acharuli khachapuri

I first tried Georgian khachapuri (bread stuffed with salty melted cheese) in Moscow, where I found it at a street stand on a frigid, grimy morning in March. Fresh from the oven, it warmed my hands through my gloves and the molten cheese and buttery dough seemed to start insulating me from the cold almost as soon as I swallowed the first bite. From then on, I became a regular, at least until I stopped being able to fit comfortably into my jeans and had to take a temporary hiatus.

Khachapuri is arguably Georgia’s most celebrated national dish and one of its most recognizable cultural exports, at least among the countries of the former Soviet Union. The sort I’d tried in Moscow is known as penovani, the most popular street snack variety from Ukraine to Tajikistan. It substitutes puff pastry for the more traditional bread dough and comes apportioned for one. There are also several regional varieties: the classic imeruli (a flat, round pie stuffed with cheese, from the central region of Imereti), megruli (pretty much the same as imeruli, but topped with an extra layer of cheese, from the western Megruli region), and the decadent ajaruli khachapuri, which hails from the Ajara region on the Black Sea coast.

Ajaran khachapuri is essentially a breadbowl encompassing a molten lake of oozy, salty cheese and a poached egg. It is typically shaped like a boat or an eye, the egg’s yolk a sort of sunny pupil. I first tried it on a sweltering August afternoon after a sticky four-hour bus ride from another city—not the ideal conditions for this dish. (There were no other choices at the time.)

January, however, is another story. There’s nothing like biting cold (or a nasty hangover) to make you crave stick-to-your-bones food like this. Make it for a weekend brunch or your next snow day. It’s so filling you won’t need much on the side: just coffee and some grapefruit or orange juice to cut the richness.

Ajaran Khachapuri (Hot Breadbowl with Cheese and Egg)
Serves 4 as a main course
Time: about 2 and a half hours, largely unattended

Dough:
¾ cup lukewarm milk (105-115 degrees F), divided
1 (0.25 oz.) pkg. active dry yeast (2 ¼ tsp.)
1 tsp.sugar
6 Tbsp. melted butter, at room temperature
1 egg, beaten, plus 1 more for the egg wash
2 ¾ cup flour, plus ¼ cup more for kneading and rolling
2 tsp. kosher salt

Filling:
¾ cup grated mozzarella
¾ cup crumbled feta
4 Tbsp. plain yogurt
2 eggs, beaten
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
4 eggs, whole
Butter, if desired

(Note: If you can find Georgian sulguni cheese, grate 1 ½ cups of it and use in place of the mozzarella, feta, and salt in the filling.)

1. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, sugar, and ¼ cup of the lukewarm milk. Let stand for 5-10 minutes, until the mixture becomes foamy.

2. Add the remaining milk, butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix well to form a soft dough. (You’ll probably need to use your hands at the end to get everything thoroughly mixed.) The dough will still be fairly sticky but should pull away from the sides of the bowl.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 5-8 minutes, adding only enough flour to keep it from sticking.

4. Roll the dough into a ball and put it in a large buttered bowl, turning to coat. Cover the bowl with a towel and set it in a warm place to rise until roughly doubled in size, about 1 ½ hours.

5. Thirty minutes before you plan to bake the khachapuri, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line two heavy-duty baking sheets with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

6. Punch the dough down and divide it into four balls. Working one ball at a time on a lightly floured surface, roll each one into a circle about 10 inches in diameter. (You can also hold the dough in the air, turning it constantly and letting it stretch itself out: watch the video below to see my Georgian host mother’s technique.)

7. Roll the edges inward loosely to create an “eye” shape roughly 7-8 inches long and 4-5 inches wide. The rolled dough around the edges should be about 1 inch high. Twist the edges together at the ends (the corners of the eye) and press the twist down with your thumb to “seal” the ends. Transfer each khachapuri to the lined baking sheets and let them rest about 10 minutes.

8. Meanwhile, mix the cheeses, yogurt, beaten eggs and salt together in a small bowl with a fork. Once the dough has rested, spoon ¼ of the filling mixture into each one (about 3 Tbsp. of filling per khachapuri).

9. Beat 1 whole egg with 1 tsp. water to make an egg wash. Use a small brush to coat the sides of each khachapuri generously with it.

10. Bake for 12-17 minutes, until the crusts begin to turn golden. Remove the khachapuri from the oven. Use a spoon to make a 3-in. diameter well in the center of each khachapuri—you’ll need to crack the surface of the cheese to do this. Crack a whole egg into each well. Return the khachapuri to the oven and continue baking until crusts turn deep golden brown, another 6-8 minutes. The egg whites should be fairly opaque but still wobbly, the yolks glistening. (The eggs will continue to cook in the hot cheese after they emerge from the oven.)

11. Serve each khachapuri on individual plates with pats of butter on the side for diners who wish to add it. (This is too rich for my taste, but Georgians often do it.) If you like, sprinkle black pepper on top.

12. To eat: Use your fork to mix the egg thoroughly into the cheese. Cut pieces of crust from the inside rim first, swirling them through the filling like fondue. Then move to the outer rim and the bottom.

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