I was thinking of making a sumac leather to use up my last batch of sumac juice. Then I remembered something very similar, something like a fruit leather covering walnuts linked on a string. With no idea what it was called, nor where it originated, I wasn’t sure how to find anything about it. I just knew that it is eaten in places like Greece and Russia. Actually, I needed only describe it and do a google search, and there it is. But I was reading Anya von Bremzen’s “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” and she mentioned eating this in the Republic of Georgia, where according to Wikipedia, it originated. It is also made in many other countries in that general region, such as Greece and Turkey. The Georgian and Russian name for it is churchkhela.
It is not often available commercially. It is made in people’s kitchens, and sometimes sold at farmers markets, hanging in bunches much like hand dipped candles. It can be made with other fruits besides grape, so it seemed reasonable to use sumac, although you could use apple cider, berry juices, quince, and so on. I really like to recreate interesting recipes I have discovered in far-away places, and make any changes necessary to achieve a similar result in this part of the world. And churchkhela, even if I didn’t know the word before, is one of those recipes.
I had to make a few minor changes. Traditionally the nuts are dipped in a thickened juice and then hung to dry in the sun. No chance of that here right now, or maybe ever. So with nowhere to allow the strings to drip and dry, I decided to forego the string and just dip the individual walnuts. Instead of sun, I used a dehydrator, and did some partially in the oven with the electric light on. In either case, it is at a temperature of about 40-50 degrees Celsius.
1 cup of walnuts
2 cups or sumac juice
4 Tbsp cornstarch (or other starch or flour)
1 cup brown sugar
Cover the walnuts and soak in water for a couple of hours. This step is really to make it easier to string the nuts and prevent them for cracking, but I recommend it even if not using string. It makes for a softer texture which goes with the coating, and I think prevents them from drying out too much during the process.
Mix a little fruit juice with the starch and then add to the rest of the juice in a saucepan. Add the sugar, and heat until it starts to bubble and loses the milky colour. Allow to cool.
Dip the drained walnuts (reserve the water for soup stock) in the syrup and place on the dehydrator tray, or on parchment if you are doing it in the oven. The first layer was dried only a couple of hours at a low temperature (about 40 degrees C). The second coating was left about 4 hours, and after that about 10 hours, until they are not sticky to the touch, similar to licorice. I did some three times, some four times, and had I had more sumac juice, could have kept going for a thicker coating, although that would have taken a lot longer. They are very tasty as they are, and remarkably like the real thing I bought from the experts.
I hope, if nothing else, this contribution to The Novice Gardener’s Fiesta Friday gives you some idea of how this traditional Georgian churchkhela can be adapted and enjoyed without the need to travel half way across the world.