Christopsomo: Greek Christmas Bread
With Christmas a few days away it is time to do some baking. One of the hallmarks of traditional Greek Christmas cooking has been Christopsomo, which translates as Christ’s bread. There are many regional and household variations of Christopsomo found throughout Greece, but in general it is a sweet yeast bread made with dried fruits. Its most distinctive feature is that it is usually decorated with a cross, a symbol of its dedication to the birth of Christ. If one is a stickler for tradition then it should be made on Christmas Eve.
Making Christopsomo takes a bit of effort and time but it is well worth it. I use a recipe from Diane Kochilas’ cookbook The Food and Wine of Greece. I have made a few modifications to the recipe such as not adding raisins and nuts. Furthermore, for flavoring I also use mastiha, which is the pine-like flavored resin secreted by the mastic tree found on the island of Chios. Mastiha can be difficult to find, but should be available at a Greek or ethnic grocery store. If you cannot find it just use vanilla extract instead.
- ½ cup chopped dried apricots
- ½ cup chopped dried figs (can also use raisins if you like)
- 2 packages active dry yeast (equivalent to 4½ teaspoons)
- 1 cup warm water
- ¾ cup sugar
- 8 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 eggs
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 cup warm milk
- 1 stick melted unsalted butter (~100 grams)
- 1 tablespoon orange rind
- 1 teaspoon ground mastiha
- olive oil
- Prepare the dried fruit. Chop up the dried apricots and figs. Personally I am not a fan of these ingredients in breads, so I cut them up pretty small, that way I don’t notice them as much in the bread. However, you can cut them up coarsely if you like. Then add them to a bowl and cover with water. Let them soak for at least an hour so that the dried fruit pieces can soften up.
- Make your yeast starter. In a medium sized bowl combine yeast, ½ cup of the warm water, 1 tsp of sugar and a ¼ cup of flour. Cover the bowl with a towel and let sit for at least 30 minutes in a warm draft free spot. After this time the yeast mixture should have expanded to around double its original volume.
- For the mixing either do it the old fashioned way by hand using a wooden spoon or use an electric mixer. Take the 4 eggs and beat them until frothy.
- Then add the sugar a spoonful at a time while continuously beating the egg mixture.
- Then add the yeast mixture and blend well.
- Slowly add the milk and melted butter while continuously beating the mixture.
- Add the orange rind, mastiha, apricots and figs. Mix well. It should be noted that the mastiha will probably be in the form of little dried resinous chunks, so you will have to ground them somehow. I just take a chopping knife and carefully chop the mastiha into smaller pieces and eventually you will end up with a coarse powder. I say carefully because when you first start cutting the mastiha, pieces may start flying all over your kitchen making a bit of a mess.
- Begin to add the flour. Add about 4 cups of flour incrementally (a heaping tablespoon at a time) while continuously mixing with a wooden spoon. After the addition of the flour your mixture should be a sticky dough. When this happens it is now time to get your hands dirty.
- Clear a clean space on your counter top or on a sturdy table. Sprinkle flour on your working surface and on your hands (which helps to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands). Transfer the dough to your working surface. Knead the dough while you keep on adding flour until the dough becomes malleable and is smooth, almost silky, if you run your hands across its surface. This will probably take around 15 minutes of kneading to accomplish this feat.
- Rub the dough with some olive oil and then transfer it to a bowl. Cover the bowl with some cloth (I usually put cellophane wrap loosely over the dough and then the cloth so as not to get the cloth dirty from the olive oil. In a warm, draft free place let the dough rise until it doubles in bulk, usually it takes 2 to 3 hours.
- Punch the dough down to its original size and knead it a little bit. Rub the dough with some olive oil, transfer it back to the bowl, cover and let rise till it doubles in bulk (at least an hour).
- Again punch the dough down to its original size and then divide the dough into 2 equally sized balls. From each ball take a small fist full of dough (this will be used to make the cross). Take each dough ball and shape it into a round loaf about 8 inches in diameter. Now take your fist fulls of dough, divide them in half and form each piece into strips long enough to span your loaves. Add one strip to the top of the loaf and then the second so as to form a cross. It should be noted that if you are creative and skilled enough you can also adorn your Christopsomo with other dough based decorations (see the image below).
- Lightly oil either one large baking sheets (it has to be big enough to fit both of your loaves, which upon baking will expand considerably) or two medium sized ones. Then transfer your loaves to the baking sheet(s). Cover your dough and let stand for about 45 to 60 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350°F or 175°C.
- When your dough has finished rising, take your egg yolk and 2 tbsp of milk and beat them together. Brush this mixture over each of the loaves.
- Place both loaves in the oven and bake for 40 to 60 minutes or until golden brown.
- Remove loaves from oven and let cool on a wire rack.
And that’s it, after a bit of effort, you will have two beautiful and tasty loaves of Christopsomo. Enjoy and Merry Christmas!