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Georgia: One More for the Road

June 19, 2011

I have one more post on Georgia before I’m ready to move on.  If you missed my other posts on Georgian food, check them out here and here.  There were two more dishes of my Georgian eating adventure that really left a mark on me. The first is the herb plate.  When I had my introductory Georgian meal in Kyiv, this plate hit the table first and I had no idea what it was for. I didn’t think any of us ordered ‘salad.’ The plate was full of fresh, green and vibrant herbs and vegetables and I found out it was meant for all of us at the table to share.  There’s no set rule of what exactly you need, but the herb plate is made up of some or all of the following: dill, coriander, parsley, basil, tarragon, scallions, radishes, cucumber spears, and spicy leafy greens.

Everyone grabs from the herb plate, munching on a crisp radish or stalk of parsley during the parade of Georgian dishes.  Nothing is minced or chopped, everything on this plate is presented whole and meant for you to pick it up and eat it with your hands.

Now on to the second dish that left its mark on me. This is the dish that anyone and everyone who ever sits down to a Georgian meal remembers and loves – khachapuri.  And what’s not to love?  Khachapuri is a Georgian cheese bread served warm from the oven. There’s an emphasis on the cheese in this Georgian cheese bread. A huge emphasis on the cheese…

I’ve only eaten in Georgian restaurants twice in my life, both times were in Kyiv. On my first trip to Kyiv, I dined at a Georgian restaurant where I had the stuffed eggplant that I raved about already.  I had khachapuri then but the limelight was stolen by that stuffed eggplant I keep going on about.  On my second trip to Kyiv, my friend and her husband took me out for dinner to a bare bones Georgian place outside of the city center.  I was thrilled to see another part of the city away from the tourist attractions and historical core. We had to drive there. I don’t know why it feels so much more fun driving in a foreign country than at home. Maybe it has to do with being on vacation. Anyway, we were moving fast and covering a lot of ground. It was terribly exciting. The historic city center gave way to soviet apartment blocks. This part of the city was compact, bustling, a bit grittier and less picturesque than what I was used to seeing.

The restaurant was set up in a park with lots of trees. It was dark outside but the restaurant was lit up just enough so you could make out what was going on.  The kitchen was housed in a small building but all the tables were set up outside under some canopies. It had the feeling of a backyard barbecue after the sun went down.  The place was buzzing. Plates of grilled meats were coming out of the kitchen and carafes of wine were on the tables. When you’re traveling this is the kind of place you always hope to find: an out of the way place with no tourists to be found. I was feeling pretty special and a bit smug about this awesome place since I was the only foreigner there.

My friend ordered for us. The khachapuri came to the table first. Golden brown, warm, a bit blistered, with melted, salty cheese inside. Oh – it was good.  Amazing food, great place…and then the unthinkable happens. Some tourists walk into the place (my place, mind you), looking for a table and ruining my smug moment. But luckily for ungenerous me (and unlucky for them) no tables were available and they left. I went back to feeling superior and enjoying my khachapuri.  I don’t think I’m alone in this sentiment: when traveling you want to find a special place that’s off the beaten tourist path. That kind of experience is travel magic.  And one you can brag about when you get home. This place felt really magical and so did the khachapuri.

Like the khachapuri from the restaurant in the park.

There’s not one way of making khachapuri. Each region in Georgia has its own way. I diligently tried out four different recipes, each with a different version. One matched exactly the khachapuri I had at the restaurant in the park. Yum.

Another one was more of a cheese pie made with a flaky pastry that was equally as good. This one was my boyfriend’s favourite. There was one that was just OK  and there was one that was horrid.

The Horrid One

The recipe for what turned out to be The Horrid One held such promise. As it started to bake, it smelled like biscuits! And then I noticed it wasn’t turning golden brown as it baked. It was just turning a splotchy matte brown. The dough actually decreased in size instead of increasing.  It was a shriveled, dry, flat brown thing that tasted as good as it looked – which was awful.

Khachapuri is typically made with fresh and slightly sour cheeses like imeruli or suluguni but neither of these (at least in my neck of the woods) are available.

Khachapuri
From The Georgian Feast by Darra Goldstein (University of California Press, 1999)

My boyfriend's favourite.

This recipe makes for a flaky, buttery khachapuri.  The dough is really a pastry crust and the bread is really more like a cheese stuffed pie.  I don’t think you’ll mind.

2 cups unbleached white flour plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold butter (1 ½ sticks), cut up into small pieces
2 eggs
¼ cup plain yogurt
1 ¼ pounds mixed Meunster and Havarti cheeses, grated*
1 egg yolk, beaten

*I also crumbled in some feta cheese into the mix.

Put the flour and salt in a medium bowl, add the cold butter (butter has to be cold for the dough to work) into the bowl and using either a pastry cutter or two knives, begin cutting the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

Beat 1 egg in a small bowl then stir in the yogurt. Add the egg and yogurt mixture to the coarse flour mixture. Form the dough into a ball, wrap with plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour.

In a medium bowl, beat the other egg and add the grated cheeses. Mix well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking sheet.

On a board dusted with flour, flatten the ball of dough a bit and then begin rolling it out. You want to roll it out in a rectangular size about 12 inches tall and 17 inches wide. Trim the dough so the lines are straight.

Spread the cheese mixture on one half of the dough and fold the other half over to enclose it. Press down on the edges to seal the cheese within and then crimp the edges, too, using the tines of a fork.

hmm...what's wrong here?

When I made this, I rolled the dough out to a rectangle as the recipe directed. I then spread the cheese onto the dough. And there was a lot of cheese. So much so, that I had an alarming mountain of cheese that kept avalanching off the dough.  Did I grate too much cheese?

I checked the recipe twice, and I had the amount of cheese right. And then I noticed that my measurements were off. I had a rectangle the size of 12 x 7.

That's better!

Oh…..there’s the problem. I already trimmed the edges off the dough so it was too late to piece it all together. So, I rolled out the 12 x 7 rectangle a bit more so it was closer to the size needed. I then rolled out the trimmings to a mini-rectangle. I had big brother and little brother khachapuris.

Little and big brother khachapuris

Once your khachapuri (or khachapuris!) are stuffed and sealed, transfer them to the baking sheet and brush with the beaten egg yolk.  Bake for about 50 minutes or until a deep golden brown.

The bread should be served slightly warm, cut into small squares.

I actually baked this at home completely and then took it to a party where I gently heated it up in a 300 F oven for 15 – 20 minutes loosely tented with aluminum foil. The aluminum foil kept it from turning any more brown.

Khachapuri II
In my quest to find khachapuri recipes, I did a lot of internet sleuthing and found a video on youtube of Elena, making khahcapuri in her home kitchen. The one she makes looks exactly like what I remembered in that bare bones Georgian restaurant in the park.  Now I just needed some sort of recipe. Elena hardly gives any quantities and she uses some sort of dairy to bind the dough that is completely foreign to me.  What helped to fill in the blanks was a recipe in the Atlantic Monthly (of all places). The write up was actually an article on how the glorious khachapuri keeps Georgia together amongst all of the the regional divides and tensions.

Combining Elena’s methods with the rough amounts listed in the Atlantic Monthly recipe, I hit Khachapuri jackpot.

My favourite khachapuri

If you want to see how the dough is formed, rolled out and stuffed with cheese, check out Elena’s video. It’s in Russian but even if you don’t understand what she’s saying, you can see how she forms the bread. The audio quality is a bit rough but she has a good, relaxed vibe.

For the dough:
About 2 ½ cups flour*
2 eggs
200 ml huslanaka**
¼ teaspoon salt
More flour for dusting

For the filling:
500 grams cheese (I used an equal mix of havarti, mozzerella, and a creamy feta)
1 egg
2 tablespoons butter

More butter for frying the bread

*Start at 2 cups and then add a bit more at a time until the dough comes together and is soft but not sticky. My dough needed about 2 ½ cups. You might need a bit less or a bit more.
** I used huslanka, a buttermilk kefir, but the recipe mentioned you can also use sour milk, yogurt or whey

In a small bowl, beat the two eggs and then mix in the huslanka (or whatever sour dairy component you’re using) and the salt. In a large bowl, add 2 cups of the flour and make a well in the middle. Pour the wet ingredients into the well and start mixing using a fork, bringing the flour into the wet ingredients.  When making dough, I always have a sinking feeling that I’m somehow screwing it up and then lo and behold, it comes together and I’m a genius.  Add the rest of the flour a little bit at a time and work the dough until it’s no longer sticky. Towards the end, just add a tablespoon at a time until the dough is where it needs to be.  It also might be easier for you to finish the dough on a board or counter; tip it out of the bowl and add the rest of the flour while kneading it.  The dough should be soft and malleable, just not sticky.  Set it aside so you can prepare the filling.

In a large bowl, grate the cheeses together and crumble in the feta. Cut the butter into small cubes and add it to the cheese.  Mix in the egg and blend everything together.

Back to the dough. Dust the board with flour.  Shape the dough into a cylinder, rolling it back and forth lightly, making sure that the thickness is pretty uniform across the length of the roll.  Cut the dough into four equal pieces.

Grab one of the pieces and lightly dust both sides with flour. Your dough might still stick a bit once in a while. No biggee. Using your hands, press out the dough into a flat circle. Then using a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a larger, thin circle. The dough should be a couple of millimeters thick.

Place a quarter of the cheese filling into the center of the dough and spread it out, leaving bare a border of about 2 to 3 inches. Now you’re going to seal the filling in. Using one hand, grab the edge of the dough and lift it up towards the center. This hand will be your anchor. Using your other hand, pick up the dough next to the where you’re holding it with your anchor hand. Make a ‘pleat’ and pass it to your anchor hand, and press the edges of the dough together.  Keep making these ‘pleats’ around the circle, passing the pleat to your anchored hand, sealing the pleats together until you hit half way around the circle. Do the same thing for the second half of the circle. Then you want to seal the two ends together. Grab both ‘knots’ of dough at the top and press them together. Press that larger knot down into the bread gently so it’s not protruding too much. Not sure what I’m describing? At about 3:45 in Elena’s video, you’ll see her make the pleats and seal the bread.

Flip the bread over so that the seam side is down. Taking your rolling pin, press down gently and roll out the sealed purse so that it thins out a bit and the cheese is distributed inside.  Set aside and do the same for the other three pieces of dough.

Heat a cast iron skillet* over medium to medium low heat. Melt a bit of butter and swirl around. You’re going to fry the khachapuri one by one.  Place the khachapuri in the pan seam side down.  After about five minutes it will be golden brown and ready to flip. Flip onto its other side and fry for another five minutes until it’s golden brown. Rub a bit of butter over the hot surface of the bread and then it’s ready to serve. Serve warm.

*I was worried about the dough sticking, so I used my cast iron skillet that’s well seasoned (and non-stick). In the video it looks like Elena uses a non non-stick pan but I haven’t tried this myself.

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