In my family there are certain traditions that will always take place. Here are a few of them:
the gift-opening order goes from youngest to oldest
there must always be double the amount of food for the people there
all the "kids" must take a picture in front of the Christmas tree despite our grumbling after listening to "how come my camera doesn't work?...oh wait, no batteries"
watch my mom make all the food
eat cadbury creme eggs until I become a creme egg
play "who's egg is strongest" by tapping the tip of your hard-boiled egg on someone else's to see who's breaks first
watch my mom make all the food
eat an overwhelming amount of hard-boiled eggs
make Easter bread with my mom
Every year my mother makes the most delicious Easter bread. Similar to Challah, but (gasp!) better in my opinion (I can say that because my best friend is Jewish?). Cheoreg is the most especially special bread that bring a deliciously sweet smell to the house as it's baking. It's amazing while it's still warm (did someone just say Nutella?) and still amazing after it has cooled down. Every year my mom makes it and every year I'm too busy to be able to learn how to make it. Well, not this year my friends. I finally got my chance and I'm here to share it with you.
Except that the dough didn't rise properly. Eff.
Poor little me thinking that I jinxed it. My mom always says that Cheoreg is really tempermental. It doesn't like to be made at any other time of the year and you have to make sure that all the ingredients are at the right temperature. In this case, the melted butter was a little too hot which probably killed the yeast a little. It still worked...but it wasn't perfect. The taste however...so perfect. Just sweet enough and oh so buttery.
Now you're probably asking yourself, "what am I going to do with 6 breads?". Eat them. All. Or, freeze a couple. Here is exactly what's going to happen. As soon as they come out of the oven, one will be devoured within 15 minutes if you have a hungry family. Two will be eaten throughout the week. You may (or may not) give away one or two if you're feeling generous. And the last ones can go in the freezer to be enjoyed at a later time. Trust me, it's worth it.
And if you read the ingredients, you're also probably wondering, "what the what is mahleb?" Mahleb, mahlab or mahlepi (depending on where you come from) is a spice made from the seeds of the St-Lucie Cherry. The cherry stones are cracked and the seeds inside are ground up to a fine powder. It's commonly used in Middle Eastern baked goods. It has a particular taste that I can't describe but it really gives the bread its uniqueness and shouldn't be omitted. You can find it in Middle Eastern grocery stores.
I hope you enjoy this treat as much as I do. What are your traditions? And most importantly, what will you be baking this year?
Easter Bread (Armenian Cheoreg)
Yields 6 breads (or more or less depending on how you separate it)
12 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups (6 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups milk
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 tbsp salt
2 envelops (16 g) active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water (for yeast)
1 tbsp ground mahleb
2 egg yolks (from brushing top)
Sift flour, salt and ground mahleb into an extra large bowl and set aside. Place warm water for yeast into a small bowl and sprinkle yeast on top with about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Whisk until blended and leave to rise, about 10 minutes. Note: when dissolving yeast, the water should never be hotter than 35 degrees Celsius. If the water is too hot, the yeast will die, but if it's too cold then it will not rise. If you're unsure, use a food thermometer. Also, always remember that sugar feeds yeast, but salt is its enemy! Never pour salt directly on top of yeast, unless you're feeling particularly evil :p
Meanwhile, melt the butter, sugar and milk in a large sauce pan until the butter is melted and the sugar is dissolved. The mixture should only be warm and never hot. If it's too hot, leave to cool slightly or transfer to a bowl to cool down. (If you stick your finger in it, it should be lukewarm). Beat eggs in a separate bowl.
Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the yeast, eggs and melted butter/milk. Gradually blend everything with a wooden spoon. Once your have a more solid dough, start kneading it by hand. Knead the dough until everything comes together and your hands stay free of dough. It should not be sticky! (But it will be oily). Check if it's ready by sticking your finger or fist into the dough and seeing if it springs back after removing it. Form a nice ball and cover bowl tightly with plastic film. Leave to rise until it doubles in size, about 4-5 hours.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. When the dough is ready, slowly punch down and divide into 4 or 6 equal balls (use a scale if you feel like being super accurate, unlike myself who's too lazy for that). Cut each ball into 3 slices, roll each slice with the palm of your hands until it is a long piece and braid the 3 pieces together. Continue with the other balls. Let the braids stand for about 1/2 hour on the baking sheets until they rise some more. Then brush the tops with egg yolk (make sure you get the cracks). Bake at 350 C for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and bottoms are lightly browned. Leave to cool on baking sheets (or if you're anything like me and my brother, start picking at it while it's warm and oh so tasty).
Have it for breakfast or at tea time. My favorite is to spread cream cheese and jam on it. Although I should warn you that this bread is addictive and you'll probably want thirds and fourths (second helpings are a given).