My Greek Christmas bread in all its glory. Click to Enlarge Image.
The many centuries-old custom of the Christopsomo or ‘Bread of Christ’ is a universal Christmas Greek food tradition. Today, all over Greece and throughout the Diaspora, Christopsomo loaves will be baked and set aside for the breaking, which depending on where you are from in Greece is performed at either Christmas Eve dinner or lunch on Christmas Day. This bread is a sweet yeast bread, and is characteristically decorated with the symbol of the cross which is usually embossed overtop of the loaf with two dough strands that intersect and divide the bread into four segments. Other standard decorations include walnuts in their shells and sesame seeds (white and black). More elaborate designs are also traced on the surface of the loaf in some regions of Greece, as in Crete, where ornate symbols are carved into the surface of the bread. Usually these symbols are associated with the livelihood of the family. For instance, if agriculture is the primary activity of a given family, their Christopsomo might bear symbols that relate to agrarian activities, i.e. farming tools, crops, animals and so on.
Along with the specific ingredient list (which often differs by locale), the custom of the Christopsomo usually includes a ritualistic cutting or breaking of the bread. In our family, the bread is literally broken in half by the eldest male family member present at the table on Christmas Day. This is done by placing the bread on his head and by pulling on either side until the loaf is broken roughly in half. The two pieces are then examined and if the piece that ended up in his right hand is larger than the other, the coming year will be a good and bountiful time for the whole family; if it is smaller, then the coming year will be fraught with difficulties and challenges.
This recipe is my family’s version and originates in the region known as Arcadia in the central Peloponnese.
4 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup of golden raisins
1 cup of walnut pieces
4 whole unshelled walnuts
½ cup of sugar
3 tablespoons Mastic Liqueur (or Ouzo)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 ½ tablespoons white sesame seeds
1 ½ tablespoons black sesame seeds
¼ cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Finely grated rind/zest of one medium-sized orange
- Mix yeast with three tablespoons of flour, one teaspoon of sugar, and ½ cup of warm water, then set aside for 30 minutes to proof. The entire surface of the yeast mixture should foam up and rise markedly before it is ready to use.
- In a large mixing bowl, sift the remaining flour, then add the sugar, salt, ground cinnamon and ground clove, and then create a hole in the centre of the dry ingredients.
- Add yeast to the centre hole in the dry ingredients and start kneading to combine well.
- Once the dough starts to form into a crumbly mass, add the Mastic liqueur (or Ouzo) and then slowly add a ½ cup of warm water to the mix, kneading well all the time to combine thoroughly. Once the water has been absorbed into the dough, slowly add the olive oil and work the dough until it has been incorporated.
- Once the dough mass has taken shape, add the orange rind and knead it well into the dough, then add the raisins and walnut pieces and continue to knead the dough until it forms an elastic ball. Note: this dough will be a rather heavy dough and although you may use a machine to knead it through the initial stages, it will need to be finished by hand to ensure a thorough and proper kneading.
- Using a sharp knife, cut away a piece about the size of an orange from the dough, and further divide that piece in half so you are left with one large ball of dough and two small pieces.
- Knead the larger dough mass some more then place it in a round greased baking pan (I used a 9-inch spring form pan), and use the palm of your hand to shape it to fit (and evenly fill) the entire bottom of the pan.
- Roll out the two small pieces of dough to form two strands of equal length that will be long enough to form a cross overtop of the surface of the dough in the pan.
- Wet your hands with warm water and place the two dough strands on top of the bread dough in an intersecting fashion to form a cross, then press them down into the dough and continue to flatten the loaf evenly with moistened hands. Using the tines of a fork, follow round the edges of the cross formed by the now flattened strands and score them slightly to ensure that they bond with the surface of the bread and do not come away when rising/baking.
- Press the four unshelled walnuts into the four ends of the dough strand cross such that they stand up straight, then sprinkle the entire surface of the loaf with the white and black sesame seeds.
- Cover the pan with a cloth and set it aside in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours until it has doubled in bulk.
- Once the dough has risen, place the pan in an oven pre-heated to 350°F (180°C) and bake for one our or so, until a deep chestnut colour has formed evenly across its entire surface and the bread is ready.
There you have it, a traditional Greek bread to accompany your Christmas meal.
A Merry Christmas to those of you who do celebrate the holiday, and my Compliments of the Season to all.
Pánta Kalá (Always Be Well),
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.