In my grandparents’ living room in Alexandria, Egypt, in the center of one of its bright walls, was a colorful hand painted drawing of our extended family tree. The tree displayed black and white tiny oval face photos. At the tree roots, were the photos of Maria and Guirguis, the great grandparents of my mother. Guirguis “Bek” (an honorific Egyptian title) was a Christian Egyptian man and Maria, his wife, was 100% Greek. She was born to a greek couple who made Egypt their home in the nineteenth century.
Historically, the influx of Greek diaspora to Egypt occurred under the rule of Mohamed Ali (1805-1848). Also known as Ali Pasha, he was a visionary leader and the founder of modern Egypt. He offered significant protection and substantial privileges to foreigners and expats to encourage them settling down in Egypt. He fostered their presence, and in return, they played a fundamental role in Egypt’s renaissance and cosmopolitan character.
I was always drawn to know more about my Greek great grandmother. Was she born in Egypt or Greece? What is the story of her parents? And why was Greek never a second language among the older generations of my maternal family?!
What I gathered from limited accounts of her marriage to Guirguis, Maria didn’t have an easy existence. Her husband was a conservative Egyptian man who feared the impact of her liberal European background on their kids. Obviously, he did his utmost to erase her identity. He forbade her from speaking Greek with their kids and banned her from having any contact with her Greek community and family, including her siblings. I imagine that cooking Greek food in their household was probably off limits.
No one knows, however, the reasons for which she tolerated such asperity. What we know for sure is that Maria completely succumbed to her husband’s wishes until she died. Nothing remained from her Greek heritage except her physical genes, specifically the fair skin that distinguishes her descendants from the majority of Egyptians.
Somehow this incomplete, saddening story lingered in my subconscious. Probably, my intentional inclusion of Greek dishes in my family’s repertoire is a way to do justice to this silent, oppressed grandma, who compromised her identity and heritage to keep her marriage stable and intact.
By Christmas time I always bake Finikia, the orange scented cookies drenched in honey and sprinkled with nuts. And for Easter, no matter how busy my schedule is, I never fail to bake Tsoureki, a close kin to French brioche. Yet, the Greek fluffy and stretchy bread has an unmistakable exotic aroma and taste thanks to mastik and mahlep (see notes).
The key to success for a fluffy, soft bread is patience. After the first rise, I leave the dough overnight in fridge the overnight to develop a yeasty flavor spiked with orange zest and spices. The following day, I let the kids dye the eggs, which we place in the center of the braided sweet bread.
My great grandmother was probably never allowed to bake Tsoureki for Easter, yet in my household I will keep baking it every year, regardless of what Guiguis Bek mandated more than 200 years ago.
Tsoureki (Sweet Easter Bread)
Recipe adapted by the Greek Dish
- 35g butter at room temperature
- 135g milk, at room temperature
- 200g sugar
- 4 medium eggs, at room temperature
- 870g bread flour
- 21g dry yeast (0.7 oz.)
- 1 cup of lukewarm water
- zest of 1 unwaxed orange
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground mastic
- 1 teaspoon of ground mahleb
- 1 egg and 1 tbsp water, for glazing the tsoureki
- Silvered Almonds or sesame seeds for garnish
For the syrup
- 1 cup of water
- 1 cup of sugar
- To prepare the starter, add in a bowl the lukewarm water, a pinch of sugar and yeast and stir. Wrap well with plastic wrap and set aside in a dark warm place until the water-yeast mixture becomes frothy and starts bubbling.
- To add the aromatics, use a pestle to ground the masticha and mahlepi, along with a pinch of sugar and set aside.
- To prepare the wet ingredients, in a saucepan add the butter, sugar and milk. Place over very low heat and stir the mixture, until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved. Pour the butter mixture in a large bowl and whisk in the eggs. Add the yeast mixture and whisk to combine.
- To prepare the dry ingredients, In the mixer’s bowl add the flour, the ground mastic and mahlepi, orange zest and the butter-egg-yeast mixture. Using the dough hook mix at first at low speed, until the ingredients start to combine and then mix at medium-high speed for about 15 minutes, until the dough comes together.
- To let the dough rise, Cover the dough with plastic wrap and place in a warm environment, until at least it doubles it’s size (for about 2-3 hours). If the environment is cold, preheat the oven at 30C, turn it off and place the bowl inside.
- To knead the dough, gently deflate the tsoureki dough with your hands and cut in 6 equal portions (three for each Greek Easter bread). Without flouring the surface, roll out each piece of dough it a little bit with your hands. Stretch the dough from its ends, this will help giving the bread its stringy texture. Braid the bread, place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover the baking sheet and let it rise again for 20 minutes.
- To make the egg wash, Whisk together in a small bowl an egg and 1 tbsp water. Brush the top of each Greek Easter bread with the egg.
- To garnish the tsoureki, sprinkle almond silvers or sesame seeds and bake in preheated oven at 170C for about 40-50 minutes, until nicely browned and fluffy.
- To make the syrup, In a deep small pot add the sugar and water and bring to the boil. As soon as the sugar dissolves, remove the pot from the stove and ladle the hot syrup over the hot tsoureki.
- Serve immediately the Tsoureki while it is still hot, or serve it later covered with a towel. Tsoureki is an excellent freezer food. You can wrapped it tightly with stretch tight and freeze it for several weeks.
- Mahleb is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a species of cherry.
- Mastic is a resin obtained from the mastic tree it is called Arabic gum. It is used in greek and middle Eastern cuisine.
- The key is to melt the butter at very low heat, so that the temperature doesn’t ‘kill’ the yeast. Remove the pan from the stove and check the temperature. The mixture should be at the same temperature as your finger. If it is warmer, leave to cool down for a few minutes and check again.