Pascha ( Πάσχα ) is the most revered holy day in the Greek culture. The preparations and customs that take place leading up to Pascha, including traditional foods and large feasts, are an important part of modern Greek life. The remembrance and celebration of Christ’s life & death span over a week-long period called Megali Evdomada ( Μεγάλη Εβδομάδα) or Holy Week. There are many traditions and preparations that take place during this week, but there is one day that we especially look forward to, Holy Thursday, which is the day that we get to make Tsoureki – Greek Pascha Bread.
Tsoureki ( pronounced: tsou-REH-key ) is the food we look most forward to making every year for Pascha. Tsoureki is a sweet braided loaf of bread that is infused with some of our most beloved Greek flavors: mastiha, mahlepi & orange. The aroma of tsoureki baking in the oven is one of the greatest smells on earth!
If you have followed along here on ful-filled for some time, then you know that I have a recipe for gluten-free tsoureki here on the blog. Although my hubby and I do not have gluten issues, I have done a lot of gluten-free baking over the years and wanted people with gluten intolerances to be able to experience our most treasured Greek bread recipe. As Pascha approached this year, I knew that it was time for me to finally share our recipe for traditional tsoureki! And I could not be more excited for you to experience this incredible Greek Pascha bread!
what makes tsoureki so special:
Tsoureki – Greek Pascha bread is very similar to other sweet braided breads, but there are three elements that define tsoureki – Greek Pascha bread:
- MASTIHA: (a.k.a. mastic) is the resin that comes from the Pistacia Lentiscus tree, which is grown on the Greek island of Chios in the Northern Aegean sea. The flavor of mastiha is hard to pinpoint, most would describe it as a combination of pine and vanilla, with maybe a touch of fennel or anise. Mastiha is subtle but adds an unexpected complexity to whatever you use it with.
- MAHLEPI: (a.k.a. mahlab) is the aromatic spice that comes from the kernel of the black or mahaleb cherry (Prunus mahaleb). The kernels have to be ground or boiled in order to extract the most flavor. The flavor of mahlepi is a combination of cherry, rose, and almond – with a hint of vanilla and something quite floral.
- ORANGE ZEST & JUICE: orange is probably the most prominent flavor used in Greek baking. For tsoureki, we like to incorporate both orange zest and juice, but not too much, just enough for it to gently fragrance the loaf.
Another reason that tsoureki is so special and greatly anticipated is due to the fact that most Greeks have been fasting from dairy & animal products for 46 days of Lent preceding Pascha. So this sweet braided bread is especially treasured after fasting! We also prepare red-dyed eggs on Holy Thursday, which will be enjoyed with tsoureki on Pascha (you can see a tutorial of how I make them HERE). Their deep red color symbolizes the blood of Christ. We crack these dyed eggs together on Pascha in the traditional game of ‘tsougrisma.’ Cracking the eggs symbolizes Christ’s resurrection from the dead and as we play we say “Xristos Anesti!” (Christ is Risen!)
As I write about these traditions and what they mean to us, I cannot help but become emotional. Pascha is a very sacred holy remembrance in the Greek culture and especially so in Greece. When my hubby and I moved to Greece back in 2018, our first day there was Μεγαλή Παρασκευή (Good Friday). The whole country is in a state of mourning, remembering Christ’s death – flags are at half-mast and church bells solemnly ring throughout the day. It is a deeply emotional day that was really incredible to experience upon arriving in our new homeland.
Tsoureki – Greek Pascha bread is a recipe that I truly hope you experience at some point in your life. And it can be enjoyed at any time of year, not just during Pascha.