Thursday, March 20, 2008

If you would remember me when you eat and drink

The first album to which I knew the lyrics was Jesus Christ Superstar, and I think I knew them all by age four. My parents attended the world premiere production of the show on July 12, 1971, at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh and purchased the soundtrack. It played continually on our bitchin' stereo, and it took no effort whatsoever for me to learn every last "what's the buzz" and "roll on up for the price is down" and "Nazareth your famous son / should have stayed a great unknown / like his father carving wood / he'd have made good" and "if you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication." I loved the music so much that I'd try to play Superstar at Christmas, though Mom and Dad kept reminding me that it really was more of an Easter record.

(The program from the 1971 premiere; Mom and Dad taped it to the inside front cover of the lyrics book that came with the album. Note: Yvonne Elliman was in this cast, though, sadly, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple [who is Christ on the original cast recording] and Murray Head [Judas] were not. The Judas in this production, Carl Anderson, went on to star in the 1973 film. I am a font of Superstar knowledge.)

(The aforementioned bitchin' stereo, which now sits in the home I share with Husband. Though it was purchased in 1965, it works beautifully in 2008 with iTunes via the Apple Airport.)

My childhood Easter memories were as such informed much more by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice than they were by iconic meals and specific foods (well, except for the chocolate bunnies and abundant PAAS-dyed eggs). I remember playing album 1, side 2 on my Fisher-Price record player in my bedroom more than I remember associating any one dish with Easter. Waving palms around the house while "Hosanna" blared? Yes. Eating something at brunch that would become highly memorable and nostalgic? Not so much. My aunt always made scalloped potatoes, and there was always thickly-sliced ham (which did not appeal to me in the least, and continues not to appeal to me in the least), but beyond that...Easter was Superstar, not superfeast.

However, about 10 years ago I started making a Greek braided Easter bread that has come to signify everything I love about cooking, especially cooking for holidays: old-world, ethnic traditions (even if they don't represent my own familial background), the joyous feeling of creating something unique to commemorate the day -- plus the requisite time off from the day-to-day schedule to plan and execute a recipe that takes more hours and effort than your ordinary average dish. This bread, called tsoureki, fits this criteria perfectly.

Tsoureki is a Greek braided brioche-like bread that has, nestled within its individual plaits, Easter eggs that have been dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. The eggs themselves recall spring, new life and resurrection. The cracking of the shells symbolizes Jesus' exit from the tomb on Sunday morning -- the metaphoric rolling away of the stone, if you will. Many great food cultures have a similar egg bread central to religious celebrations (think: Jewish challah, French king cake), but I am drawn to the tsoureki for its sheer beauty and utter deliciousness -- even though I am not Greek and have no personal Greek traditions to uphold. But who needs personal traditions when the end result is as gorgeous as this?

I first made tsoureki when I was living in my minuscule apartment in Chicago, to take to an Easter dinner hosted by friends Chuck and J. I vividly recall allowing the bread to rise on a baking sheet set atop my old Apple computer, because I simply did not have the counter space. You might imagine, then, how challenging it was to braid and shape the loaf given that my kitchen "counter" was maybe 10 inches wide and was home to other critical apartment accoutrement such as the telephone/answering machine. (This is the same apartment that didn't have a single drawer in its "kitchen.") So, not the ideal surface for braiding tsoureki, or for any other culinary pursuit except perhaps cutting grapes in half. I didn't have a stand mixer with a dough hook, then, either (I have since succumbed to some sort of KitchenAid illness and have come to possess three), so I must have kneaded the dough by hand. Which means that it is quite possible to make tsoureki if you don't own a stand mixer or three -- though such ownership certainly helps. Regardless, the cramped labor conditions in my old Boys' Town apartment were worth it, because I remember Chuck and J. and the rest of their guests being rather impressed with the results.

I can't blame them; this bread is a looker -- shiny egg-washed braids cradling deep red Easter eggs throughout the entire circumference of the beautiful loaf. It tastes just as good as it looks, too, with a subtle hint of fresh orange that elevates tsoureki above run-of-the-mill egg bread. Plus, bonus treat! When you're through with your slice(s), pull out a red egg and crack into its yummy hard-boiled interior. Cholesterol be damned; there is no limit to the number of delicious hard-boiled eggs I can consume on Easter.

Don't tell your family and friends that this bread is relatively easy to make -- the "difficult" aspect of it, if you can call it that, is planning. You need to allow yourself enough time for the multiple rises but even then, it's only two rises of one and a half hours each. As you wait for the yeast to do its thing, go ahead and catch up on your correspondence, or perhaps dig into a good book, or tune into some quality TV. Making tsoureki forces you into some downtime: it makes you slow down, engage in some quiet, home-bound pursuits and relax -- even for just a few hours. Which is something we all need to do more of, anyway. And if all that wasn't enough to convince you that this recipe is worth trying, then do it for the delightful smells. There's nothing like the smell of glorious yeast and baking bread. But keep all those small pleasures a secret. Let your family and friends think you've been toiling all Lenten season long on the tsoureki, hair pulled back, up to your elbows in bread flour, proofing yeast, braiding, twisting, coloring eggs....

Present tsoureki at your Easter table and your guests will ooh and aah at your mad bread-making skillz. They will be even more impressed if you perform an impromptu rendition of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" -- with no less passion than Yvonne Elliman mustered for Ian Gillan -- as you slice into the loaf.

Happy Easter!



Adapted from "Martha Stewart Living"

For the Easter eggs:

8 large hard-boiled eggs

1 c. boiling water

4 t. vinegar

1/2 t. red food coloring

For the tsoureki:

1 c. milk

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough

3/4 c. sugar

4 1/2 t. active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 packets)

3 large whole eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk

1 t. kosher salt

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more to grease the bowl and plastic wrap

Grated zest of 1 orange

2 T. freshly-squeezed orange juice

2 t. pure vanilla extract

2 to 3 c. bread flour

6 to 8 red Easter eggs (the number needed will vary depending on the size of the loaf)

Heat milk in a small saucepan until a candy thermometer registers 110 degrees F. Pour the milk into the bowl of an electric mixer and add 1 1/2 c. of the all-purpose flour, the sugar and the yeast. Whisk to combine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let stand somewhere warm until the mixture is bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Attach the bowl to an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook. On medium-low speed, add the whole eggs, one at a time. Add the remaining 1 c. of all-purpose flour and the kosher salt. Scrape down the sides of the bowl to make sure all the flour is incorporated. Add the butter, orange zest, orange juice and vanilla. Mix briefly to combine. Gradually add enough bread flour to form a soft, sticky dough. (The most recent batch I made took about 2 1/2 c. bread flour. You want to add enough flour to make the dough form a ball around the dough hook, but not too much that the dough becomes dry.)

Generously butter a large bowl and place the dough in it; cover tightly with plastic wrap, then drape with a kitchen towel. Set aside in a warm place to rise until the dough ball is about 1 1/2 times its original size, which takes about 1 1/2 hours.

While the bread is rising, prepare the red Easter eggs. Hard-boil 8 eggs. (I do this by placing the eggs in a saucepan, covering them with water, partially covering the pot and bringing it to a boil. Once it's boiling, I turn off the heat and let the eggs stand, covered, for about 10 minutes. Then I run them under cold water to cool them off.) Combine the boiling water, vinegar and red food coloring in a deep bowl. Carefully place one or two eggs in the dye mixture at a time, depending on the size of the bowl you're using. Make sure there is enough dye mixture to cover the eggs; if not, double the dye "recipe." Leave the eggs in the dye for about 10 minutes, so that they take on the darkest possible shade of red. Remove to a metal cooling rack set over a cookie sheet or a piece of plastic wrap, and allow the eggs to dry.

Line an 11" x 17" baking pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Divide dough into thirds. On a floured surface, roll out each piece into a rope approximately 30" long.

Loosely braid the three 30" ropes together.

Join the two ends together, pinching to adhere the dough to itself and form a ring. Place the ring on the pan.

Nestle the dyed eggs, heavy ends down, around the ring. (The loaf pictured below only had room for 6 eggs.) Lightly grease a piece of plastic wrap with butter, then cover the loaf with the greased plastic. Set aside to rise until doubled in size, which will take about 1 1/2 hours.

With about 30 minutes left to go in the rise, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolk with 1 T. water. Remove bread from the oven after 15 minutes; lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. and brush the bread with the egg wash. Return the bread to the oven and continue baking until the loaf is brown and hollow when tapped on the bottom, about 20 minutes. The tsoureki will be a dark brown color because of the egg wash; do not be alarmed. But of course you don't want to burn it, so if the bread becomes too dark cover it with aluminum foil while it finishes baking. (This is critical; I have to do it each time otherwise the top of the bread burns before it's baked through. I usually cover the bread with foil after its first 5 minutes of baking at 350 degrees.)

Cool on a wire rack. Warm up your singing voice, and serve.

One loaf will easily serve 8 people, though there might not be enough red eggs to go around. A note about the "bleeding" of the dye: I haven't figured out a way to prevent it, so you'll have to accept the less-than-perfect appearance of the eggs. I find it rustic and homemade-looking, and like it that way. Dishes with deep religious and cultural significance shouldn't be perfect, anyway, because they are, by design, meant to feed everyone -- including those in the poorest households who aren't so worried about the dye not running. Plus, let's look at it more symbolically: perhaps the "bleeding" of the dye into the dough around it can further symbolize the blood of Christ. See, I know you wanted a lesson in religious symbolism with your bread recipe.

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