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Tsoureki is a Greek bread traditionally baked at Easter.  It has a smilar texture to brioche but not as buttery.  It is either braided as a loaf or braided in a wreath.  Both are brushed with egg wash and decorated with sesame seeds or flaked almonds and studded with red dyed eggs.

I have to date no family recipe to share as my mother never made Tsoureki.  We always had a Tsoureki sent over from Greece for Easter.  Having a dislike of the red eggs I would always steer clear of it.  As with everything, my tastes have changed.  Once a year I like to bake my own Tsoureki (without the red eggs embedded) and it has become a bit of a pilgrimage for me in finding the perfect Tsoureki recipe.  Each year I try a new recipe.  This year I have used the recipe from Stellios Parliaros a very well known Greek patissier.

The recipe comes close to what I am looking for but it didn’t quite have the sweetness.  Also I felt that instead of the single Tsoureki I would probably make two instead as it was rather on the large size.

A word of advise on the mastic.  When grinding it has a tendency to melt and cling and is quite difficult to get off.  Hence I am guessing why the recipe says not to allow the mastic with milk to get too hot.

Both the mahlepi and mastic were hard to find but they give the unique taste to the tsoureki and should not be left out.  They also give an aroma which immediately transports me back to Greece. These two spices really are for me what makes a Tsoureki Greek.

Mahlepi is an aromatic spice which comes from the kernel of seeds of the wild cherry.  The smell is unusual and has a sour note.  The Mastic  is the sap from the Lentisk tree which grows on the island of Chios.  It becomes brittle by the heat of the sun.  Mastic was apparently the original chewing gum hence its ability to stick to my pestle.  Both spices are used in middle eastern and Mediterranean cooking.

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Tsoureki

Ingredients

70g Butter

100ml milk

160g caster sugar

3 eggs

5g ground mahlepi

5g ground mastic

100ml lukewarm water

40g fresh yeast

650g strong flour

1 egg for brushing

Flaked almonds or sesame seeds to decorate

Method

In a saucepan gently heat the milk, butter, sugar mahlepi and mastic making sure the temperature does not rise above 50C

Remove from heat once all the ingredients have melted.  Strain the liquid through a sieve to remove any pieces of mahlepi or mastic set aside.

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and add to the butter, milk, sugar, mahlepi and mastic mixture.

Add the eggs and mix well.

Put the flour into a large bowl and make a well, add the liquid ingredients and knead.

Ideally use a mixer with a dough hook.  The dough is very sticky at first and the secret here is not to add more flour but to continue to knead.  The more you knead the less sticky the dough becomes.   The dough is ready when it stops sticking to your hands.  I also found when handling the dough it helped to flour my hands.

Remove the dough and form it into a ball and place in a clean bowl with some flour sprinkled on the bottom.  Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise.  It will take about 3 hours to triple in size.

When risen, remove the dough and knead again for a few minutes on a lightly floured board.

Divide into three equal balls.  Roll the balls into three long strands of equal length.

Line the long strands in front of you and pinch them tightly together at one end.  Plait the strands and then finish off pinching them firmly off,  tucking the ends under themselves for neatness.

At this point if red eggs are to be placed in the bread this is the time to do it.  If you attempt to do this after the second rising you will lose the air in the dough.

Place on a baking sheet and leave to rise about one hour until double in size.

Brush with egg very gently avoiding getting any egg wash into the creases.  Sprinkle with flaked almonds/sesame seeds and bake for about 45 minutes to an hour 180C/Gas 4

The Tsoureki is ready when it is golden brown.  I also like to insert a skewer into the middle to check that it comes out clean.

It will keep well for a week in an airtight container.  After a couple of days I tend to slice mine and toast it.

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Brioche

Brioche MD (1)

Brioche has to be the Queen of  all the breads, mainly because she has such a light sweet buttery taste,  with two sides – half cake, half bread – and she can be a little difficult to handle when making.   All the same the brioche is worth the effort and hard work and its not just me the holds the brioche in such high regard.   The dog can sniff a brioche coming out of the oven from the bottom of the garden.  It must be the buttery smell because it drives him mad.  It seems he will do anything for a small piece.  He takes his nagging and begging to new levels to secure a few crumbs.    I am shall be testing his strong need and desire for brioche when we next visit the vet by having a small piece in my pocket.  Hopefully we can avoid the usual practice of his command performance of high drama and an unwillingness to even cross the threshold.  It will be interesting to see just how much he really does love his brioche!

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It took me several attempts to master the brioche recipe because the dough is so much stickier and more fluid than other yeast breads.  On my first attempt I made one large brioche, what I didn’t quite realise was that the brioche rises quite a bit in the oven.  So when I opened the oven door towards the end of the cooking time I was horrified to see that the brioche had not only hit the roof of the oven but having no where else to go started to expand alarmingly in a sideways direction, and not in a good way.

I have also tried different flours.   At the beginning I used a strong white flour which for my taste didn’t quite give that soft cakey texture.  I then switched to plain flour which gave a much better taste and texture but it was the 00 plain flour which worked best for me.  I also had a little guilt over the six eggs and 350 grams of butter which seemed on the extravagant side but once tasted I don’t think I would want to change the recipe.  The rich buttery taste and luxurious yellow crumb can only come from the eggs and butter.  The brioche takes time to make so why cut corners?

Like a lot of fresh yeast breads the brioche only seems to be at its best for a very short period, maybe two days but that isn’t a problem because it freezes very well.  I tend to bake two at a time, one to be eaten straight away and the other to be sliced and frozen and used later in a bead and butter pudding or toasted with some jam.

The brioche is also different in that it needs three rises the second rise being overnight in the fridge or a very cool place.  The three rises mean that there is less yeast in the recipe and so the proving may take a little longer but this only helps to improve the flavour and create an even texture.  Leaving the dough in the fridge or a very cool place helps to make it much more manageable to handle and shape.

I have read many recipes for brioche and often they differ in oven temperatures and time.  For my oven I have found that I get the best results from using two 16cm tins rather the one 22cm tin.   I set the oven high for the beginning of the bake and then turn it down to finish the baking.  Again, you cannot  judge whether it is done just by looking, as the egg wash browns and gives the impression that it is cooked when it is not.  The only answer is the skewer test – if it comes out clean then its done.

Brioche

Ingredients

15g fresh yeast

70 ml lukewarm milk – the warm milk will start to activate the yeast

500g plain 00 flour or strong white flour if you prefer

15g salt

6 eggs beaten lightly

30g caster sugar

350g butter softened

30g caster sugar

1 egg yolk for brushing mixed with a little milk

Method

Heat the milk very briefly in the microwave, test to make sure it is only lukewarm.  Add the yeast and stir to dissolve.

Put the flour, salt and eggs in a mixing bowl using a dough hook.  Add the yeast and milk mixture.

On minimum speed mix the ingredients until they are well combined.

Turn the speed up and knead for approx 10 minutes,  stopping the machine every now and then to scrape down any loose bits.  By the end of the 10 minutes the dough will have become firmer and you will notice it become elastic against the sides of the bowl.  The dough is still very sticky and difficult to handle.  Do not be tempted to add any more flour.

Add together the sugar with some of the softened butter.  With the mixer on slow start to add small spoonfuls of the butter and sugar mixture, wait until combined before added the next.  Continue with the remaining butter.  When all the butter has been used up turn the mixer onto a medium speed and knead for another 10 minutes.  The dough will become beautifully silky and shiny.  You will also notice the dough will make a slapping noise against the side of the mixer bowl.

Remove dough hook, cover dough with clingfilm and leave to rise to double in size.  This will take 2-3 hours, don’t be alarmed if after the first hour there isn’t a lot of progress.  As there is less yeast it will take longer.

When the dough has doubled in size it needs knocking back  – at this stage I use my hands to turn it over a couple of times, knocking out the air.

Cover the dough again and place in a very cool place or the fridge for 6-8 hours.  I usually make the dough up in the evening and return to it in the morning.

When you turn the dough out you will find it quite stiff and very easy to use.  The dough now needs to be divided into two balls.  One ball of 2/3rds and the other of the remaining 1/3rd.

I like to melt a little butter in the microwave and brush the brioche tin thoroughly before putting the larger of the balls into it.  Once in, create a hole in the centre with your fingers.  With the smaller ball roll it into a tear shape.  With the larger end at the top push the smaller ball into the centre of the hole and with your fingers make sure you press it well into the large ball.

Brush lightly with the egg wash, being carefully not to let any wash collect around the join of the small ball on the top or around the edge of the fluted tin as this will hamper the dough rising in the oven.

Leave it to rise in a warm place until it has reached nearly the top of the tin.

Preheat your oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.

Before putting in the oven, gently brush the brioche again with the egg wash.  You can at this stage use a pair of scissors or sharp knife to cut 6 diagonal slashes into the main ball, leaving the top ball intact.  Dipping the scissors or knife into cold water between slashes helps them not to stick to the dough.

Place in the oven, allowing space for the brioche to rise taking into account the top ball.

Bake for 15 minutes and then turn down the oven to 170C/325F/Gas mark 3 for a further 30/40 minutes.

The only way to really test whether the brioche is cooked is to insert a skewer into the centre.  If it comes out clean then its cooked otherwise leave in the oven for another 5 minutes and test again.

Once cooked take out of the oven and leave in its tin to cool for 10/20 minutes then turn out onto a wire rack.

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