Making Christopsomo (which translates as “Christ’s Bread”) is still considered by many to be a sacred task, and great care is taken in its preparation.
Greek Christopsomo Bread
½ cup milk
1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar (this is to taste – so if you like your bread sweeter – use a full cup)
¼ cup crushed anise seed (this is very important – make sure your anise is fresh!)
2 pkg. active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
1 tsp. sugar
4 large eggs
1 beaten egg
5 ½ – 6 cups flour
1 cup broken walnuts + walnut halves to go on top (if you like)
Crush the anise seed with a mortal and pestle. Don’t use your food processor, and I’ll tell you why. Anise seed is an aromatic – it tastes and smells like licorice. What you are doing is releasing all the essential oils. This way the bread not only has superior flavor – but the scent of anise will fill the room every time you cut a slice. Crushing the seed is the only way to do this. It’s like garlic. There is a substantive difference between crushed and chopped garlic when it comes to flavor. This is why the anise seed must be fresh.
Combine the milk, sugar, salt, butter and anise seed – and bring the mixture to the boil. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle the yeast over the water along with the 1 TBLS. of sugar and dissolve. Combine this with the lukewarm milk/butter mixture. Temperature’s important here. You want the yeast to proof. To warm – dead yeast; too cold – nothing happens. I use the finger temperature method. If the liquid feels slightly warm on the skin it’s OK. Think baby bottle – but not as warm.
Beat eggs in your mixer bowl and add the milk/yeast mixture. Gradually add 1 ½ cups of sifted flour to the liquid. Beat two minutes on medium high (don’t even consider doing this by hand – it would take forever!). Gradually add in the remaining 4 cups of flour followed by all of the crushed walnuts. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic – about 8 to 10 minutes – adding more flour if necessary (it will be). Here’s a good place to add in additional anise seeds for an extra burst of flavor. I use a couple of teaspoons. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover and set in a warm place until doubled. Don’t let it over rise. You want it to rise again just before baking; and that yeast has only so much ‘poof’.
Punch down and knead lightly onto your floured board. Now comes how you want to bake it. Traditionally, Christopsomo is baked as a single, round loaf; decorated with swirls in the shape of a cross and topped with walnut halves. I will include instructions for doing that if it is your wish. I also prefer to put it in ordinary loaf pans. It slices and toasts so much easier that way – not to mention being easier to store (this bread freezes beautifully!)
So – let us start with the traditional way first:
Pinch off two small pieces of the dough and set aside (this will make your cross). Shape the bulk of the dough into a round loaf, placing it pucker side down on a greased or parchment covered baking sheet. Flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. When I bake it this way – I either use a Silpat sheet or our baking stone. If you decide to use a baking stone – I would recommend having the loaf rise on a bakers peel first. It makes transferring it onto the stone much easier – as you don’t lose any of the ‘rise’. Now come’s the cross: roll each of the small balls into 14 inch ropes; cutting a 5 inch slash at the end of each piece. Lay the ropes on the loaf, crossing the ropes at the center of the loaf. Curl the slashed ends away from the center, forming a small circle. Place your walnut halves in each circle saving one for the center of the cross. Cover and let rise until doubled in size. Brush with one beaten egg while (this makes the top shiny and attractive). Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the bread is hollow sounding when tapped.
Here’s how to do that: Divide the dough into two equally sized pieces. Using your rolling pin – roll each piece out individually into a square roughly the length of your loaf pans Beginning at one end – roll each square into a tube, pinching the ends closed and then turning them under. What you end up with is essentially a bread sausage. This ‘sausage’ will blossom out and (hopefully) form perfect loaves. That’s the general idea, anyway. Place each of these into greased loaf pans, cover and let rise in a warm place until double. You can decorate your loaves with those walnut halves if you like. Just make sure to do it before the loaves have risen. As with the other method – bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until hollow sounding when tapped. Before cutting this loaf, Greek tradition calls for making the sign of the cross with your knife and wishing everyone joy and health for the New Year. We just cut it, toast it up and drizzle with honey. .