Katah (Photo by Liz Neily)

Breaking Bread with Armenian Katah

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A classic bread frequently baked in Armenian American communities, katah is sometimes referred to as an “Armenian croissant.” It’s flaky, tender, and enriched with plenty of butter. This particular version is inspired by a recipe that was shared with us by a member of our baking community, Tali Gelenian. Tali learned to bake katah at the St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church in Racine, Wis., where once a year the bread is made in great quantities for the annual Madagh Armenian picnic. As Tali writes in her blog, this is just one rendition of katah, and in fact there are many more versions found throughout the Caucasus, sometimes under different names.

Breaking Bread with Armenian Katah: A Story of Community, Celebration, and Resilience

By Tali Gelenian

Food builds community. Anyone who loves to cook or bake knows that a shared meal has the unique ability to bring people together. For my Armenian family, the act of “breaking bread” is embodied in a special tradition: the Madagh Armenian Picnic.

With origins in the church, “madagh” means “offering” or “sacrifice” and refers to the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Book of Genesis. Madagh is also what Armenians have named the stew that is prepared for the event, traditionally made with lamb to represent the ram that God asked Abraham to offer in the place of his son, Isaac. The madagh stew is cooked over open-fire pits and provided for free by the church in the spirit of charity, good faith, and fellowship to all.

For over 80 years, St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church in Racine, Wisconsin has sustained this old-country tradition. Armenians and non-Armenians alike gather for the Madagh to enjoy a day of live Armenian music, dancing, church service, and perhaps most importantly, food.

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There are many delicious recipes that St. Hagop prepares for the picnic, but for bakers looking to expand their bread repertoire, katah is a perfect place to start. It’s one of our most popular breads, and baked into this particular katah recipe is a story of community and resilience that we continue to celebrate.

Katah

There’s no right or wrong way to make katah 

Katah is a classic Armenian bread. Sometimes called an “Armenian croissant,” katah is an enriched, flaky loaf with many layers. To borrow an Armenian proverb: Amen geen eer madzoonzarneloo tsevuh oone, which translates to “every woman has her own way of making yogurt.” Or, simply put, there are many different ways of doing the same thing. In fact, many versions can be found throughout the Caucasus, sometimes under different names. In the Armenian diaspora, in particular, recipes like katah have become more unique as various Armenian communities passed them down through generations.

These differences and diversity have led to a whole host of delicious variations in flavor, shape, size, and decoration.

Some of the sweeter versions are more like puff pastry than bread, and others include a filling made of butter and sugar called khoriz. Although eaten year-round, katah was traditionally baked for the feast of Candlemas commemorating the presentation of Christ to the Temple before God. Katah is also sometimes made with a coin tucked inside the dough, symbolizing good luck to whomever received that special piece.

Despite the distinct preparations and styles, one element of katah that remains the same is the spirit with which it’s made. No matter which version you encounter, it will always contain the baker’s pride and care.

Katah bakers in the basement of St. Hagop holding okhlavoos and rolling pins. A tray of risen katah is on the table ready to be shaped and baked. (Photo courtesy of St. Hagop)

Topics: Katah

A recipe that’s the pride of a church community 

I’m sharing the recipe that I’m most familiar with, perhaps not the most extravagant version but the one closest to my heart. This recipe was brought to Racine by Armenian women from the villages of Tomarza, Khapert, and Jujun in the Anatolia region of present-day Turkey. They were part of the displaced Armenians who fled their homeland during the 1915 genocide.

These women and their families found themselves in Racine, a small industrial city in the very southeast corner of Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. Since then, these recipes have been passed down over generations, largely by word of mouth, until they were finally captured and immortalized in a collective community cookbook, Cooking Like Mama.

There are three separate katah recipes in Cooking Like Mama, but this is the version that St. Hagop follows when baking for the Madagh each year. The original recipe was written for large groups attending the picnic, and St. Hagop now triples it to satiate a growing crowd of over 1,000 attendees. Needless to say, this version has been scaled down to meet the needs of the home baker.

Katah was traditionally baked in an Armenian wood-fired clay oven called a tonir. Today, it’s cooked in the ovens of St. Hagop’s basement kitchen. For each of the two rises required for katah, the bakers close off the kitchen, turn on all of the ovens, and open the oven doors to create the ideal warm, toasty environment for the dough.

The result is a buttery 9″ round loaf of katah, optionally topped with a sprinkle of nigella or sesame seeds. Its decorations are minimal, as the bakers prioritize the rolling and folding process to achieve the ultimate layered loaf.

St. Hagop has a small designated team of katah experts who lead its preparation each year. Working side by side, the katah crew wields long wooden tapered dowels called okhlavoos, rhythmically rolling out circles of dough over 24″ wide. The work is accompanied by talk, outbreaks of laughter, and the occasional good-natured jab at someone’s technique.

Long-time katah connoisseur Johnny Buchaklian offers this advice to first-time katah bakers: “Don’t worry if you rip the dough while rolling it out, as the rolling process can be tricky if it’s your first time. Ultimately, any tears will be obscured after folding the dough. Aim for an equal thickness as you roll it out, and remember that the thinner the dough, the more times you can fold it and the more buttery layers your katah will have.”

Tali Gelenian

Keeping traditions alive

The past year has challenged us to find new ways of staying connected with friends and loved ones. Although last year the Madagh wasn’t able to continue as usual, I still celebrated by rolling up my sleeves and heading to the kitchen.

For my family, these recipes have long helped us transcend physical and cultural boundaries. It’s perhaps no coincidence the Armenian word for bread, “hatz,” is synonymous with “food.” Sharing our recipes both literally and figuratively embodies the expression “breaking bread.”

Year after year, the meals in Cooking Like Mama have brought people together to honor the story of our community. So as you try St. Hagop’s katah recipe, I invite you to listen to some Armenian music, learn more about Armenian history, and help us keep our culture alive. Paree akhorjag! (Bon appétit!)

Cooking Like Mama is available from St. Hagop. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, please contact the cookbook caretaker, Denise Lansing, at (262) 672-9265. The cost is $25.00 plus shipping & handling, with all proceeds to benefiting St. Hagop.

For more personal recipes and baking stories, see our Let Good Things Rise homepage.

(Tali is a foodie and multimedia storyteller, passionate about building community through a well-told story. She’s grown up bicoastal, from the redwoods of Northern California to her current home among the maple trees of Vermont.)

Ingredients

Clarified butter

32 tablespoons (454g) unsalted butter

Dough

6 1/3 cups (760g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast or active dry yeast

1/2 cup (113g) water, lukewarm

1 1/3 cups (303g) milk, lukewarm

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 cup (113g) clarified butter, from above

Topping

1 large egg, beaten

nigella or sesame seeds, optional

 

Instructions

To clarify the butter: Melt the butter over low heat in a large pan until the foam rises, watching closely so that the butter doesn’t burn or bubble over the top of the pan. Skim off and discard the foam, then remove the pan from the heat.

Cool the butter slightly, skim and discard the foam again, then pour the butter into a bowl, being careful to prevent the milky liquid at the bottom of the pan from pouring into the bowl; you want only the clarified butter (clear fat).

Cool the clarified butter to lukewarm before using. If you’re not making katah right away, cover and refrigerate the clarified butter until you need it; you’ll need to rewarm it before using.

To make the dough: In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 4 3/4 cups (570g) of the flour, the salt, sugar, and yeast. Make a well in the center and add the water, milk, eggs, and 1/2 cup (113g) clarified butter to the bowl, incorporating by hand or mixer to form a sticky dough.

Gradually add the rest of the flour and knead — by hand or mixer set to medium-low speed — until the dough is smooth and elastic. Shape the dough into a smooth ball and place it back in the mixing bowl. Cover and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1 /2 hours.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, gently deflate it, and divide it in half. Shape each piece into a ball and place on a lightly floured or parchment-lined baking sheet. Cover the balls with plastic and a dish towel and allow them to rest for 20 minutes.

To roll out the dough: Working with one piece of dough at a time, flatten it gently with your hands on a well-floured work surface large enough to hold a 28”-diameter dough circle. Sprinkle a little flour on top of the dough, then roll the dough into a circle using a rolling pin.

Once the dough’s diameter is as long as your rolling pin, it’s easiest to use an okhlavoo (or long food-safe dowel) to finish rolling the dough into a thin circle about 28” in diameter; it will be thin enough to be semi-transparent. You can also continue to use a rolling pin (a straight one is preferred), but you’ll need to move it around to ensure the dough is rolled out uniformly.

Pour a scant 1/2 cup (100g) of the remaining clarified butter over the dough and use your hands to spread the butter over the entire surface.

Starting with the section of dough that’s closest to you, fold 4″ of the dough toward the center of the circle. Continue to fold the dough in 4” increments until you reach the opposite side of the circle and you have a roughly 4” x 28” strip of dough.

Spread a little more clarified butter evenly over the dough.

Starting at one 4” end, fold over about 6″ of dough. Continue to fold the dough in 6” increments until you reach the opposite side, and you’ve formed a roughly 4” x 6” rectangle with the seam on the bottom.

Cover the katah and set it aside while you roll out and fold the remaining ball of dough; you want the butter to have a chance to firm up before working the dough again.

Brush a little of the clarified butter into the bottom and onto the sides of two 8” or 9” round cake pans.

Roll or pat the katahs into 8” or 9” circles and place them into the prepared pans, patting them gently so that they fill the pans. Pierce the surface of the katahs with the tines of a fork to create a design, then pierce them a few more times all the way through to the bottom to help release any air bubbles as they bake.

Cover the katahs with plastic and dish towels and let them rest in a warm place until the dough rises to the top of the pan, 1 to 2 hours depending on the warmth of your kitchen.

Toward the end of the rising time, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Brush the tops of the katahs with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the nigella or sesame seeds. Bake the katahs, one at a time if necessary, until the tops and bottoms are nicely golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes; a digital thermometer inserted into the center of the loaves will read about 200°F.

Remove the pans from the oven and allow the katahs to cool slightly before transferring them to paper towels to cool completely.

Katahs are best enjoyed freshly baked; serve with olives and cheese (a goat’s milk cheese would be traditional).

Store any leftovers, well wrapped, at room temperature for a day or so; or freeze for up to one month.

https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes/katah-butter-layered-armenian-pastr
y-recipe

https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/blog/2021/01/28/breaking-bread-armenian-kat
ah-madagh

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