Merry Christmas! My mom is the only person I know who asks people to give her fruitcake on this day. She even went through the trouble of buying candied maraschino cherries so she could make her own. At the last minute, she backed out because of the two-hour bake time. Now we have all these neon fruit pieces but no cake. To tell you the truth, I’m actually dissapointed.
For everyone else, I’ve presented fruitcake alternatives, like panforte nero, “friendship bars” and now Greek Christmas bread. Several countries have their own version of holiday bread. There’s Italian panettone, German stollen and Alsatian kugelhopf. They’re delicious but are enriched with lots of butter. Greek christopsomo, however, has relatively little olive oil, but it’s still moist and feathery. It’s like a healthy panettone that’s flavored with wine, figs and spices. In Greece, it’s so popular that’s it’s enjoyed year-round.
Christopsomo: – hree-STO-psoh-moh -Greek/Cypriot Traditional Christmas Bread
by Rea Varveris, the New School of Culinary Arts
Bread is the most important of the Greek holiday foods. Historically, flour and yeast were scarce and expensive and thus saved for special meals. The careful preparation of the traditional Christopsomo or Xristougenniatiko psomi, or Christ’s Bread is said to ensure the well-being of the home in the year to come. It is a rich, round loaf decorated with a cross, or with pieces of dough formed into symbols representing the family’s life (initials, birth dates, ages, boats, animals, etc).
On Christmas Eve. the head of the household blesses the loaf and then cuts a piece for each person with a wish of “Kald Christoúyena” (“Good Christmas”) or “Chrónia polla” (“Many years”).
8 cups all-purpose flour
l teaspoon salt
3 pkg. dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105 F)
1 cup warm red wine
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
zest of 2 oranges
1/4 cup fresh tangerine juice
zest of 2 tangerines
1/4 cup Greek cognac
1 cup sugar
1 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
1 cup currants
1 cup dried figs, chopped
1 1/2 cups of toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup toasted pignoli (pine) nuts, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized masticha (mastic) or 1 teaspoon crushed anise seed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Topping for Decoration:
16 whole walnuts in their shells
3-4 tablespoons sesame seeds
1. In a small bowl, mix the yeast with 1/2 cup of warm water and 1 teaspoon of sugar, stir until dissolved and set aside for 10 minutes, until it bubbles.
2. In a large mixing bowl, sift the salt with 2/3 of the flour. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture, the remaining warm water, and the wine. Mix until a soft dough forms, cover with waxed paper and a damp towel, and set aside to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until doubled in bulk.
3. Punch the dough down and knead for several minutes until any air pockets are gone. Add the oil, orange & tangerine juices, zests and cognac. Sift in the remaining flour;
4. In a small bowl, mix the sugar, raisins, currants, dry figs, walnuts, pine nuts, masticha or anise, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg until blended, and add to the dough.
5. Knead well until the dough is firm and doesn’t stick (about 10 minutes), cover, and allow to rise for 1/2 hour.
6. Punch dough down and knead for a minute. Reserve one fistful of dough, and shape the rest into a circular loaf. Or you can divide it into 2 loaves, 10 inches each, and place on a lightly-buttered baking pan . Cover with a dry cloth and a damp cloth over that, and place in a warm place to rise again, until doubled in size.
7. Use the small piece of dough to create designs. Roll into long strands, as demonstrated in class, and shape a cross on the loaf. Press whole walnuts into the top. Brush with milk and sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
8. Preheat oven to 400F degrees
9. Place a pan with at least 1 inch of water in the bottom of the oven. Place christopsomo in the preheated oven on the middle rack and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the pan with the water, reduce heat to 350°F. and bake for another 25-30 minutes or until brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
10. Remove from oven, and cool on a rack. Serve cut into thick wedges and drizzle with honey. This bread will keep for at least 3 days at room temperature
Masticha or Mastic – a dried pine resin: is a flavoring made from the sap of the mastichodendro bush, which grows only on the island of Chios. The resin exuded by the Mediterranean plant “lentesk” is used as flavoring in some Greek and Turkish baked goods. Even though people tried to take mastic to different countries in the past, amazingly enough mastic is impossible to grow in any other part of the world except Chios. Always pulverize masticha with a pinch of sugar, flour or semolina.
Mahlepi: or Mahleb: cherry kernels, is an aromatic spice from the pulverized pit of the black cherry. Used in the Middle East as a flavoring in baked goods.