Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee)is the traditional bread of Greek Easter. Tsoureki is a rich yeast bread flavored with orange and a delightful spice called Mahlab (also called Mahlepi) that is ground from the pits of wild cherries. You can find Mahlab online or at ethnic grocery stores specializing in Greek or Middle Eastern products.
1Sift the flour with the salt in a large bowl and set aside.
2Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk. (Be sure it is lukewarm, not hot). Add 1/2 cup of the flour and 1 tbsp. sugar to the mixture. Cover tightly and set aside until it becomes bubbly and foamy.
3In a large saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat. Stir in the sugar, orange zest, lemon zest, and mahlab. Remove from heat and stir in the beaten eggs. Cool slightly.
4Add the yeast mixture to a large mixing bowl. Add in the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Slowly incorporate the flour until the mixture forms a smooth, wet dough.
5Cover the bowl and let rise until it is about double in size – about 2 hours in a warm place.
6Turn the dough out on to a well-floured counter and punch down. You will need to keep sprinkling the dough with flour to keep it from sticking. It will remain a loose, wet dough.
7Separate the dough into four equal parts. Shape into rounds and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Once rested, divide each round into three pieces. Roll the pieces out into long cords about a foot long. Braid the three ropes together to form a braided loaf. Place the braids on baking sheets to rise again.
8Once the dough has risen to about double, carefully brush the surface with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Gently press a single red egg in the upper section of the braid.
9Bake in a preheated 280-degree oven for about an hour until the crust is nicely browned all over.
10This bread is delicious toasted or made into French toast.