Mahlab (Recipe: Armenian brioche filled with dates, honey and walnuts)
Guest post and photos by Sandie of Inn Cuisine.
As an avid reader of The Perfect Pantry, I have learned much from Lydia’s work: from interesting facts about ingredients I thought I knew, to discovering products and spices completely foreign to me. That’s why, when Lydia asked if I would write a guest post, my mind raced. What pantry ingredient could I feature? What recipe could I share?
In Perfect Pantry style, I decided to push myself, learn about and cook with a pantry item I had not previously heard of or experienced: mahlab.
Mahlab (mahleb, mahlepi and other spelling variations) is a spice derived from the seed kernels of the Prunus mahaleb, a type of cherry tree (also referred to as a Rock cherry or St. Lucie cherry), and primarily used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Eurasian cuisines. Typically sold in whole stone form to ensure a longer shelf life, mahlab is ground to a fine powder, using a dedicated spice mill or mortar and pestle, before use in cooking and baking.
Upon opening a jar of mahlab, you might notice its aroma is oddly similar to that of Play-Doh (mahlab aficionados would call it "nutty"). After grinding, however, mahlab's scent is much closer to that of sour cherries and almonds, with a distinguishable bitterness upon being tasted (although I do not suggest tasting pure, freshly ground mahlab).
Traditionally added to baked goods, select meat dishes and some cheese, ground mahlab is used sparingly, often in recipes where tiny bits of sugar are added to counteract any remaining bitterness, which tends to dissipate upon baking. The resulting breads, pastries, cookies and biscuits feature a faint, somewhat floral and almond-like, yet unobtrusive, flavor that must be experienced first-hand to appreciate.
In Western culture, Greek Easter sweet bread (tsoureki), Armenian choreg and Middle Eastern ka’kat all contain mahlab; many Ramadan sweets are baked with it as well. Mahlab is often paired with anise, a combination both complex and intriguing and used in savory crusts for dishes such as Iraqi meat pie.
Due to declining prices paid to farmers and the labor-intensive harvesting of this kernel, mahlab is increasingly hard to find. Many Middle Eastern markets carry it, as does Penzeys. Just remember when purchasing, buy whole kernels and grind before use for best flavor.
Armenian brioche filled with dates, honey and walnuts
To experience mahlab first-hand, I invite you to try this recipe. It is surprisingly easy to prepare, albeit time consuming, but the results, as with any handmade bread, are worth it. Enjoy! Adapted from Our Cookbook at Armenians.com.
For the brioche dough:
1 package (5/16 ounce) dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110° F)
2/3 cup granulated sugar, plus 1/2 tsp
3-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus 1 Tbsp
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
2 extra large eggs
1-1/2 Tbsp vegetable shortening
1-1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil, plus 1 Tbsp
1 Tbsp finely ground mahlab
1/3 cup warm milk
1 egg yolk for glaze
Poppy seeds to top rolls (may substitute sesame seeds if desired)
For the filling:
8 oz pitted chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2-3 Tbsp honey
Mix yeast with water, 1/2 tsp sugar and 1 Tbsp of flour and stir until smooth. Proof 10-15 minutes, until mixture begins to rise and is foamy on top. This step assures yeast is live and active.
Beat eggs together in large mixing bowl (for use with an electric mixer). Add sugar, butter, shortening and 1-1/2 Tbsp of vegetable oil, mixing thoroughly. Add ground mahlab, proofed yeast mixture and begin alternating with flour and milk. Mix using the dough hook of an electric mixer and stir until dough is firm, smooth and elastic. If needed, add up to 1/4 cup more flour (or up to 1/4 cup more milk) to ensure dough is the correct consistency.
Thoroughly grease a large bowl (non-aluminum and non-stainless steel, so as not to create too cool an environment for the dough to rise) with remaining tablespoon of vegetable oil. Place dough in bowl, turning once to coat entire surface with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and keep somewhat warm, ideally 75-80°F if possible (placing covered bowl inside an unlit oven with door shut creates a temperature-controlled environment -- just make sure the oven is turned off and stays off). Allow dough to double in size; this should take approximately 2 hours.
[If dough isn’t rising as it should, find a warmer area to store the bowl or proof another package of yeast (by adding yeast, warm water, sugar and flour as directed above and allowing mixture to rest 10-15 minutes, becoming foamy and risen), then knead proofed yeast mixture into existing dough.]
After dough has doubled, punch down center, cover, place back in unlit oven (or warm spot) and let rise another 1-1/2 hours. Punch dough down a second time and let rest 10 minutes before shaping into individual rolls.
If necessary, you may refrigerate the dough at this point, then shape into rolls and bake the following day. Should you need to refrigerate, simply coat dough surface (lightly, yet thoroughly) with vegetable oil and seal tightly in plastic wrap (you may wrap the dough itself or cover the entire bowl -- just make sure it is airtight so dough does not dry out). Also, if refrigerating, be sure to remove dough from refrigerator a minimum of 1 hour before shaping into rolls. Dough must come to room temperature, have time to rest and be punched back down if necessary before shaping rolls and baking.
On easy-release aluminum foil or parchment paper, divide dough into 20 equal-size rolls (approximately the size of a ball that fits comfortably between your palms). Let shaped rolls rest approximately 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F. If baking more than 1 sheet of rolls at a time, use convection setting if available. To begin filling dough, simply flatten each roll between the palms of your hands, creating a circle. Using a standard spoon, place a scant spoonful of date, honey and walnut filling in the center of each circle and pull edges of dough up and over to cover filling and create a sealed ball (i.e., pouch). Continue shaping ball (pouch) with your hands, ensuring that filling is evenly covered and dough is sealed, then return filled ball to easy-release foil or parchment paper and allow to rest until each pouch is filled and ready to bake. Fill one pouch at a time for best results.
As filled rolls rest, lightly brush the surface of each with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds as desired. Place rolls 2 inches apart on lined cookie sheet (or jelly roll pan) and bake in a preheated 350°F oven for approximately 15-20 minutes. Watch brioche carefully -- rolls are done when they turn light golden in color and bottoms are set. If baking rolls in more than 1 batch, be sure to make a note of finished baking time for subsequent batches.