When you look at the recipe for tsoureki, it will remind you of Jewish challah bread or French brioche. You get tons of butter, tons of eggs, and a bit of flour—it's quite a heavy, rich bread. What makes tsoureki different to challah and brioche is a spice we use called mahlepi, which is made from the seeds found inside a type of cherry stone. When you eat mahlepi raw, it has no flavour but when you cook it, it has a sweet smell and taste. In some parts of Greece, they add mastic and in other parts of Greece, they add sesame seeds.
In my upbringing at least, tsoureki was only eaten at Easter. From the first time I arrived in England, I loved hot cross buns. But they are available any time of the year here. It doesn't make sense and spoils it a little. Let's make it once a year and then eat it until you can't eat any more, then wait for another year.
Tsoureki is to be eaten with breakfast, or you can break off a little bit after you wake up from your siesta. Because we only had it at Easter, Mum overdosed us with endless tsoureki until a couple of days after the Easter celebrations, then that was it for another year. You don't cut it and eat it before the end of Saturday or the beginning of Easter Sunday.
I wasn't brought up in a religious family, but tsoureki has a lot of religious connotations.
You don't eat it before the end of Saturday because, in religious practices, in the days leading up to Easter Sunday, you shouldn't be eating dairy products. The three plaits that are braided to make the bread are also supposed to represent the Holy Trinity—God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. When the dough has fully proved and is about to go into the oven, some people stamp the dough with the stamp of the local church.
Then there are the blood-red, hard-boiled eggs.
The eggs are are dyed red and placed into the dough before the bread is cooked. Before that, they're hard-boiled to death! Traditionally, you dye them on the Thursday before Good Friday because it signifies the blood of Jesus up on the cross.
My mum used to dye the eggs by boiling red onion skins. A couple of weeks before Easter, she'd collect onion peelings and keep them in a bag. Then she'd put them in a big pot of boiling water, strain the peelings, add a couple of beetroots, and be left with a vibrant red liquid. The eggs would go in and boil. My mum used to say, "I dye them the colour of your lips!" They get hard-boiled, then you put them on the top of the tsoureki, and they're baked for another 35 minutes. So they're cooked to death.
When you dye the eggs in Greece, you'd dye a minimum of a dozen. Often you'll do two or three dozen because you expect to share them with your neighbours. And the whole tradition for churchgoers is that you attend midnight mass on Easter Saturday and when you come back home, everyone is given an egg. You crack the tops and bottoms against one another's eggs. Whoever ends up with an uncracked egg is the winner.
Here at the restaurant, we'll have boiled and dyed about 2,000 eggs by the time Easter comes around. People have given us orders so around a thousand get picked up on the Thursday before Easter and then we also use them for the tsoureki. I used to stick to what I know and dye them inside onion skins but people said they didn't look red enough. So, this year we decided to do them with red dye and it's been crazy with people buying them. On Easter Sunday, each guest will have a hard-boiled egg waiting for them on their table with a bit of salt and some olives for their starter.
Sadly, the only people who probably remember how to make tsoureki properly are people the age of my mum—people in Greek villages in their 50s and 60s. Now, people tend to go to bakeries and delis. But it's so easy to make as long as you have good butter, good eggs, and flour. There's a limit to how many we can make at my restaurant, though. Sometimes around times like Easter, I have to remind myself that we're a restaurant, not a bakery!
As I mentioned, I come from an atheist family but my parents, especially my dad, always say that it's important to have these traditions because they gather people. And the more people we gather, the more fun we're going to have. And the more fun we're going to have, the more we're going to drink and eat. At the end of the day, it's not religion that brings people together, it's flavours that bring people together—in my country, at least.
As told to Daisy Meager.
Athens-born chef Theodore Kyriakou is co-founder of The Greek Larder, a Greek restaurant and deli in London's King's Cross.