Greek festive, Christmas and/or Easter breads (tsoureki) are similar to Jewish challah but have less fat and more spices. In this, my newest Vegan version, I began experimenting starting from the Raisin Bread from the island of Mykonos, a recipe that I had included in my very first book The Foods of Greece.
This much lighter festive bread is in fact an interesting variety of the traditional raisin bread (stafidopsomo). It comes from Mykonos, the now cosmopolitan Cycladic island, and was given to me by Anna Sigala, my old neighborhood baker from the days I used to live under the Akropolis.
Anna had told me that she learned to make it from her grandmother. Now that Koukaki –the area around Acropolis– has become extremely popular with both locals and foreign visitors, Takis, Anna’s son, transformed the old bakeshop into a much-written about bakery where tourists line up to get sandwiches, pies, and sweets.
My mother and father hated raisin bread because, for a period during the 1930s, the Greek government made it compulsory for everyone buying any kind of bread to buy some raisin bread, too. The Ministry of Agriculture had bought all the raisins from Corinth to keep the growers satisfied, for political reasons, and then invented this method to get rid of the surplus.
Later, when this stupid regulation was no longer applied, raisin breads disappeared from the bakeries because no one would buy them. Only recently, more than three generations later, raisin bread has again become popular.
Athenian bakeries often slice tsoureki and other flavored breads and bake them again, to make delicious, light biscotti; you can do the same with this one, if you have any leftover.
I love it with spicy cheese, like Rockford and Gorgonzola, or simply with coffee or tea; I also use as a base for English trifle or summer pudding, much like my older version of pumpkin and tangerine bread.
Makes 3 small loaves
1 cup yellow cornmeal
6 ½ cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast (see note 1)
1 teaspoon ground mahlep (see note 2)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons finishing, somewhat coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon mastic tears (see note 2)
About 2 ½ cups orange juice, as needed
2 very small or one large tangerine, ends sliced off, then quartered to remove any pips
1 cup baked, mashed squash (preferably butternut squash)
¼ cup marmalade, preferably homemade
1-2 tablespoons honey (optional)
1 ½ cups raisins (about 200 grams)
½ cup sesame seeds and/or Nigella seeds
Olive oil for the bowl and the plastic wrap
1-2 tablespoons grape molasses to brush the loaves (optional)
Place flours, and the yeast in the bowl of a standing mixer and toss with a spatula. In a mortar beat the salt with the mastic tears to make a powder and add, together with the mahlep, cinnamon and cloves in the bowl with the flours and toss again to mix.
In the blender add 1 cups orange juice, the quartered tangerine(s) –peel and all—the baked squash, the marmalade, and the honey, if using, and pulse to chop and mix.
Make a well in the center of the flours and add the orange mixture from the blender, and one more cup orange juice. Fit the bowl to the mixer and work with the dough hook on low for 1 minute.
With the motor running add the rest of the orange juice and a little water, as needed, and work to make a dough somewhat wet and sticky that would start to come off the sides of the bowl. Add the raisins and keep working the dough on medium-low for about 5-6 minutes. If it feels too dry, add a little water, if too wet add a few tablespoons all-purpose flour. Occasionally stop and turn over the dough with a large spatula.
Lightly oil a large transparent or semi-transparent bowl, as well as a piece of plastic wrap. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball. Transfer to the oiled bowl. Cover with the oiled plastic wrap and let rise until it almost doubles, about 2 hours or more.
(When the dough has expanded to about 1 1/2 times its size you may transfer the bowl with the dough to the refrigerator, and leave it overnight and up to 24 hours. It will continue to rise slowly. Before proceeding further, bring to room temperature).
Spread the sesame seeds and/or Nigella seeds on a platter and sprinkle liberally with water.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 3 with a dough scraper. Form 3 loaved with each piece of dough and roll them on the platter with the seeds, then transfer into cake pans lined with parchment paper. Cover loosely with oiled plastic and let rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until visibly expanded –they don’t need to double in size.
Preheat the oven to 375º F (200 C)
With scissors cut slits half-way into the bread and brush with the molasses if you like. Bake for 30 minutes then lower the temperature to 350 F (180 C) and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, until golden and hollow sounding. An instant-read thermometer should read 200 F in the center of the bread.
Transfer to a rack and let cool completely before slicing.
- Both Costas and I love our breads somewhat dense; but if you like it lighter you can increase the Instant Dry Yeast adding 1 more teaspoon.
- Instead of the traditional Greek mastic and mahlep, you could use cardamom –about 1 ½-2 teaspoons, I suggest.