Bread has long played a vital role in Greek Orthodox religious ceremonies and holidays, but there's only a few times a year people outside the community can sample the traditional loaves made for those occasions.
Easter is one them, and so last week members of the ladies' group Philoptochos, the philanthropic arm of Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church of Aliquippa, were hard at work in Mediterra Bakehouse's commercial kitchen in Robinson, baking hundreds of loaves of a sweet braided yeast bread called tsoureki.
Similar in looks and taste to brioche, tsoureki is the traditional bread of Easter in Greek households. These loaves, however, will be sold at several local stores to raise money for the poor and national disasters.
"The Ambeloitis family has been gracious enough to not only allow us to use their facility, equipment and ovens, but also donate some of the products and work with us to produce the bread," first vice president Violet Rubino writes in an email. This is the ninth year for the fundraiser.
Like many ethnic Easter breads, tsoureki is made with eggs, milk and butter. What makes it unique is the addition of mastic, a rare and expensive resin obtained from a shrub that only grows on the Greek island of Chios. Or as Ms. Rubino tells me, "You will taste something that you cannot identify and you will like it."
Also a little different is the red hard-boiled egg that's baked right into the dough, which after being braided is shaped into a circle and brushed with an egg wash. The color is symbolic of the blood of Christ and his resurrection. Sixty loaves at a time were baked in Mediterra's European walk-in oven.
The Greek Orthodox fast during the six weeks of Lent and the Holy Week leading up to their Easter, celebrated this year on May 5, or about a month later than Easter observances in the Western church. So if you buy a loaf of the church's tsoureki, you'll be enjoying it well before parishioners get to. Delicious with nothing more than a smear of butter, it also makes for great French toast.
The bread is available in limited quantities at the following locations.
• Beaver County Fruit Co., 3431 Brodhead Road, Monaca; 724-774-4402
• Coraopolis Cash Market, 1017 4th Ave., Coraopolis; 412-264-6010
• Honey Baked Ham, 4780 McKnight Rd., Ross; 412-364-1800
• Tom Friday's Market, 3639 California Ave., Brighton Heights; 724-378-8896
• Giant Eagle, Green Garden Plaza, 3113 Garden Rd., Aliquippa; 412-766-4500
• Hopewell Deli, 2438 Brodhead Road, Aliquippa; 724-375-8880
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.