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Photo by: Joseph De Leo
The Joyous Festivities and the Marvelous Foods of Easter Sweep Every Greek into their embrace. Every Family Roasts a whole Lamb or Goat, Stews a Joint of the meat, or Simmers Mageiritsa Soup (Page 176). The Baking that has been going on for days now manifests as sumptuous treats: Sweet Koulouria Rings, Powdered Sugar Cookies, Cheese Pies, and the most essential, the Easter Bread. Called Lambropsomi or Tsoureki, the bread varies slightly in shape and flavoring from region to region, but It is Always Rich, Sweet, and, most important, decorated with eggs dyed red. The Crust is honey brown, the crumb airy and a rich ocher. The Pieces waft their piney, Mastic aroma. No wonder family members hover until the bread is broken and, with it, make Communion with both their faith and one another.
1. Pour ¾ cup of the milk into a bowl. Add the yeast, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and 1 cup of the flour and stir to mix. Set aside in a warm place until lightly spongy all the way through, 30 minutes.
2. Sift the remaining sugar, 5 cups of the flour, and the salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the mahlepi, mastic, and butter and briefly mix with your fingers. Make a well in the center and pour in the beaten eggs, yeast mixture, and remaining ¾ cup milk. Knead with your hands until you can gather the mixture into a ball, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Dust a work surface with some of the remaining 1½ cups flour. Transfer the dough to the floured surface and knead, dusting the surface with flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic and no longer sticky, 10 minutes.
4. Lightly coat the dough ball with oil and place it in a clean bowl. Cover the bowl with a cloth and set it aside in a warm place to rise until the dough has doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
5. Punch down the dough and transfer it to a lightly floured surface. Knead the dough again for 1 minute, then divide it in half. Cover the two portions with a cloth and let them rest until puffed up again, 20 minutes.
6. Divide one of the portions of dough into thirds. With your hands, roll each third to form a rope about 20 inches long. When you have three ropes, braid them together. Pinch the ends together, tuck them under the braid and place the braid on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining portion. Set the braids aside, covered, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
7. When you are ready to bake the bread, preheat the oven to 350°F.
8. Brush each braid with the egg wash. Press 2 or 3 red eggs into each braid and sprinkle the almonds over the top. Bake until very golden on the top and sides, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest on the baking sheets for 30 minutes. Slice and serve while still warm, or cool completely and wrap in plastic wrap. The bread will keep at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Some cooks also add about 1 tablespoon coarsely grated orange zest to the dough.
If you’re one who loves warm bread, you can slice the loaf right after it comes out of the oven; the texture will be more spongy and cakelike than bread like.
Workers sort and grade newly harvested mastic tears on Hios.
As much as the lamb, eggs are an emblem of the Greek Easter. To Greeks, spring eggs denote sudden wealth, the fertility of the coming summer, abundance, and above all else, joy. Announcing Christ’s resurrection in a splendid splash of color, the eggs for the Easter bread are dyed red. In earlier days this was done in water tinted scarlet from beets, the first spring vegetable, or, where it was available, reddish wood. Now cooks generally use commercial packets of dye. The dyeing begins on Holy Thursday, before the solemnity of Good Friday wraps the week in black. Indeed, Holy Thursday is sometimes called Kokkinopefti, “the day red falls,” to symbolize Christ’s blood.
1. Place the water in a saucepan just large enough to hold the eggs in one layer and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the vinegar and red food coloring. Reduce the heat to just below the boiling point, and gently, one at a time, add as many eggs as will fit in one layer. Cook for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat so the liquid simmers without boiling. Then remove the pan from the heat and set the eggs aside to cool in the liquid for at least 40 minutes.
2. Lift the eggs out of the liquid and pat them dry on paper towels.
3. Grease your hands with olive oil and rub the eggs to make them glossy. Use right away or store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Mastic is generally sold in crystals. These reduce to a powder when lightly ground with a mortar and pestle or with a mallet. Both mastic and mahlepi can be purchased from any Greek specialty food store, from mail-order catalogs, or on the Internet. For a description of mastic, see page 143. For a description of mahlepi, see page 505.
If necessary, 1½ tablespoons vanilla extract can be substituted for the mastic, and the mahlepi can be omitted but the flavor of the bread will not be traditional.The color of the eggshell affects the depth of color when the eggs are dyed. Brown eggs turn out a denser red; white eggs turn out more luminescent.
In addition to decorating the Easter loaf, in Greece eggs make up part of the toys bestowed upon children and part of the games played on Easter day. With the leftovers from the bread dough, women shape small bread dolls (for girls) and snakes or other animals (for boys) and place a red egg as the head of the figure. Village children have few toys, and these bread toys delight them.
Red eggs are given in baskets and are hidden for the children to find. And both children and adults play a special game with uncooked eggs on Easter day: With egg in hand, they greet each other and hit their eggs point to point while saying “Christ is risen.” One person gets hands, if not clothes, splattered—to much laughter—while the one with the stronger egg goes on to test it on another Easter reveler.
Nutritional information is for each loaf, using 4 red eggs, and does not include olive oil for greasing your hands to make the red eggs.
Nutrients per serving (% daily value)