The Tsoureki is the typical Easter Sweet Bread of Greeks. It contains mahaleb, a spice made from the seeds of the Prunus mahaleb tree, grown in the Middle East. Prunus mahaleb is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its’ wood is hard enough for use in carpentry. We learn that the goddess Ishtar herself had planted a tree in order to make a bed and chair from its’ wood.
The problem was that, after ten years and when the tree was fully frown and ready to be lodged, it was infested with nasties. Untypical for her notorious fame, Ishtar had to call for help, and it was Gilgamesh who killed the immune-to-spells snake, expelled the storm bird and drived away the succubus demon.
Besides the tree’s qualities that made it suitable for carpentry, its’ fruit was also esteemed. The seeds of the tree occur in Mesopotamian incantations from the 22nd century BC, in lists to be used for the mixing of potions and medicine. What a long journey for the mahleb, from the haze of of the temples in Nippur four thousand years ago, to the local patisseries and bakeries! Nowadays in Greece, everybody knows an establishment where they produce a good Tsoureki – usually a founder from Konstantinoupoli ( Istanbul) is involved!
Tsoureki is consumed traditionally on Easter Sunday morning after Easter fasting. I think that a good Tsoureki pairs exceptionally with chèvre, roquefort or gruyere cheese, not to mention the more mainstream way, butter and jam. Or, you can also try it for this french toast à la grecque (inspired from a recipe of NOPI by Ottolenghi and Scully) which is great for a festive breakfast or brunch. You can substitute the Tsoureki with brioche, challah or even panettone.
For the French toast
- 2 eggs
- 100ml full fat milk
- 200g Greek Easter Bread (tsoureki), ends trimmed and cut into 3cm thick slices
- 40g cold unsalted butter, cut into 2cm cubes
For the star anise sugar
- 4 whole star anise, blitzed in a spice grinder into a fine powder
- 25g caster sugar
For the Strawberry compote and yogurt
- 150g fresh strawberries
- 35g caster sugar
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 100g greek yogurt
Place the strawberries in a medium saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice over medium-high heat and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the sugar has dissolved and the compote thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature, about an hour.
Mix together the ground star anise and caster sugar, then spread out on a plate, ready for the toast to get dusted and set aside.
Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until pale and airy and then slowly add the milk while whisking continuously. Transfer the egg and milk mixture to a dish that is large enough to fit the 4 slices of tsoureki in a single layer. Add the tsoureki slices and let them soak for about 5 minutes, turning them carefully once or twice.
Preheat the oven to 220°C (fan)
Place 20g of butter in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. When it starts to foam, place in the 4 slices of the soaked tsoureki and fry for about 2 minutes. Flip them over, add another 20g of butter and continue to fry for another 1-2 minutes, until golden brown.
Transfer the cooked tsoureki slices on a baking sheet and bake for 4 minutes, until all slices puff up and get deep, golden brown.
Remove from the oven and dip each slice in the star anise sugar one at a time, flipping so that both sides get coated.
Serve immediately with the greek yogurt and the strawberry compote.