This is one of those childhood memories that will never fade. In the Spring or Summer when the windows were open and my grandmother or mother would be baking this bread, it was like a scene out of Shaun of the Dead or something. We were like zombies. The school bus would stop down the street, the scent of Choreg would be in the air, and you couldn't help but head in that direction. So be forewarned ... if you're making this for a specific event and need the whole batch, make sure you're windows are closed or you'll have to share and end up making a second batch!!
This was kinda weird. I had everything but enough flour to make this today, so on my way out for my morning Dunkin Donuts coffee, I was going to stop by the supermarket to pick some up. Here I am getting ready to bake Armenian bread, I get in the car, and what's on the radio? A discussion about Armenian music! How random was that?! I'm in the middle of farm country in central NY, it's not like there's a huge Armenian community out this way. Gotta love it!
5 lb bag of flour
2 t baking powder
2 T salt
2 T Mahlab
2 c (1 lb) butter
1/2 c solid Crisco
7 eggs, beaten (plus 2 for brushing)3 T yeast
3 c milk
1 c water
2-3 t vanilla (optional)
black seeds (black sesame or nigella - see note below)
In the biggest bowl you've got (I use a humongous Tupperware), pour the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, mahlab, and 2T black seeds. Kinda scoop out the middle to make a well, and add the yeast.
If you're not familiar with Mahlab, I don't really know how to describe it, but if you don't have a Middle Eastern bakery in your area where you can pick some up, spice sites like Penzeys carry it. It comes in either seed or powder form. If you can only get it whole, run it through a coffee grinder. It's actually the inside of a certain type of cherry pit. It really makes you wonder how people first think to use things like that!
NOTE: Growing up, I would always get the black seeds at an Armenian bakery, and that's pretty much how they were marked. I knew them by sight and smell and never even thought about what they were called. I'm really not that old now, but times have changed. Everything is sealed nowadays and requires better labeling. Now that I don't live near the Armenian bakery, I can't rely on my sense of smell to pick the right seeds. I read somewhere that they are black caraway or nigella seeds, but the first time I bought those, I knew as soon as I opened them that it wasn't right. When in doubt, I use black sesame seeds. They're not quite the same, but they do the job just as well. It may be that there are different types of caraway/nigella seeds and I just got the wrong one that day.
Crack your eggs into another bowl, beat them, stir in the vanilla so you don't forget about it later, and set aside for the moment.
Over medium heat, start melting your butter and Crisco together. When the butter is almost completely melted, add the milk and water and bring it just to a low boil. Remove from heat and let cool somewhat. You are going to pour it over your dry ingredients, and while you want it to be warm enough to activate the yeast, you don't want it to be so hot that it kills it. You should be able to comfortably stick your finger in it. You also don't want to end up scrambling your eggs!
When the butter mixture has cooled down sufficiently, pour that and the eggs into the well you formed in the dry ingredients, then just get your hands right in there and mix everything together...
Now you can take a break. Cover the dough loosely with waxed paper or plastic wrap and a dish towel over that and put it in your oven to rise for 2 hours. If your oven has a proofing feature, you can use that. If not, you can just do the Motel 6 and leave the light on for it. If it's really cold out and you don't have a proofer, I suggest turning the oven on it's lowest setting for a few minutes, then turning it off before you put the dough in, so it's just warm and snuggly. If you don't have a HUGE plastic bowl, I would suggest splitting the dough into two batches, or you could have quite a mess in your oven when it rises and overflows!
After the two hours - a little longer if it's not rising for you - could be too cool - go ahead and punch the dough down and knead it once or twice right in the bowl, then give it another 10" to rise. While it's rising again, you can go ahead and line some baking sheets with parchment paper.
Now is the fun part - forming them. Pull out a big handful of dough and pat it to to about 1/4-1/2" thick. There is so much butter in this dough, you don't usually need any flour on your work surface. If you're in a rush, or just don't want to be bothered, you can use a knife, pastry cutter, big diamond-shaped cookie cutter, or large circular biscuit cutter to form diamonds or circles. If I'm making them around Christmas, I'll sometimes use a big X-Mass Tree cookie cutter. I found that if you cut one and try to pick it up right away to put it on the tray, it's more likely to stretch out of shape, so I'll cut a bunch and then go back to the first one and start scooping them up. They seem to like a little rest.
If you've got the time and/or patience, you can also roll strips of dough into ropes and twist them in to a coil like a coffee roll, or roll a long strip into a rope and attach a shorter rope perpendicular to that to make a braid ...
I definitely like to make some of each shape. I'll eat any of them right out of the bag - heck, right out of the freezer, but the diamonds and circles are great if you want to slice them in half, toast them, and spread them with butter and jam. When it comes to the spirals and braids, I like to unwind them to eat them. es, I unscrew my Oreos before I eat them! OMG, have you eaten the mint Oreos?! Awesome!!
Once you have formed all of your rolls and put them on your parchment-lined trays (with a little elbow room in between), cover each tray with a dish towel and let them rise for another hour. I know, it's an all day affair, but trust me, they're worth it!
When you're hour is almost up, go ahead and beat those two extra eggs and preheat your oven to 350. It's days like this when I really appreciate having a double oven, although I never seem to have luck baking two trays at a time in one oven. It's fine for a roast and a veggie or casserole on the other shelf, but if I try bread or cookies, even if I rotate and/or switch shelves, it never seems to work for me.
Brush the tops with the beaten egg, then sprinkle with sesame seeds and scatter a few black seeds over the tops.
Bake for 20-25" until golden brown. During the baking process, you will want to repeatedly leave the house and walk back in again so you can fully appreciate the aroma. Drool...
Let them cool on the tray for a few minutes before transferring them to wire racks to cool completely. Once cooled, we usually put 8-12 (depending on how big you've made them) in twist-tie plastic bags and freeze what we won't be eating or giving away in the next few days.