Armenian Easter Bread

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!

ALANNA’s TIPS I have halved Cyndi’s recipe, enough for three medium or two large loaves. Her full recipe will fill a KitchenAid mixer to the max, you might need to a spatula to keep the dough from creeping up the dough hook. ‘Tepid’ water is the perfect temperature for proofing yeast, not too hot, not too cold. I use the ‘baby bottle’ test, if the water feels warm to the inside of my wrist, it’s perfect. If it feels cold, the water’s too cold, if it feels hot, it’s too warm. For a funny story about tepid water, see my recipe for Acorn Squash with Quinoa & Dried Cherries. Flour is flour, right? Well then why do I recommend the King Arthur flour? Shouldn’t one all-purpose flour be interchangeable with another? Turns out, not. King Arthur All-Purpose Flour has 11.7% protein, my usual Pillsbury All-Purpose Flour has 10.5% protein. The difference doesn’t sound like much but adds up to a full ten percent more protein. Cyndi recommends the King Arthur flour for the bread. I accidentally made it once once with Pillsbury. The bread tasted fine but was ‘ropier’ to work with. For this choereg recipe, King Arthur flour just works better.
Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Do you have a favorite Easter bread that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. Never miss a Kitchen Parade recipe: Sign up for a free e-mail subscription. How to print a recipe on Kitchen Parade. If you like Kitchen Parade, forward this recipe to a friend who might too!

READER RECIPE:
CHOEREG, ARMENIAN EASTER BREAD

A rich sweet pastry, sweetened with the very special mahleb
Hands-on time: about 45 minutes over about 8 hours
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.

NUTRITION ESTIMATE Assumes 36 slices, per slice: 63Cal; 4g Tot Fat; 3g Sat Fat; 28mg Cholesterol; 34mg Sodium; 5g Carb; 0g Fiber; 4g Sugar; 1g Protein; Weight Watchers 1 point

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!

CELEBRATION BREADS For others fascinated by what I call 'celebration breads', visit The Kitchn for a collection of Easter breads from around the world. Click the small photos for a larger photo.


How to Braid Bread Dough

Roll the ropes Align the ropes Braid the ropes
The braided loaves, after being allowed to rise

Braiding bread dough is quite simple -- and the results spectacular!


More Easter Recipes

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More Bread Recipes

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Hi Alanna,

Just for anyone in the UK, I eventually tracked down "mahlab" to Steenbergs, they also have a great range of herbs and spices.

Also a tip for bread making, for tepid water, use 1/3rd boiling water to 2/3rds cold and that gives the perfect temperature.

Love your recipes!
 
Your braids are so pretty! One thing, you make it all look so easy, your recipes make me want to cook, make it seem like I can do something that looks pretty hard but sounds easy.
 
It's very pretty. I'd love to try it out simply for the fact that the braiding of it sounds like fun!
 
Made 3 loaves for Easter. I enjoyed making it, and everyone enjoyed eating it! Tasted just like my family's choreg. Thanks for posting the recipe for me. I hope to make this for many Easters to come!
 
How did I miss this last year???? GORGEOUS PHOTO, by the way!
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna