The oh-so-special braided Armenian Easter bread, called 'choereg' or some times 'choreg'. It's a buttery sweet bread, fragrant with an addictive spice called 'mahleb' or some times 'mahlab'. Best of all, it can be made in advance and keeps just beautifully. Many thanks to Cyndi, a Kitchen Parade reader, for sharing her family's special Easter bread.
Last summer, a note and a recipe arrived from a reader. I’ll let Cyndi tell the story of her grandmother’s Easter bread in her own words.
“I have been cooking many of the traditional Armenian foods that my grandmother made. I pride myself on the choereg.
“Armenian Choereg is a traditional bread served at Easter, sometimes with red eggs placed amid the braids. It is found in Armenian and Greek groceries in New York and New Jersey (where I am from) and gets snatched up fast because it is so good. That is one reason I started making it.
“I make choereg all year long and my family goes wild for it. It is a really great bread to have for breakfast and the flavor goes great with coffee. Plus it freezes well so you will have plenty on hand to serve with coffee if unexpected guests drop by, always a plus.
“My grandmother made this bread and put the recipe in her little recipe book. Her measurements used tea cups and coffee cups as measuring devices so I blended Grandma’s recipe with one from my aunt's church cookbook.
“The dough is extremely forgiving but the mahleb (also spelled mahlab) is absolutely essential. Mahleb has a great flavor. I am willing to bet once you try it, you will use it in other baked goods like I do now! It’s great in muffins and even pancakes or waffles.
“Mahleb is made from the cherry pits from a special Middle Eastern cherry. As it bakes, the flavor really blossoms, you will smell it when the bread is baking. It is just very unique smelling and tasting -- in a good way. A Middle Eastern store grinds it fresh for me but you can just use a spice grinder or a mini food processor. But I hope you will enjoy mahleb’s exotic flavor. It is really special.”
I’ve made Cyndi’s grandmother’s recipe twice now. Have I been adopted into a happy Armenian family? I think so!
The dough is made in the usual fashion and easy to handle. Once baked, the bread starts off light and fluffy and aromatic, you can’t wait to slice off the first bites. Over the next few days, the bread stays fresh (though not as light) and the flavor begins to deepen. Does it improve? It just might. This makes it an especially good bread for gifts, for taking along to visit family over the Easter weekend, for making late in the week and serving Easter morning, say.
Plus, I adore mahleb! I bought a small jar of the mahleb pits at Penzeys (here's the link if you'd like to order mahleb (mahlab) from Penzeys) and ground them in a spice grinder. Its flavor is quite subtle. You won’t be wondering, "What is this spice?" Instead, you’ll be saying, "Gosh, this bread is good." You may not even know it’s the mahleb that makes it so good.
You could substitute another spice – cardamom, say, or nutmeg. The bread would be very good, just not choereg.
Thank you, Cyndi, for sharing your family’s recipe!
CHOEREG, ARMENIAN EASTER BREAD
Time to table: 8 hours
Makes 2 large or 3 medium loaves (see TIPS)
- 1/4 cup tepid water (see TIPS)
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 package yeast
- 12 tablespoons butter (6 ounces, 1-1/2 sticks)
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 4 cups flour, King Arthur all-purpose flour strongly recommended (see TIPS), fluffed to aerate before measuring
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 teaspoons ground mahleb (see TIPS)
- 3 teaspoons ground anise, optional but recommended
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt (omit if using salted butter)
- 1 egg white whisked with 1 teaspoon water
- Sesame seeds, optional but nice
PROOF YEAST In a small bowl, mix the water and sugar. Sprinkle yeast over top and let rest until bubbly.
MIX DOUGH In a saucepan, melt the butter in the milk; let cool a bit. Whisk the eggs in the bowl of a standing mixer with the dough hook attached (you need to whisk by hand if the dough hook doesn’t reach the eggs). Mix in the butter, milk and yeast mixture. Add the flour, sugar, mahleb, anise and table salt and thoroughly combine. Knead the dough for a minute or two, adding a little more flour if the dough is wet or sticky.
(No standing mixer? No problem. Just mix the dough with a wooden spoon, then knead by hand for about 8 minutes.)
FIRST RISE Form dough into a round, transfer to a lightly oiled bowl, rubbing the round against the sides. (Giving the dough a light oil covering prevents the surface from cracking as it expands as it rises.) Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in bulk. “Punch the dough down” – this is bread-baker code for gently inserting a fist into the dough once or twice to release the air.
BRAID LOAVES (See photo illustrations below.) With a sharp knife cut dough into two or three pieces for two or three loaves. Cut each piece into three roughly equally pieces. With your fingers, roll each piece, stretching it to form a long thin rope (for a long loaf) or a shorter fatter rope (for a shorter loaf); repeat with two more pieces, making the three roughly equivalent. Working on a clean smooth surface, gently press the ends of three ropes together. Braid the three pieces into a loaf, braiding the ropes just like braiding hair. For a neat appearance, tuck the ends under the loaf. Transfer loaf to a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone mat or lightly greased if the baking sheet can be a bit sticky), leaving two to three inches between the loaves.
SECOND RISE Cover the loaves with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place for 30 – 60 minutes.
BAKE Preheat oven to 350F. Brush the loaf tops with the egg-water mixture, sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the tops are a golden brown. Remove from oven, let cool 5 minutes. Transfer to cooling racks to finish cooling.
SERVE & SAVOR Once cool, wrap loaves in foil until ready to slice and serve. Bread will stay fresh for at least 5 days. Bread freezes well but do double-wrap.
FINDING A ‘WARM PLACE’ FOR BREAD TO RISE Many thanks, too, to readers who suggested using a heating pad to help bread rise when I published the recipe for my mother’s Homemade Yeast Rolls last month. It works like a charm! For the first rise, I wrapped the bread bowl in a heating pad inside a Dutch oven, that way the heat surrounded the bread dough. My heating pad also has an auto shutoff, oops, it needs checking every so often!
But this is a great way to create a warm spot for letting bread dough rise, especially when you don’t want to heat up rest of the house.
Thank you, thank you!
Braiding bread dough is quite simple -- and the results spectacular!
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