Azerbaijani food writer Natalia Golumb shares her hard-won recipe for kulcha, an aromatic flaky bread with a mystical pattern
Kulche is a local treat from Sheki, a savoury, flaky bread stuffed with spices and stamped with a kulchebasan, or kulche press, to create a pattern in its centre. The pattern is almost invariably a “flower of the universe” emblem, a figure from Sacred Geometry made up of overlapping circles in six-fold symmetry. The design is meant to be a physical representation of the connections that we feel to all living things and appears in every culture on the planet. According to Drunvalo Melchezidek’s The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life, many cultures believe that the pattern contains ancient, divine secrets.
The first unleavened version of kulcha originated in the Indian subcontinent, and in Sheki, it is prepared during Ramadan. In the past, kulcha would have been baked in a tendir oven, but today women make the dough at home and carry it to their neighbourhood’s kure, a family-owned brick oven available for communal use for a fee.
I have seen the flower of the universe symbol in different regions of Azerbaijan, such as Khinalig and Ordubad, but I had never seen it applied to food, so I was curious to experiment with this ancient Sheki recipe. No one knew how to make it in Baku, but on a recent visit to Sheki, I met Shafag Khanum, who agreed to share his recipe with me.
You will need:
For the dough
¼ ounce of active dry yeast
3 cups of warm water
6 cups white flour
1.5 teaspoons salt
For the stuffing
7 ounces ghee butter
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/2 teaspoon saffron grounded to a powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Salt, to taste
For the topping
1-2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
Dissolve the yeast 1.5 cups of warm water and let it stand for 10-15 minutes. Sift 4 cups of flour in a bowl, add salt and stir it well. Make a well in the flour, and add the yeast, following with the remaining 1 1/2 cups of water and 2 cups of flour. Stir together with your hands, then knead the dough on a floured surface until it becomes smooth and elastic, without any stickiness. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with a dry cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for about 2 hours.
While the dough is rising, melt the butter in a small pot. Allow to cool a bit, then add the ground spices, salt and stir. Set aside.
Prepare your workplace. You will need two work sections – one for rolling out the dough and one for assembling the layers. Sprinkle both sections with flour.
Preheat the oven to 190C.
Punch down the dough to release air before dividing it into 6 equal parts. Work with one section at a time, keeping the others under the cloth. Pat one dough ball into a flat, circular shape and roll it with a pin until it’s thin – it should measure about 30cm in diameter.
Drizzle 3-4 tablespoons of the cooled spiced butter over the circle, spreading to coat the entire surface. Repeat this process with the other dough balls, laying each circle on top of the other, buttering each layer. Every circle should be more or less the same size.
Now, try to stretch the layered dough without tearing it; this step will make the bread flakier. Gently roll the dough into a cylinder and, holding one end of the cylinder, twist the roll with your other hand.
Divide this twisted roll into 3 equal parts. Place each part cut-side down and press into a circular shape, leaving them on a floured surface to rise again for 30 minutes.
Roll each of the 3 breads a bit with a rolling pin, and then decorate with your stamp. If you don’t have a press, you can use the side of a textured crystal glass or create your own pattern with a knife.
Put each bread on a separate baking sheet, brush them with the egg yolks, sprinkle with poppy seeds and bake until golden for approximately 30 minutes.
The hardest part will be waiting for it to cool down completely! Kulcha makes a wonderful breakfast and is perfectly complemented by a milky chai tea.
Image courtesy of Dhwani Mehta
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