For the Armenian Love of Bread
This is how rich America is: doctors routinely tell patients who need to lose a few pounds to quit eating bread — and some of us actually try to follow this advice.
Only very rich people would even think of doing something that would make their lives so much poorer.
Armenians love bread, which is hardly a distinction among Indo-European peoples, except that we got a head start. Armenian archaeologists have uncovered ancient fire pits strikingly similar to the tonir ovens that are still used to bake lavash.
Greeks, Egyptians, Romans and others all contributed to the advancement of wheat cultivation and bread-making techniques. The pastries of the ancient world seem to have been as delicate and intricate as anything that ever graced the tables of French royalty.
Northern Europe arrived a little late to the party. Among other gifts, the Arab armies carried a taste for bread and introduced Europe to the wonder of windmills to process grain.
So how is it that 1,000 years later (more or less), we were both born into a world of Wonder Bread?
Doug’s thoughts about bread: I admit that I gobbled up tons of soggy, pre-sliced white bread as a kid, along with more than my fair share of Twinkies. My mother indulged me. My father just shook his head.
To Armenians of his generation, bread was life. Making bread was always the first chore of the day, and always women’s work. Mom inherited this role, although she baked more like once or twice a week. The rest of the time, we relied on Tony the Bread Man, who delivered fresh Italian loaves from a big, blue van.
This bread was perfect for soaking up the broth in Mom’s dolma and other Armenian dishes, but I’d lose interest by the next day when the bread started to harden. My father’s patience was much thinner than the crust, and he insisted I keep dipping and chewing without complaint.
Years later, he shared a memory that explained a lot: As a 10-year-old refugee, he was trampled and shoved out of line while waiting for the day’s ration: a single slice of bread.
My favorite bread moments always involved my mother baking her buttery Dikranagerdtsi lavash, which Robyn will explain a bit farther down. But I also have a vivid vision of Mom’s Aunt Veron Parigian, who brought her own baking routine from her native Kharpert to Somerville, Mass.
Aunt Veron made the more traditional, thin cracker bread, covered with brown bubbles that yielded delicately to the bite. She insisted that a wood fire was essential to the outcome.
Sometime in the early 1960s, her son surprised her with a new electric stove. The old relic she’d been using since she came to America was carted down to the basement — and Aunt Veron followed.
For the rest of her life, she defiantly trudged downstairs to stoke the fire and bake the bread.
Robyn’s thoughts about bread: Have you ever seen a piece of bread fall to the ground and just lie there in an Armenian kitchen? Not likely.
If anything, the bread would have been scooped up from the floor, kissed, then held skyward in prayer and later fed to the birds.
Bread, along with salt, is sacred to Armenians. Sharing bread with guests is fundamental to Armenian hospitality — lavash, chorag, pida, katah, matnakash. From savory to sweet, the list is endless.
Baking bread for family and guests is a gesture of love. Back in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents, lavash was baked in a pit lined with bricks. (If that were still the case, our guests would have to settle for store-bought loaves wrapped in plastic.)
My favorite bread memory is of Hatz Baboog, “Bread Grandfather.”
He’s one of the street vendors my sister Dawn and I remember from our childhood when our family lived on the first floor of our grandparents’ home in New Jersey.
The fruit-and-vegetable vendor would ring a bell from his truck, yelling “Raaaaspberries! Straaaawberries!” or whatever the specials of the day were. People would run out of their homes to buy the freshest, tastiest produce right off his truck.
Hatz Baboog didn’t bother yelling because he knew what we wanted. He’d climb the narrow staircase to our grandparents’ home, carrying a basket filled with the most amazing assortment of Armenian breads that looked and smelled sensational! We never settled on just one.
Our favorite was the round, slightly flattened loaf with the hole in the middle. Hatz Baboog even went so far as to make miniature versions of our favorite breads, just for us kids.
The first time I ever had homemade lavash was at the home of my then-future in-laws, Sylvia and Nishan Kalajian. Sylvia made lavash every Saturday.
Lavash, probably the most versatile bread ever created, can be soft and flexible, or crisp and cracker-like.
Her recipe, handed down to her by her Aunt Baidzar Doramajian, uses no yeast, making this a quick bread that requires little time to prepare. Before Doug and I were married, this recipe was passed along to me.
Kalajian Family Lavash (Quick bread version)
- 8 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder**
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- ½ pound ( 2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
- 3 cups warm water
- 1 egg mixed with a little water for egg wash
** Test the baking powder before using to make sure it is active. To do this, sprinkle a little baking powder in a half cup of water. The powder should begin to bubble and foam. If it doesn’t, the baking powder should be discarded.
- Place the flour in a large mixing bowl. Sift the salt, baking powder, and sugar into the flour. Stir well.
- Add the melted butter and MOST of the water.
- Mix well until a dough forms. If the dough seems too dry, add some of the remaining water and continue to mix.
- Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until smooth and elastic.
- Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces; shape into balls.
- Roll one ball of dough at a time into a rectangle shape that will fit on a 16″x12″ baking sheet.
- Fold the rectangle-shaped dough into thirds, then in thirds again, creating a little bundle.
- Re-roll each bundle into a large rectangle again. Place rolled dough on an ungreased 16″x12″ baking sheet.
- Preheat the oven to 425̊F.
- Brush the surface with egg wash.
- Bake on the lower oven rack for about 15 minutes, or until bottom starts to brown.
- Move the tray to the upper oven rack for about another 5 to 10, or until the top becomes golden brown. (Keep a close watch during the baking process to avoid burning.)
- Remove from oven. Let cool completely on cooling racks. Cut each baked sheet into 12 or 16 pieces.
- Continue this process until all balls of dough have been shaped and baked. NOTE: The lavash will be chewy-crispy, rather than soft.
- Store in an airtight container.
- Serve lavash with cheese, olives, fresh fruit, and a strong cup of coffee.
Lavash (Yeast bread version)
- 1 tsp dry yeast (about ½ pkg of dry yeast)
- 1 1/4 cups warm water (divided)
- 1 ½ tsp sugar (divided)
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 4 cups flour, approximately
- 1/2 stick butter (1/4 cup or 4 Tbsp.), melted and cooled
- Place yeast and ½ tsp of the sugar in a small bowl. Add 1/4 cup of the water, stirring to dissolve. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, add flour, 1 tsp sugar and the salt; stir to combine.
- Stir in the yeast and melted butter; blend well with the dry ingredients until a dough is formed.
- Knead the dough until it is soft and elastic. Shape into a ball.
- Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, then turn dough to coat with the oil.
- Cover bowl with a towel and place in a draft-free environment. Allow dough to rise about 2 hours.
- Punch down dough and divide into 10 to 12 even-sized balls.
- Roll each ball, one at a time, on a lightly floured surface into a thin rectangle.
- Place on an ungreased baking sheet, pricking the surface a few times with a fork.
- Bake in a preheated 400-425º F oven until golden brown and crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. (Note: It’s important to keep a close watch during the baking process!)
- Repeat this procedure with remaining balls of dough.
- Cool lavash completely on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.
Another Armenian Favorite – Matnakash
A close second to lavash in popularity in Armenia is matnakash, meaning “drawn by fingers,” according to Irina Petrosian’s book, “Armenian Food – Fact, Fiction and Folklore.”
I was recently introduced to this bread while searching for a bread recipe for someone else. This bread, oval in shape, is characterized by imprints on the surface made by the baker to resemble a plowed field. The bread itself has a thick exterior with a light interior.
- 5 cups bread flour
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 cups warm water (about 105 to 110 degrees F.)
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin Olive Oil
- In a bowl, add all dry ingredients, stirring to combine. Add the water, and mix until a soft dough forms. On a lightly floured surface, knead the dough about 20 minutes.
- Place dough in a clean, lightly oiled bowl; cover with a clean towel and let it rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour.
- Moisten your hands with water, punch the dough lightly; stretch and fold the dough four times. Then cover it again and leave it in a warm place for another 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 2 equal parts.
- On a large open baking pan, pour the olive oil and stretch open the dough (one piece at a time) into an oval shape — making sure both sides are covered with oil.
- Let it sit for another 15 – 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Fold all along the rim of the oval breads, gently tucking them in.
- With a fork, knife, or fingers, gently give the appropriate design of a plowed field — 5 to 6 lines lengthwise and 3 to 4 lines crosswise.
- Place the shaped dough on an ungreased baking pan and bake in the pre-heated oven until golden brown (about 20 minutes).
Makes 2 Matnakash Loaves