Sunday, April 10, 2011

Armenian Choreg

In Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann, a spoonful of tea with a few crumbs from a “little shell of cake” awakens a powerful joy and a childhood memory. In my family’s narrative, it is a sip of tea with a snail shell of bread that is the gateway to remembrances. Choreg is the Armenian version of a yeast bread made across Europe and parts of the Near East to celebrate special occasions, especially Easter.

During my childhood, choreg was the harbinger of Easter Sunday—my mother only made the small, shiny rolls once a year, usually near the end of Lent. When I was young my parents allowed a lenient Lenten regime: my brothers and I gave up a particular flavor of ice cream or a certain type of candy. I came to learn this painless practice of Lenten abstinence was not church sanctioned. Throughout Christianity’s history, churches and their faithful took their Lenten observances seriously. Fasting was common. Those that “merely” abstained from eating certain foods often gave up eating all animal products and fruit; some only ate bread and water. After this type of (or any type of) deprivation, one can easily imagine why a bread rich with butter and eggs was served to celebrate Easter; the church’s greatest feast day deserved a very special bread.

The Ladies’ Society cookbook from my childhood church introduces its choreg recipe as follows: “There are as many choreg recipes as there are Armenian cooks. Each recipe adds a little something different, making it as unique as the bakers that prepare them.” The constant ingredients are eggs, flour, milk, salt, sugar, yeast and fat. Some recipes exclusively use butter, while others use a mixture of butter and shortening or vegetable oil. The variable ingredients typically include the addition of mahleb (or mahlab), a nutty, sweet/sour spice made from ground sour cherry seeds; toppings may include sesame or black caraway seeds. Some braid the dough before baking; others create spirals resembling a snail shell. Some choreg is noticeably sweet; other versions taste like brioche.

My mother’s choreg is, of course, the best. It is a small, unadorned, snail shell roll that is more sweet than not. Here is the recipe that she follows. It is from an English-language Armenian newspaper called the California Courier. The parenthetical ingredients are my mother’s preferences.
  • 4 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cups sugar
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • ½ cup shortening (Crisco brand), melted and cooled
  • 1 cup whole milk, lukewarm (90ºF - 95ºF)
  • 2 fresh yeast cakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour (Gold Medal brand)
  • 1 large egg, beaten for wash

1. Pre-heat oven to 150ºF and turn off oven.

2. Beat eggs in upright mixer using a whisk attachment for 2 minutes. Add sugar and mix for two to three minutes until thick and light yellow in color. Add melted butter and shortening to beaten eggs and mix until incorporated.

3. Add fresh yeast cakes to lukewarm milk and crumble the cakes with hands to dissolve yeast.

4. Add milk and yeast into egg mixture and mix until incorporated.

5. In a large bowl, mix salt into flour. Change the mixer’s whisk to a paddle. With mixer on low, slowly add flour to egg mixture. Mix until incorporated. Dough is very soft and sticky.

6. Turn dough into a lightly oiled large bowl and gently cover with wax paper. Wrap bowl with a heavy towel and put into the pre-warmed oven—make sure the oven is turned off—to allow the dough to double in size (approximately 3 to 4 hours). Remove bowl from oven.

7. Pre-heat oven to 375ºF. Pinch off a piece of dough the size of a large egg. Roll the dough between your hands to make a 6-inch long rope as thick as your index finger. (If dough is too sticky, slightly oil your hands when shaping choreg.) Wrap the dough to form a snail shell. Place shaped dough on parchment-lined baking sheets. Let rise for 1 hour.

8. Brush choreg with beaten egg. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until golden. Makes approximately 40 rolls.

Regrettably, sourcing fresh yeast has become quite difficult in my neck of the woods. If you cannot find fresh yeast, don't worry: you can make the above recipe with active dry yeast. In place of the 2 fresh yeast cakes, which weigh 34 grams, use 11.3 grams of the active dry yeast. If you make this substitution, remember to heat the milk to the temperature recommended on the yeast package.

My mother serves her choreg with slices of cheese, typically a mild cheddar or Monterey Jack. (In a nod to my wife’s Wisconsin roots, we sometimes serve choreg with slices of Widmer Cheese Cellars’ Brick Cheese.) I usually forgo any cheese and enjoy my roll with a cup of sweet Darjeeling tea.

My mother still bakes over a hundred choreg for friends and family to enjoy during the Easter season. She calls when the rolls are baked and each family goes to my parents’ house to pick up its share. Although my family gets an ample allotment, the bread is usually gone—eaten for breakfast or with afternoon tea—within a couple of days. When my daughters were young, they snacked on choreg riding home from elementary school in the family station wagon. It is one of their earliest food memories.

To this day, the taste of choreg with a sip of sweet tea is a great comfort, like a fond childhood memory. Proust writes that smell and taste “remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.” By sharing this recipe I hope that this unique Armenian Easter bread will not fade from memory.