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