James Beard award–winning author Gil Marks, whose next book is a history of America through its cakes, says that the braided chorag (akin to the Jewish egg challah) was found through the realm of the Ottoman Empire and is better known to Americans by the Greek name tsoureki. “The name derived from the Turkic cevrek (round),” he says. He notes that in some parts of Armenia, the baker will hide a coin in one of the individual rolls or in the braided loaf. This tradition has deep roots in history. “In a practice dating back to the Roman Saturnalia and readopted in medieval France and then spreading to Spain and Germany, a small token of luck — originally a fava bean (an ancient symbol of fertility), but later also a whole almond (or in nineteenth-century Louisiana, a pecan half typically substituted), coin, ring, little horseshoe, china charm or small porcelain doll — was commonly baked inside the circular loaf,” he writes in his upcoming book, American Cakes.
Of course, no matter where the tradition originated, the result is still, thankfully, the same: whoever gets the slice of bread or the individual roll with the coin will essentially have their cake and eat it too for the rest of the year! Blessings are assured.
Anne Marootian’s Chorag
Recipe adapted from Robyn Kalajian’s blog, TheArmenianKitchen.com
Mahlab is the dried “heart” of the cherry pit. It can be purchased in most Middle Eastern stores. If you can’t find it, you can omit it; the taste will be slightly different, but still delicious. This recipe can easily be doubled.
Total Time: 4 hours 20 minutes
Prep: 4 hours (including 3 hours for rising)
Cook: 20 minutes per baking sheet
Yield: 30 to 36 rolls
Level: Medium difficulty
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup milk
1 envelope (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105° to 110°F)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground mahlab
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon anise seed
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 tablespoons baking powder
5 to 5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the milk and heat gently. Cool to room temperature.
Beat the egg and add to the milk.
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. (You can check the temperature with a food thermometer, or by putting a drop on your wrist. If it feels comfortable to your wrist, the temperature is good to go.)
Mix the sugar, salt, mahlab, fennel seed, anise seed, ginger, and baking powder together in a small bowl. Place 5 cups of the flour in a large mixing bowl. Combine the sugar-and-spice mixture into the flour. Add the milk-egg mixture. Stir in the dissolved yeast and mix well.
Place the dough on a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. If the dough seems a bit sticky, work in up to 1/2 cup flour that wasn’t used earlier.
Place the dough in a large, clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap, then cover that with a towel. Allow to rise for 2 hours.
Gently deflate the dough. Break off a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball. Roll it into a thin rope about 16 inches in length. Break off about one-third of the rope. Shape the longer piece of dough into a horseshoe U shape. Place the shorter piece of dough in the center of the U, and braid the three strips of dough.
Place the braided chorag on an ungreased baking sheet. Continue to shape dough until tray is full. (Don’t place chorag too close to each other. Give them room to expand while they bake. If necessary, use extra baking sheets.) Let the chorag rise on the baking sheet for 1 hour.
While the shaped dough is rising, place racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F.
Brush the tops of the chorag with the egg wash. Place one baking sheet on the bottom oven rack and bake until the bottoms of the chorag are golden, about 15 minutes.
Transfer the baking sheet to the top rack and bake until the tops of the chorag are golden, about another 5 minutes. Transfer the rolls to cooling racks. Continue this procedure until all the sheets of chorag have been baked.
Store the completely cooled chorag in a container with a tight-fitting lid, or place in freezer bags and freeze until ready to serve. They can be thawed in the microwave: wrap each chorag in a paper towel and microwave on low to medium power for about 30 seconds or until defrosted.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).