3. Beat one egg with 1/3 cup sugar. Add the melted butter, followed by the orange zest, mahlepi, and salt.
4. Mix in the orange juice and milk.
5. Beat in 1/3 cup cocoa powder and 1/3 cup flour.
6. Toss in the ouzo with attitude.
7. Add the flour in 1/3 cup increments. Don’t put it in all at once or you’ll end up with tough bread.
8. Decision time: do you want a braided tsoureki (see step 12)? In this case, you’ll need to add a bit more flour in order to manipulate the dough. Two tablespoons should do the trick.
9. Knead the dough for 6 to 8 minutes, until pliant. (I used a standing mixer appliance. At this stage, I switched over to the dough hook.)
10. 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. It will take around 90 minutes to double in size.
11. Punch down the dough. It’s kind to be cruel since an airy dough will taste awful.
12. Will your tsoureki be a loaf or braid?
Braiding, which looks quite appealing, is the traditional style. The tsoureki’s three-strands represent the Holy Trinity. If this is your design preference, you should have added extra flour (see step 8). The dough will still be sticky but workable.
Divide the dough into three pieces. Place them on parchment paper, stretch each into a long strand and braid. (Greeks often add red-dyed hard-boiled eggs; the red symbolizes the sacrificial blood of Christ. This recipe’s loaf will be too small to permit this option unless you double the ingredients and thus its size.) Once you’ve finished making the braid, carefully slide the parchment onto a baking sheet.
If using a loaf pan, line it with parchment paper. Be sure to allow some overhang. You’ll use these bits to lift and check the loaf for doneness.
13. Cover and place the bread in a draft-free place to rise again. After 60 minutes or so, it’s almost oven-time.
14. Beat the egg with a bit of milk. Brush some of this egg-wash over the top of the bread and sprinkle on sesame seeds or almond slices.
15. 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 right away. That’s definitely a martia (sin). Unlike regular bread, tsoureki is a dish best served cold. It freezes beautifully, so you can make it well in advance of serving. Greeks often make extra, sometimes dozens, to give away as Easter gifts, and this feat is accomplished via freezers.
Ouzo is a licorice-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 percent.
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. And its almost medicinal alcohol content levels! Have a bad toothache? 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 changed 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 Greek and give ouzo a try.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Let me/the world know how this tsoureki recipe worked out and any of your own delectable innovations. Share the pastry agape (love)!