This recipe comes from Artemis “Artie” Sarayiotes, who has baked the bread to sell at her church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Raleigh. (That’s the church behind Raleigh’s annual Greek Festival.) You can find mahlepi, aka mahlab, at Savory Spice Shop in Lafayette Village in North Raleigh, as well as at Mariakakis Fine Food & Wine in Chapel Hill. This recipe is without the traditional dyed egg but you can nestle dyed eggs within the braids before the second proofing.
6 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup very warm water
11 /2 cups plus 4 teaspoons sugar, divided
1 1/3 cups milk
1/2 pound (2 sticks) plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
1 heaping teaspoon mahlepi, aka mahlab
8 eggs, divided
8 to 10 cups flour
2 tablespoons water
COMBINE yeast, warm water and 2 teaspoons sugar in a large bowl. Let sit about 10-15 minutes to let it bubble and rise.
STIR together milk, 2 sticks butter, mahlepi, 5 whole eggs and 1 egg yolk in a medium bowl.
ADD some of the milk mixture to the yeast, then add 2 cups of flour and fully mix using your hands. Continue to alternate between milk and flour until you have added 8 cups. Mix with hands until bread dough comes easily away from sides of the bowl and is no longer sticky.
PLACE dough in a large bowl with some melted butter in bottom. Cover tightly with plastic and let it rise in a warm place for 2 hours or until it doubles in size. Punch down and let it rise for 5 minutes.
PULL off eight equal parts of dough. Take one ball and roll out into a thin, 15-inch rope. Do the same with a second ball of dough. Lay them out side by side.
COMBINE 3 tablespoons melted butter and 2 teaspoons sugar in a small bowl. Brush dough ropes with melted butter and sugar, then sprinkle with cinnamon.
PINCH ends of rope together, braid the two ropes together and pinch at other end. Transfer to a parchment paper-line rimmed baking sheet. Stir together 2 whole eggs and 2 tablespoons water in a cup. Brush loaf with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Set on top of the stove and proof for 30-40 minutes.
PREHEAT oven to 375 degrees. Once bread is done proofing, bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Continue to prep three other loafs per instructions above.
ONCE first loaf of bread comes out of the oven, brush with warm honey. Bake next three loaves, repeating same process. Let cool.
Yield: 4 braided loaves.
Artemis Sarayiotes, 92, makes the traditional Greek Easter bread called tsoureki, a braided bread that usually has a red-dyed boiled egg placed in it for decoration. Sarayiotes of Raleigh says her family would have a fit if Easter came without her tsoureki.