Monday, April 18, 2011

Chorek (Armenian Sweet Bread)


Lately I've been sharing more recipes from my Armenian heritage, and I've been getting a great response. It's really fun for me to make these nostalgic dishes and to share them with all of you. Today's recipe is for chorek, a very traditional Armenian sweet bread that is typically made around Easter. Similar to brioche, chorek contains eggs, butter, and sugar, making it lightly sweet, rich, tender-crumbed, and super fluffy.


One of the secret ingredients in chorek that makes it different from other sweet breads is the addition of a Middle Eastern spice called mahlab, which derives from the stones of St. Lucy's cherries. Mahlab's aroma is reminiscent of cherry, almond, flowers, and rose water, and it imparts a sweet/sour and nutty flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It's a common addition to breads, pastries, and other sweet confections of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. It is more readily available around Easter time and can be purchased at Middle Eastern or Greek markets, or even online. Once ground, it looses it's flavor and aroma rapidly, so store in an air-tight container and refrigerate or freeze for longevity, or purchase the spice whole and grind it yourself before each use. If mahlab is unavailable, it can be omitted from the recipe, but the traditional sweet aroma that makes chorek what it is will be missing.

Ground Mahlab

Chorek is generally prepared into smaller shapes as opposed to large loaves, and is sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked until a dark golden brown. Most commonly, it is braided much like challah, but with 3 strands as opposed to the traditional 6 strand challah braid. It can also be shaped into snails, twists, or my personal favorite... chorek people! I believe chorek people are an invention completely unique to my grandmother. Ever since I was little, I remember her making people shapes out of chorek for all of her grandchildren (I'm so lucky to have such a creative grandma!). Chorek people look a lot like gingerbread men, but they are made of yeasted dough and therefore require a bit more effort to shape than using a cookie cutter. It's pretty easy though, and especially fun for children (or me) to eat these adorable people-shaped sweet breads. Just remember to remove the clove eyes before eating :)

The parents spent a little too long in the "tanning bed," oops!

Someday, I would love to make a full batch of chorek people, create a whole community and call it Chorek Land. Kinda like Candy Land but exponentially more awesome. The only problem with chorek people is that they can be a bit more dry than the other shapes because their "parts" (legs, arms, etc) are slightly thinner than the other shapes and can dry out more easily when baking. They still taste delicious, but flavor and texture-wise my favorite shape is the traditional braid. Make smaller braids for individual portions or slightly larger ones to slice up and share. I guarantee, regardless of what shapes you make you will love this delicious Armenian sweet bread. While we usually only make it around Easter, I don't see why it can't be enjoyed any other time of year! Welcome to my chorek world...


Chorek (Armenian Sweet Bread)
Makes about 18, depending on size and shape

2 (1/4 oz) envelopes dry active yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup plus 1 tsp. sugar
2 1/4 sticks (9 oz) unsalted butter
1 cup milk
5 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. whiskey or brandy
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 lbs (40 oz) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsp. ground mahlab
1 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt

Decorations and Eggwash:
Whole cloves, as needed (optional)
Red M&Ms, as needed (optional)
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp. sugar
Sesame seeds, as needed

Mix together yeast, warm water, and 1 tsp. sugar and set aside to rise, approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and warm up the milk to a simmer in separate saucepans.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the remaining 1 cup sugar, whiskey and vanilla extract. Then slowly add the hot milk, beating constantly (to gently warm the eggs), followed by the melted butter until well combined. Then beat in the yeast mixture. The liquid mixture should be fairly warm.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, mahlab, baking powder, and salt. Create a well in the center of the dry mixture and pour in the liquid mixture. Use a large spoon to gently mix the dry mixture into the liquid, starting from the center and moving outward until all the dry mixture is moistened. Start using your hands to finish mixing and knead the dough. If it is too wet and loose, add more flour and continue kneading until you have a soft, pliant, and slightly sticky but not-too-wet dough.

Place the dough in a large greased bowl (make sure that the bowl is considerably larger than the dough, as it will rise), and loosely cover dough with a piece of greased aluminum foil.

Briefly heat the oven and then turn it off. Place the dough in the warmed oven and allow it to double in size, approximately 2 to 3 hours. Check on the dough occasionally to see its progress.

On a floured surface, shape the dough into desired shapes**. Place onto greased baking sheets (leaving adequate space between the choreks as they will rise and expand further during baking). You will need about 3 half sheet pans for this amount of dough.

Place baking sheets back into a warmed oven (make sure the oven is turned off) to allow the choreks to proof, approximately 15 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the egg, egg yolk and sugar together and brush all the choreks (including the sides) with the egg wash mixture. Sprinkle with sesame seeds (but omit sesame seeds for chorek people shapes).

Bake choreks for 22 to 28 minutes until dark golden brown (baking time may be dependent on the size of your choreks), rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through to ensure even baking.

Allow choreks to cool completely before serving. Choreks should be stored at room temperature, but can be warmed up before eating, if desired. They can also be frozen, thawed, and enjoyed at a later date.

**Note**This recipe can easily be doubled (we usually do to make enough to share with relatives). Simply use a whole 5-lb bag of all-purpose flour (no need to weigh it!) and double all the other ingredients as well.

**To make the braid shape: Lightly flour your work surface and hands, and roll out a piece of dough between your hands and the work surface until you have a 1/2-to-3/4-inch thick rope. Cut off 1/3 of the length of the dough and attach it to the center of the longer piece but pressing the pieces together. Very loosely braid the ropes together (the braid will proof and get bigger later, so don't braid tightly). Press the ends together to "seal" the braid.



**To make the snail shape: Lightly flour your work surface and hands, and roll out a piece of dough between your hands and the work surface until you have a 1/2-to- 3/4-inch thick rope. Gently and loosely wrap the dough around itself starting from the center and moving outward. Tuck the end under the dough and gently press to seal it closed.


**To make a chorek person: Lightly flour your work surface and hands, and roll out a piece of dough between your hands and the work surface to create an even cylinder. Pat the dough out into a rectangle with the long sides on either side. Use a bench scraper or knife to cut a slit at the bottom (for the legs), 2 slits on either side (for the arms) and another 2 slits slightly above the arms (for the head). Tuck under the pointy ends of the arms. Adjust the dough around the head to either make it look like hair (for a girl), or tuck the points under the head to make it round (for a boy). Use whole cloves for the eyes, and red M&Ms for the mouth. Very carefully use a large floured spatula to transfer chorek people from the work surface to the greased baking sheet. They are more fragile than the other shapes. Remove the clove eyes before eating.



Chorek Baby :)


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