Last weekend, I made my favorite carrot cake for Easter Sunday. Today is Orthodox Easter, which is the Easter I grew up with, and it felt right to once again share something that I associate strongly with the holiday. I couldn’t share anything but tsoureki (τσουρέκι).
Tsoureki doesn’t have to be Easter bread. It’s a sweet, Greek holiday bread that’s also shared at other times of the year. When I was growing up, we got it twice yearly: once on the first day of each New Year, and once on Greek Easter. The New Year’s loaf had a coin inside, wrapped in wax paper. My mom and I would cut a slice for each member of our nuclear and extended family. If the coin landed in your slice, it was thought to bring a year of filled with especially good luck. (Once, when I complained to my mom that I never got the coin, she told me that her father had sardonically joked that it was actually a bad omen.)
At Easter, we got tsoureki with red-dyed hard boiled eggs baked right into the bread. The bread came from our local Greek bakery, but my Yaya also made a giant batch of the eggs for my favorite game. This was a game so fun that I didn’t mind the fact that I had to stay awake until midnight every Greek Easter (I was a morning person even then). It consisted of everyone picking an egg, and then cracking that egg against the egg of another person at the holiday table. If you initiated the crack, then your egg would descend from the top, and you’d exclaim “Chistos Anesti!” (Χριστός Ανέστη, “He is risen!”)
If your egg stayed intact, while the other person’s cracked and caved inward, he or she would then try cracking the good side of the broken egg over the side of your egg that had been lucky. The person would respond, “Alithos Anesti!” (Aληθώς ανέστη, “He is risen indeed!”). And if your egg cracked first, you’d favor your remaining good side for the next round.
It all sounds pretty confusing now that I write it out, but it was fun. I remember the few times when I had an egg that seemed indestructible, how exciting it was to keep testing its strength. I especially remember my grandmother’s loud, jubilant cries of “Christos Anesti!” and “Alithos Anesti!” No one laughed more than she did when an egg was either especially sturdy or especially feeble. My Yaya played this game the way she did everything: larger than life, full of gusto.
It’s funny to write about all of this, because a lot of these traditions have fallen away since my childhood. It’s not a game for two, and neither my mom nor I hosts anyone for the holiday. If we did, I wouldn’t be partaking in the egg game anymore as a vegan (though I’m sure I could come up with a creative alternative).
Still, my mom and I keep our traditions alive in small ways. We always celebrate Greek Easter together, even if that means a nice meal. And my mom still orders Tsoureki for herself and, so thoughtfully, for her family. While my Grandmother’s friends were still alive, she even took the time to order tsoureki for all of them and hand deliver it to their homes.
As I get older, I’m aware of the fact that I’m becoming a bearer of tradition myself. I’m not sure how great I’ll be at this job, since in my book I’ll never be as thoughtful (in this particular way) as my mom is. She’s better at planning holiday stuff to begin with, and she’s much better at keeping in touch with people than I am.
What I can bring to the table is my crazy love of bread baking, which isn’t my mom’s thing and wasn’t my Yaya’s thing, either. This is a strange year for me to take up the torch of holiday observances, since I’m not spending Greek Easter with any of my family physically. But the crisis has given me time to reflect on what matters, and this has included looking back on my upbringing and appreciating some traditions that I’ve lost touch with. It makes me want to do something symbolically for this quarantined Greek Easter, and sharing tsoureki is what I’m best suited to do.
Tsoureki is an enriched dough that reminds me of challah. It’s a little airier than challah, but the fundamentals are similar, and it’s also braided. It can be flavored in a few different ways: some recipes call for orange or lemon zest, some for raisins or almonds, some for sesame seeds on top. Tsoureki almost always includes one or both of mahlep and mastic, specialty spices.
I’m not attempting to share a definitive tsoureki here by any means; that would be impossible, since it’s a bread that probably varies from family recipe box to recipe box. I’m sharing the tsoureki that’s most like the one I remember from childhood: light and tender, sweet but not dessert-y, fragrant with the smell of mahleb but very, very light on the mastic (which I find overpowering when it’s more than a pinch). Our tsoureki didn’t include citrus zest, so my recipe doesn’t either, though I’ve tried including it, and it’s a nice addition.
I’ve had a Goldilocks experience testing this recipe. Some batches were a little too sweet, or not sweet enough; sometimes I added too much mahlep, which my mom doesn’t like in big amounts, and sometimes it wasn’t even detectable. I think I finally got it right, but of course my mom will be the one to tell me whether that’s true.
The bread tastes lovely without the mahlep, and anyone who knows tsoureki would still recognize it. But I’d be lying if I said that the mahlep isn’t what gives the bread its characteristic aroma and flavor. It’s distinctive, and because it’s not a spice that we use often here in America, you recognize it instantly when it’s there.
I couldn’t find mahlep anyplace reasonably close to me leading up to this holiday, and it seemed all but sold out online. Under normal circumstances, I’m lucky enough to live in a city with tons of ethnic markets that have amazing spice selections, but when I tried, the two Middle Eastern markets that I know carry mahlep couldn’t deliver (and they’re much too far for me to walk).
I was about to give up on traditional tsoureki, when I did one last Google search and found The Greek Market, in Florida. I was delighted to find out that they could ship to NYC, and I ordered my mahlep from them, which is how my tsoureki experiments and this recipe came to be.
Normally, I’d feel a little silly ordering such a tiny item online, with shipping costs. But this year, it just felt important to keep tradition alive in some small, but significant way. I’m glad I made the splurge. This wonderful, fragrant, sweet and satisfying bread is the result, and I’m so happy that I can make a gloved and contact-free delivery of a loaf to my mom today. A lot has changed since childhood, and a lot has changed in our daily lives very, very quickly. But tsoureki—even if it’s veganized—hasn’t.
Happy Greek Easter to all who celebrate. Χριστός Ανέστη! And I’ll see you later this week.