Why It Works
- Nigella seed and ground mahlab give this bread its unique, intoxicating aroma and flavor.
- The inclusion of a tangzhong (cooked flour paste) lends the choereg a tender, fluffy crumb, and dramatically slows down staling.
- A 30-minute autolyse before the addition of salt or butter to the dough helps build gluten in this high-hydration, high butter formula.
- Adding cold, cubed butter at the start of mixing lets the dough build strength while the butter slowly softens and gets incorporated into it.
- The dough will continue to develop strength as it ferments, so don’t worry if it seems overly sticky or slack when mixing is complete.
- A long, cold fermentation lends the bread flavor while making the high-hydration dough easy to shape.
Choreg—sometimes spelled choroeg, cheoreg, or chorek in English—is an Armenian sweet bread that has a distinctive, intoxicating aroma thanks to inclusion of nigella and mahlab. It's traditionally served around Easter, since it's meant to be an indulgence after winter and Lent, but many Armenians eat it year-round as well. It can be formed into individual round or knotted rolls, and—more commonly—into long braided loaves, and the braids are often made with three strands of dough, to represent the Holy Trinity. Choreg is also made and eaten in Greece (where it's known as tsoureki and is usually flavored with mastic), Turkey (paskalya çöreği), and elsewhere, though its flavors and shapes vary from country to country.
Choreg is often called “Armenian brioche,” because of the large amount of butter and eggs in the dough; it also draws comparisons to challah, because of the eggs, and the fact that it's formed into braids. But unlike brioche or challah, choreg dough also contains a high percentage of sugar, often exceeding 20%. (Armenians are not known for doing things in half-measures, particularly when it comes to celebrations and celebratory foods.) And, unlike challah and brioche, choreg contains nigella seed and mahlab.
Nigella and Mahlab
Nigella is referred to variously as "black cumin," "black caraway," "onion seed," "black sesame," and even "fennel flower,” even though it isn't botanically related to any of those spices and vegetables. Nigella is wonderfully complex, and when you take in its notes of citrus, pine, and menthol, you can see why it's compared to so many other spices. Nigella is also bitter, which is why it's almost always left whole rather than ground into a powder, so its aroma can infuse a dish without the bitter flavor taking over.
Mahlab, meanwhile, is made from the tiny seeds of the St. Lucy's cherry (Prunus mahaleb), a tree native to the Mediterranean, Iran, and parts of Central Asia. Because the seeds are extremely hard, they're always ground into a fine powder before use*. It’s used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East as a flavoring for breads, cakes, cookies, and sweets. (In Syria, it is also used to flavor string cheese.) Like nigella, its flavor is aromatic and complex, drawing comparisons to cherry, almond, vanilla, and rose. And like nigella, mahlab is bitter on the finish.
*The oils in mahlab are extremely quick to oxidize and turn rancid if exposed to air, so the whole seeds are best stored in a sealed container in the freezer and ground in a spice mill just before use. If you can only find ground mahlab, use it soon after purchase, and store the remainder in the freezer.
Tricks of the Trade
My choreg recipe adheres to the spirit of the best ones I’ve tried, but it incorporates a few modern bread baking tricks to improve its texture and make the dough easier to work with.
For starters, I incorporate a tangzhong (also known as yukone), or cooked flour paste, into my dough, which makes a more tender crumb and improves the bread's shelf life.
A tangzhong is made by heating a small portion of the flour and liquid from the dough until the starches in the flour gel, forming a thick, pudding-like paste. This paste is then added to the dough, but because the water in the paste is bound up within the starches, the tangzhong adds moisture without making the texture of the dough wetter. In other words, using a tangzhong paste can increase the hydration of a bread without turning the dough into a sticky mess. (If you were to make a dough with the exact same proportions of flour and liquids, but skip the tangzhong step, you'd end up with something closer to soup.) That extra “hidden” water makes the cooked loaf softer in texture.
The added moisture from the tangzhong also helps with staling, particularly with very sugary doughs. Since sugar is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts water to itself, the relatively large amount of sugar in doughs like this choreg pulls water away from the starches, causing them to crystallize and harden. Using a tanzhong means the sugar now has more water to suck up.
I also use more egg and milk than many other choreg recipes do (even accounting for the extra water in the tangzhong), to further increase the softness of the crumb and its longevity. Doing so does leave me with a sticky, wet dough—something that normally would make shaping a braided loaf impossible. But I use a simple trick to sidestep this: I move the dough into the fridge overnight before shaping it. Once the dough is cold, it takes on an easy-to-handle, Play Doh–like consistency. (Refrigeration also stretches out the fermentation, giving the bread a more complex flavor.)
I added an autolyse step to the recipe to help build more structure in a dough, which helps it to contain so much butter and milk. By resting the dough for 30 minutes before adding salt and butter, the flour has a chance to hydrate fully and begin to passively develop gluten, even before the mixing really begins.
Finally, I use a genius trick that my professional-baker friend Jess recently taught me: Rather than adding softened butter to the dough after most of the gluten has been developed, a little at a time—the traditional method for making brioche and other high-butter doughs—I just add fridge-cold, cubed butter into the dough right at the start of mixing. The butter softens gradually while the dough develops, slowly getting worked into it, so that by the time the butter is fully incorporated, the dough is nearly fully mixed. And the cold butter actually serves another purpose: it counteracts the friction of mixing to keep the dough from overheating.
While choreg is an Easter bread, the fact is that the Armenians I know love it so much that they make it year-round. Once you try it, I suspect you will too.
- For the Tangzhong:
- 80g (2.8 ounces; a little over 1/3 cup) whole milk
- 40g (1.5 ounces; about 1/4 cup) bread flour
- For the Dough:
- 60g (2 ounces; 1/4 cup) whole milk
- 3 large eggs (165g)
- 70g (2.3 ounces; about 1/3 cup) sugar
- 325g (11.25 ounces; about 2 1/2 cups) bread flour
- 9g (2 1/2 teaspoons) instant yeast
- 5g (1 1/2 teaspoons) whole nigella seeds
- 5g (1 1/2 teaspoons) mahlab seeds, ground
- 9g (1 tablespoon) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 85g (3 ounces; 6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2-inch dice
- To Finish and Bake:
- 1 large egg (55g), beaten with a pinch of kosher salt and 1 teaspoon (5ml) water
- 1 tablespoon (9g) hulled sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon (3g) nigella seeds
For the Tangzhong: In a 2-quart stainless steel saucier or 10-inch skillet, whisk together 80 grams milk and flour. Set over medium heat and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture comes together in a thick, mashed potato–like paste, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat, and using a rubber spatula, scrape into a stand mixer bowl (do not set bowl into stand mixer yet); set aside.
For the Dough: Add milk, eggs, and sugar to flour paste and whisk vigorously until thoroughly combined. Add flour, yeast, nigella, and mahlab. Set bowl onto stand mixer, and, using a dough hook, mix on low speed until just combined and no dry flour remains, 2 to 4 minutes. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes.
Add salt and mix on low speed until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute. Add butter, increase speed to medium, and mix until butter is fully incorporated into dough and dough just starts to clear sides of bowl (it will remain webby, sticky, and attached to bottom of bowl), 12 to 15 minutes.
Transfer dough to a lightly-oiled medium bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit at warm room temperature (75°F/24°C) for 45 minutes.
Using lightly moistened hands, fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward middle. Turn bowl 90 degrees; fold again. Turn bowl and fold dough 4 more times (total of 6 turns). Cover again with plastic wrap and let sit for 45 minutes.
Repeat folding as described in step 5, cover, and let rest until dough is risen by about half, 30 to 90 minutes. Cover tightly and refrigerate for 12 to 18 hours. If making a large choereg loaf, proceed to step 7; if making rolls, proceed to step 9.
For a Large Choereg: Turn dough onto a clean, lightly-floured surface, but do not deflate. Flour top of dough and cut into 3 equal portions (about 280g or 9.75 ounces each). Roll and shape each portion into an even 5-inch log. Cover with plastic wrap, and rest for 30 minutes.
Lightly flour work surface. Using hands, roll each log from center into a 15-inch rope (do not taper ends). Repeat with remaining dough balls. Arrange strands in parallel, with short ends of ropes facing you, and then gently press together ends of ropes farthest from you, with center rope on top. Separate ends of ropes closest to you in fan shape, leaving center rope in place. Lift right rope over center rope and set it to the right of the left rope. Lift center rope and set it in the rightmost position, where right rope was originally positioned. Lift left rope over now-center rope (originally right rope) and set it in center position. Repeat braiding process until ropes of dough are entirely braided, then gently press ends together to seal. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and allow to rise at warm room temperature (75°F/24°C) until almost doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Proceed to step 11.
For Rolls: Turn dough onto a clean, lightly-floured surface, but do not deflate. Flour top of dough and cut into 12 equal portions (70g or 2.5 ounces each). Roll and shape each portion into an even 2-inch log. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and rest for 30 minutes.
Using hands, roll each log from center into a 10-inch-long rope. Form rope into loop, leaving 3 inches of overhang on top end. Form into knot by pulling overhang under lower strand and through center of loop. Transfer to parchment-lined baking sheet, arranging rolls in a 4-by-3 pattern. Repeat with remaining logs. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and allow to rise at warm room temperature (75°F/24°C) until almost doubled in size, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
To Finish and Bake: 30 minutes before baking, adjust oven rack to middle position for a large choereg, or upper-middle position for rolls, and preheat oven to 325°F (165°C). Brush surface of dough (loaf or rolls) with egg wash and let rest for 5 minutes. Brush again with egg wash, and sprinkle with sesame and nigella.
For a Large Choereg: Bake until golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let cool for 5 minutes. Using a spatula, remove loaf from baking sheet and return to wire rack. Let cool at least 2 hours before slicing and serving.
For Rolls: Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack and let rolls cool on baking sheet at least 15 minutes before serving.
stand mixer, bench scraper, pastry brush, flexible spatula
Nigella seed and mahlab (sour cherry seed kernels) are available in Middle Eastern grocery stores (nigella can also be found in South Asian markets, where it’s called kalonji) or online.
If not already ground, the mahlab should be ground to a fine powder in a spice grinder before use.
The dough is quite sticky, particularly before refrigerating; it’s relatively easy to shape when cold.
When shaping dough, flour hands, countertop, and exterior of dough well, but try not to incorporate excess flour into the center of the loaf.
When making ropes, it’s best to lightly coat your hands and the exterior of the dough with flour, but avoid excess flour on the counter itself, to maintain sufficient friction.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Choereg is best if eaten within 24 hours of baking, though it will keep for a few days if stored in a zipper lock bag.