baking with a greek gal

I spent an afternoon in Vasso Papavasilion’s kitchen.  You may know her from her Lancaster Central Market stand, Yasou! Greek Pastries.  Baking was not just something to fill her time as a stand-holder.   Baking, for Vasso, is about preserving the food traditions passed down to her from her YiaYia (grandmother), mother and mother-in-law YiaYia.  The matriarchs in her family were born in Turkey and on the Greek island of Kos, food traditions run deep for her.

Before we get knee deep in cookies and sweet bread talk you need to know Vasso is taking orders for her cookie gift boxes.  They are available for pick up at market or can be shipped.  Email Vasso at yasou3@verizon.net or call 717.940.3934.

The plan

Vasso will teach me how to make a Greek Easter bread.  There are two things I cannot make, bread and chocolate chip cookies. After today I think I can do it! Oh, and she taught me how she makes Almond Delights too!

3 things you need to know about Vasso

  1. Before baking she was a very successful entrepreneur with Princess House for 39 years.  Three years into her work she won her first trip, of close to a dozen trips, to Hawaii.   Excelling in the home-based business allowed her to be home for her boys.  She found the biggest return in the success of the young women she mentored.
  2. It was her friend, “Little Vas” (an even tinier version of Vasso) who was the catalyst of her career change.   She got the call from Little Vas, saying there’s a market stand open where the previous stand-holder sold her sweets and you’ve must check it out!   Vassa had to go.  The rest is hundreds of baklava and finikia history.
  3. She is meticulous about her craft.  Her rule is, “If I won’t eat it, I won’t serve it.”   Each week her products are consistently divine.  It is as she says, “I feel I owe it to YiaYia and my family to maintain and preserve the integrity of the original authentic pastries and to keep our tradition alive.”

Why I adore Vasso and you will too.

My father was born on the Greek island of Kefalonia and came to the states as a young boy.   He comes from a large family and often it is the memories shared over a meal that stick with me. I feel it connects me.

The generation following me is fast food fed.   There is legacy in family recipes.  It’s folks like Vasso, not compromising integrity of recipes to follow a trend, who can pass on an heirloom recipe.  Her craft is wrapped in patience, meticulously following a recipe and even the superstitions in the preparation so that she is able to offer a product of superior, consistent quality.  That’s why I adore her and crave her sweet handmade goods.

Vasso’s love of cooking and baking began at a young age.  As a senior project in high school she wrote a paper titled “Hellenic Cooking.”  She followed her mother for a month with a notepad, pen and measuring cups.   Each time her mother was ready to prepare a dish Vasso was there, putting a measuring cup under a pinch of this or that.  She painstakingly translated recipes to measurable guidelines.

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It wasn’t until she was married that she realized the value of recording these recipes.  Needless to say she received an A+ for the paper.   The teacher’s note read,”If you don’t want this, I’ll  keep it!” That was before mimeographs…I’m sure the teacher would have been happy to keep the collection of heirloom recipes.

Almond Delight cookies

A sweet memory of Vasso’s mom finds expression in these delicious cookie.    The basis of the Almond Delight Cookies comes from Vasso’s Yia Yia.  The flavors are the same but the method adapted with time for the ease of Vasso’s busy fingers.  There is a sweet chewy almond cookie nested in filo dough and dotted with a bright red candied cherry.

Let’s talk bread.

After all that’s why she opened her kitchen to me.   I’m not a confident bread baker but after her instruction I will try my hand at this recipe, it is my father’s favorite and I have the confidence it will be a lovely 4 loaves.   Tradition is so important in recipe preparation.   We talked a bit about the continuity of ingredients we have available to us nowadays.  In Vasso and Tom’s, her husband, youth their mothers would prepare the dough and tuck it between blankets on the sofa to rise overnight.  Tucking it in for the night, I suppose.  Today we had the dough oven ready in about an 45 minutes.

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As a non-bread baker there are helpful tips to share. The easiest way to do this is by listing them.

  • Tsoureki is traditionally a Greek Easter Bread and baked with deeply dyed red eggs and often a token of good luck to be found by one family member.
  • It is traditionally only prepared on Holy Thursday.
  • Vasso uses Mastic Gum to flavor her bread. Mastic Gum is derived from the sap of trees grown on the Greek island of Helios.  Vasso uses a mortar and pestle to turn it to a powder.

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  • As I mentioned, each Greek gal may have their own “superstitions” they follow when preparing a dish.  Vasso always sifts her pre-sifted Gold Medal flour.   She only always uses Gold Medal Flour. Period.
  • Vasso, like her mother and YiaYia, always makes 4 wells for the 4 eggs before incorporating with the wet ingredients.
  • When hand-kneading the dough you want the texture to be soft not dry and stiff, just dry enough that it is not sticky.
  • When using a dough hook (ÜBER important when using an electric mixer) knead until the dough starts to pull off the sides.  You may need more flour or liquid based on the humidity or size of the eggs.
  • Vasso says, “If you let it rise too much it will collapse when baked.”  You do want to over it in a warm place so that it doubles in size.  Sometimes she will let is rise once, punch it down and let is rise again…but not often.
  • An important tip it to be sure to really grease the baking pan, she uses 8″ round pans, so that the bread does not tear when removed from the baking pan.
  • When rolling the dough braid or to make small rolls the trick it to light oil your wood cutting board or work surface.  This keeps the dough soft and prevents it from drying out.
  • Lastly, when you are ready to give the risen, shaped bread an egg was be sure the egg is at room temperature.  If the beaten egg is cold it will cause the bread to collapse.


Tsoureki, Greek Sweet Bread
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee)is the traditional bread of Greek Easter. Tsoureki is a rich yeast bread flavored with 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. Every family has their own version of this special recipe. This version has been enjoyed by my family for many, many years. This bread is delicious toasted or made into French toast.
:
: bread
Cuisine: Greek
Serves: 4 braided loaves
Ingredients
  • 8 cups all purpose flour
  • ¾ cups milk, warmed (not hot)
  • 3 envelopes dry yeast
  • ¾ lb. salted butter
  • 1⅓ cup sugar ( more if desired)
  • 1 tbsp. (Mahlepi), Mace, or Mastic Gum
  • 4 eggs
  • Oil for kneading
  • 1 egg yolk with a little milk for topping
  • Sesame seeds
  • Red had boiled eggs if desired
Instructions
  1. Sift the flour in a large bowl or mixer.
  2. Dissolve the yeast in the 1cup of water. (Be sure it is lukewarm, not hot). Add a dash of sugar set aside until it becomes bubbly and foamy.
  3. Melt the butter over very low heat. Stir in the sugar, milk, eggs, and spice.
  4. Add the yeast mixture with the flour. Add in the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Slowly incorporate until the mixture forms a smooth wet dough.
  5. Cover the bowl and let rise until it is about double in size – about 2 hours in a warm place.
  6. Turn the dough out on to a well-greased counter and punch down. You will need to keep sprinkling the dough with oil to keep it from sticking. It will remain a loose, wet dough.
  7. Separate 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.
  8. Once 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.
  9. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for about 35 minutes until the crust is nicely browned all over.

Here’s a last tip.  If your bread, for some reason, fails do not panic.   Cube it and toast it to use as a coffee dunker or serve with salad.  This was a tasty unexpected salad prepared by Tom.  I just had too much fun, I’ll tell ya.  Thank you to my hostess Vasso and her charming husband who love quince as much as my dad does.

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