Last January my mother introduced me to her friend, Nimo, an Assyrian woman who’s managed that rare thing in America: to migrate to the states without losing her cultural food tradition. My mom’s been raving to me about Nimo for years, often sending me photos and scribbles from their cooking sessions, making such things as tabbouleh, lentil dumplings, Turkish bread, and stuffed aubergine. Given my propensity for Middle Eastern cuisine, it was no wonder why I “had to meet this woman”.
Assyria is an ancient territory that dissolved in the mid-seventh century and is now part of several nations including northern Iraq, part of southeast Turkey and northeast Syria. Though Nimo now lives in Chicago, her roots are firmly in her heritage, and this especially applies to her cooking. Nimo bakes from her tradition, using the recipes that her grandmother taught her how to make, rarely measuring anything and often not knowing the English words to describe them, which made follow-up research a tad challenging, but also hugely educational.
One such dish that Nimo taught us is what she called “eight day bread”, a sweet, egg-enriched braided bread that is eaten across the countries of the former Ottoman empire and in Greece and Armenia has specific associations with Easter. In Armenia it’s called “choereg” and in Greece it’s called “tsoureki” or “lampropsomo”, derived from the Greek words for “Easter” and “bread” and refers to the light Christians believe is given by Christ’s resurrection.
There are many varieties of these festive breads, but what gives it its distinctive flavour and aroma is mahleb, an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a type of cherry. When ground to a powder, mahleb produces a flavour that’s much like a combination of bitter almond and cherry. The spice has several associations with Easter, not only in Greece, but also in Cyprus where it’s a used in a special Easter cheese-filled pastry called flaouna.
I’m still trying to navigate the landscape of Nimo’s food stories. Her food crosses several cultural landscapes and her methods are not recipes, but simple truths about cooking ingrained in her brain by tradition and repetition. The worktop must be clean. The ingredients must be good. The cooking must be done with care and respect. And the food must be enjoyed slowly and mindfully.
As to “eight day bread”, “Choereg”, “Tsoureki”, or whatever you wish to call it, I enjoy it best sliced and toasted with butter, during Easter time, or any time of the year.
- 6 cups flour
- 1 cup butter, melted
- 1 cup milk, warmed
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1/4 teaspoons yeast
- 1/2 teaspoon mahleb, ground seeds
- 1 egg yolk
- sesame seeds or sliced almond, for topping (optional)
- Dissolve yeast in warm milk, then add the sugar and melted butter.
- Beat the eggs eggs and add to the milk mixture, along with salt and ground mahleb.
- Add flour gradually, one cup at a time until dough comes away from sides of bowl. Knead 10 minutes until soft, shiny and no longer sticky.
- Place dough in oiled bowl. Turn the dough ball in the bowl to coat the outside with oil. Cover the bowl and put in a warm place to rise until doubled.
- Divide the dough into two or three balls. Divide each ball into three and roll out with your hands to three long ropes.
- Pinch all three ends together and braid loosely. Pinch ends and tuck under.
- Cover and allow to rise again until doubled.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F / 200 C. Brush the braids with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds or sliced almonds.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until nicely golden brown all over.
This post first appeared on Great British Chefs blog.