Greek Easter Bread

FOR Christos and Maria Petropoulos, the week of Easter means big business and little sleep. As owners of Vouros Pastry Shop, specializing in Greek sweets, they'll be mixing, kneading, and baking nonstop for eager customers in the never-ending line that annually snakes in and out of their front door. The item in demand is tsoureki (pronounced tsoor-ECK-ee), the traditional Greek Easter bread.

``The whole week we sleep here,'' says Mrs. Petropoulous with a sigh. ``I just go home to take a bath and I come back.''

Searching for the correct word, the couple settles upon ``tired'' to explain the frazzled state they are in by the time Greek Easter Sunday (April 7 this year) rolls around - even with the help of 10 or so family members.

``You wouldn't recognize them,'' says Anna Scarlotos, a fan of the shop who works at the Greek Consulate in Boston.

Bread made especially for Easter is a tradition around the world, from English Hot Cross Buns and Swedish Semlor to Russian Kulich and Polish Babka. ``Bread, since the early days of Christianity, has marked the beginning of the splendid feast of Easter,'' writes Norma Voth in her book ``Festive Breads of Easter.''

Greek tsoureki is perhaps one of the most festive of all Easter breads, recognizable by its crimson eggs and braided shape.

In Greece, Easter is the most celebrated holiday of the year - even more so than Christmas. Diane Kochilas knows this well. ``The country closes down for about four or five days,'' says Ms. Kochilas, who divides her time between New York and Greece. ``Generally what happens is people go back to their villages and spend Easter there.... It's an ushering-in of Spring.''

Bread is very much a part of the Greek culture - as food and as folklore. ``You just don't eat without it,'' says Kouchilas, who has recently published ``The Food and Wine of Greece'' (St. Martin's Press, $22.95). In it, she writes: ``Bread is a sacred food, a utensil, a good luck charm, a folk art, a gift, a token to commemorate the milestones of life.''

More than just a fancy bread

So it follows that tsoureki is more than just a fancy braided bread with colored eggs. It is rich in history and symbolism, and plays a big part in Greek Easter celebrations. ``It's not so much a dessert, as much as sweetened bread that's symbolic of resurrection and life,'' said Kouchilas by phone from New York.

The word tsoureki is Turkish for ``that which is kneaded,'' says Kochilas. The bread probably came to Greece through Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The crimson eggs that decorate it, a custom in Byzantium, symbolize the blood of Christ as well as eternity and fertility, she says. The three long dough cords that are braided to form the loaf symbolize the holy trinity.

Like any traditional recipe, tsoureki varies according to the baker. Some people arrange the hard-boiled eggs in the dough before baking, others poke them in afterward; some top with sesame seeds, others sprinkle on slivered almonds; some braid three dough ropes, others twist with two. Recipes differ.

But no one questions the bread's appetite-satisfying value. At Easter, ``there's an element of anticipation'' about tsoureki, says Kochilas. ``You have to keep in mind that, by and large, people do fast.'' And this makes the sweet bread that much more of a treat.

According to Ms. Scarlotos, some in the Greek Orthodox Church ``fast'' for 40 days, going without meat and dairy products, while others will just fast the week before Easter Sunday. Compared to with the ``every day'' bread the Greeks eat, which is hearty and rough, tsoureki is a sweet bread - a lot like Jewish Challuh, says Kochilas - rich with things fasters have been missing: eggs and butter.

Then again, there are those who don't wait: ``When we were children, we used to sneak out and take it,'' says Mrs. Petropoulos, who grew up on the Greek island of Kalymnos.

Traditionally, after midnight services on Saturday, Greeks go back to their homes and break their fast by cracking the red hard-boiled eggs (symbolic of Christ coming out of the tomb), then eating them as well as tsoureki and a taste of meat. The big feast in on Sunday, typically: lettuce salad, spinach pie, mageiritza soup, eggs, roast lamb, potatoes, cheese, sweet-cheese pastries and tarts, and fruit.

``The Easter bread is one of the most important and symbolic foods we prepare in conjunction with the holiday,'' says Katherine Boulukos, chairwoman for the Recipe Club of Saint Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Hempsted, N.Y., which put together ``The Complete Book of Greek Cooking'' (Harper & Row, $27.95, 1990). ``The most unusual thing about the bread is it's a sweet bread; it has a very distinct flavoring to it,'' she says. The mahlepi (cherry-flavored seeds that are pulverized) or masticha (specia l sap from the mastichodenro bush) give the bread an unusual flavor. One can substitute vanilla extract, but a Greek would tell you that tsoureki is not tsoureki without one of those special Greek flavorings.

Special spice required

``Without it, it's like Wonder bread,'' Ms. Scarlotos says, speaking of the mahlepi the Petropoulouses use. Because of working hours in this country, more people are buying their tsoureki from shops such as the Petropouloses', she says. They make thousands of loaves for the holiday. Each batch takes about eight hours to make, from start to finish (including rising time), which is why those who do bake at home will usually make more than one.

``I love this bread; I make it all the time,'' says Ms. Boulukos. ``It makes great French toast,'' she reveals. Boulukos's fondness for the bread started at a very young age, she recalls.

``Oh, what I did once to my mother!'' she laments over the phone. Her mother made several tsourekia for Easter festivities and kept one hidden to save for a special uncle who was away at the time. But Boulukos - about 8 years old at the time - found it. ``I ate the whole thing from the underneath,'' she recalls. ``When she went to lift it, it crumpled. The horror on my mother's face when she picked up the loaf!

``I loved it so. I just decided I was more important than the uncle. My mother never let me forget it.''

As they say in Greek, kali orexi or ``good appetite.''

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