Recipe Corner: Roberta Kochakian’s Pakhlava

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“When we walk into a kitchen, we are not alone. We bring with us the memories of our mothers and grandmothers and the food served at their tables. For Armenians, preparing and serving food has always been a demonstration of love for our families and respect for our guests.” This is part of the introduction to the Armenian Cuisine, Preserving Our Heritage Cookbook, published by the Women’s Guild of St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, Mich. in 2019 (Fourth Printing). This Armenian pakhlava recipe from Yeretzgin Roberta Kochakian is featured in the cookbook, which is a comprehensive collection of Armenian recipes from the Detroit metropolitan area made current for the 21st century. Yeretzgin Roberta, a long-time member of the Women’s Guild, has devoted much of her life to chronicling and documenting traditional Armenian recipes, culinary history, and cooking techniques, and teaches the importance of carrying on the heritage of Armenian cuisine.

Her husband, Rev. Fr. Garabed Kochakian, was the pastor at St John Armenian Church for 17 years, and he retired in 2015. Following his final badarak, an exceptional banquet was held in his honor. The banquet, titled “Celebrating a Life of Service,” provided an opportunity for members of the parish community to come together and honor their longtime pastor and his wife, Yeretzgin Roberta, as they embarked on their retirement. Throughout the afternoon, tributes to Rev. Fr. Garabed and Yeretzgin Roberta had as common themes the couple’s devotion and commitment to the community, and how their contagious devotion to faith has enriched countless individual lives.

Over 700 people attended the retirement event at St. John’s Cultural Hall. Diocesan Vicar the Very Rev. Fr. Simeon Odabashian read a tribute which included: “Today marks the beginning of a new path not only for Der Garabed, but also for his dear wife, Yeretzgin Roberta, who has been the true partner and support of his ministry throughout their life together. With grace and charity, Yeretzgin has been a model of Christian faith to people throughout our Diocese — not the least of these being the wives of other priests, who regard her as a mentor and friend. She has been a blessing in our community life, and we convey to her our warm congratulations and gratitude.”

For many years, Yeretzgin Roberta has been cooking, teaching, baking, and documenting Armenian cooking techniques and recipes for the Women’s Guild as it prepared and planned for its annual bazaars, luncheons, dinners, and other church events that draw huge crowds from the local Southfield community. Attendees at these events spare no time in enjoying and purchasing the amazing variety of Armenian food specialties and baked desserts and breads lovingly prepared by the Women’s Guild over a period of many months. Along the way, Yeretzgin Roberta has continued to play a major role in the Women’s Guild’s success and accomplishments at St. John Armenian Church.

As author and journalist Liana Aghajanian wrote in her Food & Wine story (January 28, 2021) about Yeretzgin Roberta, “Descended from a family of Armenian Genocide survivors, Yeretzgin Roberta was born in Detroit. It was there that her grandparents found refuge, after leaving their homeland in present-day Turkey, and where they established a tiny restaurant that helped fill the bellies of hungry factory workers coming off their shifts during Detroit’s car-manufacturing heyday. While one set of grandparents was serving food to the masses, she would sit in her paternal grandmother’s kitchen and watch her cook all day, learning the essentials of Armenian cookery.”

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“As a young woman, Roberta Kochakian knew that if she wanted to preserve Armenian recipes that had been passed down orally for generations, she needed to do what many often neglect to: ask a lot of questions and write down detailed directions. That foresight cemented her role as a rare chronicler of familial culinary heritage, a documentarian of a cuisine with a timeline cut short, derailed, and fused together again due to transformative events like genocide, forced migration, and war,” added Liana. “Roberta Kochakian preserves Armenian recipes so essential to the culture, they’re almost museum pieces.”

As Yeretzgin Roberta says, “If we (Armenians) have to keep together with our food, if that’s what’s going to keep us together, then so be it.” She plans to continue “to cook, to create, to preserve, to teach, and to share with others who want to learn how to create these traditional and essential recipes.”

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

1 lb. phyllo dough*

1 1/2 cup clarified butter

Sugar Syrup

Preparation:

Place nuts on a baking sheet and “toast” in a 300º oven for 10 minutes, stirring often. Cool.

Bring phyllo dough to room temperature. (Thaw phyllo in the refrigerator, if frozen.) Unroll phyllo dough and lay on a clean, dry towel. Cut dough in half lengthwise so sheets measure approximately 9”X10”. Cover with waxed paper or parchment, then with a damp towel.

Layer half of the dough on a 9”X13” baking dish, brushing every other layer with clarified butter. Spread the toasted, cooled nuts evenly over the entire surface. If you need to trim the dough, scatter scraps between the layers. Layer remaining sheets, again buttering every other layer. Brush the top generously with butter. Cover and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.

Remove from refrigerator and cut into diamond shapes by cutting equal width rows lengthwise, then widthwise on a diagonal. Bake in a preheated 375º oven for 5 minutes; lower heat to 325º and bake another 15-20 minutes until golden.

If serving the same day, let cool 15 minutes before spooning cooled syrup over pakhlava.

If serving other than the day it is baked, cover cooled pakhlava with foil and keep in a cool place, not the refrigerator or freezer. When ready to serve, warm in a preheated 350º oven approximately 10 minutes. Then pour room-temperature syrup over it.

Sugar Syrup (for pakhlava, bourma, kadayif and other Armenian desserts)

2 cups water

3 cups sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

Preparation:

Combine the water with the 3 cups of sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and lower heat to simmer; simmer for 10 minutes. Add juice of 1/2 lemon and boil another 10 minutes. Cool. Keep under refrigeration.

There are other syrup recipes in various dessert recipes. However, 4 parts sugar to 3 parts water, or 2:1 may also be used, depending upon desired sweetness.

*Notes:

The enemy of phyllo dough is air. Keep phyllo dough sealed in the package until ready to use.

Have your filling, such as nuts, etc., already prepared before exposing the dough to air.

Always keep dough covered with a damp cloth over a protective dry paper or plastic wrap.

When adding syrup to phyllo dough sweets, either the pastry or the syrup should be warm – not both.

 

Also see: Auntie Roberta’s Bourma (Armenian Phyllo Pastry with Walnuts) by Liana Aghajanian, January 28, 2021, featured in Food & Wine at: https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/bourma-armenian-phyllo-pastry-with-walnuts

https://www.foodandwine.com/cooking-techniques/in-praise-of-aunties-armenian-bourma-walnut-pastries

For the treasured St. John Armenian Church Katah recipe, go to Dining in Diaspora: https://www.diningindiaspora.com/stories/2020/9/19/oy5uze20fucqfuxnl8fbtt45id8zsm

References:

https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=224200740982900&story_fbid=3603006859768921

https://www.foodandwine.com/cooking-techniques/in-praise-of-aunties-armenian-bourma-walnut-pastries

https://www.foodandwine.com/cooking-techniques/in-praise-of-aunties-ultimate-home-cooks

https://news.yahoo.com/crunchy-armenian-walnut-pastries-tell-173254123.html

https://ne-np.facebook.com/eastern.diocese/posts/heres-a-delightful-news-item-about-an-armenian-delicacy-and-a-person-familiar-to/3020311404864356/

https://www.instagram.com/p/CLsMOyXnfqC/

 

ORDER TODAY: To purchase Armenian Cuisine, Preserving Our Armenian Heritage, visit www.stjohnsarmenianchurch.org. A link to order the cookbook can be found under Community.

 

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