TSOUREKI

Recipe is adapted from `The Complete Book of Greek Cooking,' by the Recipe Club of Saint Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Hempstead, N.Y. Total time, including rising, is just under seven hours. Recipe can be doubled or tripled.

Starter base:

1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon active dry yeast (two packets works fine)

1/4 cup warm water

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

Dough:

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup milk, scalded and cooled

14 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon mahlepi or masticha, (sold in Greek and Middle Eastern specialty shops; as last resort, substitute vanilla extract)

5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, or as needed

For decoration:

4 hard-boiled eggs, dyed red

1 beaten egg

Sesame seeds

Mix yeast with water. Add 2 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Stir, and set aside in a warm place until mixture bubbles and foams - about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat 4 eggs. Add 1 cup sugar, scalded milk that has cooled, melted butter, and 1 teaspoon salt. Stir in yeast mixture. (Add vanilla extract if you don't have mahlepi or masticha.) Blend mahlepi or masticha with sifted flour and add to liquid to make a stiff and elastic dough. Knead well on a floured board for about five minutes. Place dough in a greased bowl; cover with a damp towel and let rise until doubled in bulk (about 2 hours). Punch down and tur n over in bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and a warm, damp towel and let rise again until almost doubled in bulk (about 1 1/2 hours).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Separate dough into 3 equal-sized balls. Roll each ball into a 15- to 18-inch-long rope and braid the three. Pinch ends of braid and, if desired, shape into a ring, pinching ends together. Place ring on greased round bread pan or greased cookie sheet. Let rise until doubled in bulk again (about 30 to 45 minutes). Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Push 3 or 4 dyed-red, hard-boiled eggs into bread dough (see photos). (Packets of special red dye are available at Greek specialty markets. ) Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden. Yield: 1 loaf.

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