When we tried to make apricot murabba (a fruit preserve suspended in syrup) in America, we ran into technical problems — the apricot pieces fell apart and turned into jam. Was it because our fruit was so different from the fruit that grows in Armenia? We shared our questions with Dorothy Garabedian, an expat living in Germany. It turned out that Dorothy knew an Armenian woman who made all kinds of murabba. Would we like her to get details about the method? Sure! Below is Dorothy’s story on what she learned. It is yet another example about how people from near and far have helped us write this book, and we are forever grateful.—Kate
Words & Photos: Dorothy Garabedian
One day last year I received an email from Kate Leahy (in California), asking if I (living in Germany) had ever made murabba, the Armenian fruit and berry preserves that look so appealing in glass jars where the fruits are mysteriously suspended in their runny syrup.
Kate, Ara, and John—the authors of Lavash—were working to reproduce some of these preserves at home but were having “suspension” and “texture” problems. Something was missing and they were on a quest for secrets to keeping the fruits in tact.
I’ve never met Kate, but we’ve become acquainted through emails after I wrote a post on my blog, Detours and Diversions, titled “Can the Making of a Cookbook be Dangerous?” It was about the unexpected adventures of their cookbook research team arriving in Armenia just as a revolution was unfolding. I learned about the cookbook team’s story through a mutual friend, Raffi Youredjian, who was assisting the book team in Armenia.
But what drove Kate to reach out halfway around the world to someone she did not know for help with some jammed up jams? Whatever instinct she may have had to throw her net out my way, it turned out to be a great stroke of luck. Or maybe a little angelic intervention.
“No, I’ve never made murabba,” I told Kate, “But I do know an Armenian woman here in Germany who makes incredible murabba.” Some of her jars were sitting in my cupboard, all with perfect texture and suspension. I would ask if my friend would be willing to share her methods, but Kate would first have to send me specific questions.
Armed with the recipe the cookbook team had written down from a lady in Artsakh and Kate’s questions, I went to visit my friend, 80-year-old Amalia Arutiuniantz, who lives in Dortelweil, a town set in rolling fields and woods about a half-hour’s drive from Frankfurt. Thirty years ago, she and her husband and children immigrated to Germany.
We sat down to tea, specifically a special black tea friends had brought back from China, while I described the type of book Lavash would be, showed her the book’s website, and explained the details of the authors’ murabba predicament. Amalia was delighted to help.
“There isn’t anything I haven’t preserved,” she said.
From experience, I’ve learned that home cooks are often vague when describing techniques, timing, and measurements, so I was prepared to do some gentle prodding. That turned out to be unnecessary. Amalia grasped the issues immediately. “The problem of texture is not in the type of apricots, nor their size; it’s a matter of technique and rigorous procedure,” she said.
At this point I realized this interview would be a very different kind of culinary lesson. I would learn why later.
Like a professor, Amalia presented her murabba lecture from A to Z, emphasizing that undesirable results would occur if certain steps were not followed strictly. I took notes.
At the end of the lecture, she asked if I’d like to have some tahnabour (a warm yogurt soup). I could not resist because it is a favorite that my mother used to make. She uses dinkel (spelt) barley because it’s easier to digest, and also brought out juicy grape-leaf dolmas (made with a combination of three kinds of meat: beef, pork, and lamb). The grape leaves were from her grandson’s farm in Germany, which he, a fashion designer, had bought recently. Like all other Armenian women I have known from Russia and Armenia, she grinds her own meat (they don’t trust pre-ground meat).
Although I have known Amalia for years, our meetings were usually at concerts or dinner parties at the home of mutual friends. This visit to talk about murabba also allowed me to get to know more about her. A simple question about her famous piroshkis (little meat pies), which were so different from other versions I’ve ever eaten, led to the subject of her family’s history.
Amalia’s culinary legacy comes from her grandmothers who were fine cooks. They migrated from western Armenia (Moush and Kars) to Tbilisi (Tiflis), Georgia, in the late 1800s following pogroms against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Tiflis was the cultural, business, and culinary capital for Armenians. Then came the Stalin era in the 20th century in which ethnic populations were moved to different parts of the Soviet Union. That is how Amalia’s family ended up in Uzbekistan. Amalia grew up, studied, married, had a family and a successful profession in Tashkent before resettling in Germany.
My afternoon playing detective was finished off with a little coffee and more culinary talk before Amalia sent me off with a jar of her wonderful lemon murabba.
In preparing this article, I went to see Amalia again so I could take her picture. She—once again—placed before me ground chicken patties, piroshki, rice pilaf topped with caramelized dried fruit, stewed vegetables, assorted homemade baked goods, jam, fresh strawberries, and that fine Chinese tea. The most amazing thing is that she accomplishes all this mostly with one arm, since a car accident years ago limits her use of the other.
Amalia was happy to know that the Lavash cookbook team was thrilled with the investigative results. For me, it was a rewarding detour. However, there’s one bit of information that I forgot to mention in my original report. Amalia’s orderly explanations and strict emphasis on “technique and rigorous procedures” are drawn from her profession. She’s a pharmacist.
Critical! NEVER stir the fruits. That causes them to break up. Instead, shake the pot a bit if necessary.
Amalia’s Aromatic Quince Preserve
While the following recipe isn’t in our book, it is delicious and comes directly from Dorothy’s notes of her conversation with Amalia:
One kilogram + 200 g quince (the extra 200 grams is to accommodate loss when seeding and peeling)
Wash and peel the quince. Save the peelings.
Quarter and clean out the seeds, then cut in large pieces and place in a cooking pot.
Place the skin peelings in another pot, cover with water and cook until the skins are soft. The water will absorb the aroma of the skins.
When the skins are soft, throw them out and pour the liquid through a sieve and into a container.
Pour the liquid into the pot with the cut up quince.
Heat to the boiling point, then remove immediately and cover with a lid in order to give the fruit color. The quince should still be a little hard.
Let stand overnight.
Remove the quince from the cooking water into another container.
To the cooking water add 2 cups water
For each kilogram of quince, add 800 grams sugar to the water and cook until the sugar has dissolved. Then pour the sugar water over the quince and let stand overnight.
Cook over medium heat. Do not stir. Instead, shake the pan a bit. Skim off foam as needed. Cook until the quince has turned a rosy color, then turn off the heat. (At this juncture walnuts may be added which give an added flavor.) Let cool overnight.
The next day: Cook again over medium heat. Do not stir. Instead, shake the pan a bit. Skim off foam.
Test readiness: To test when it is ready, take a teaspoon and place a drop of liquid on the fingernail of your thumb. If it does not roll off, it is ready. Another test is with a spoon to see if the liquid stays separated in the pan.
Filling the containers: The glass containers must be sanitized and warm. Amalia's way to warm the already clean containers is to boil water in a kettle and pour the hot water into the jars, then discard the water. The jars will have the right temperature for filling.
The jars must be filled all the way to the top - no air space. After filling use a teaspoon to stir each container to remove air bubbles, then close the jars tightly with lids and turn them upside down and place on a towel.[Lavash editor’s note: this is a common method for making preserves in Europe and Armenia. It is different from the US canning recommendations, which requires boiling in a water bath if you will store the preserve on the shelf. Skipping this step, simply store the preserves in the refrigerator.) Cover the upside down jars with a towel to maintain temperature.
Note: The color should be a rich purple and this is achieved from the way the quince is cooked. Otherwise it will look bland and pale.
Another note: Kate asked about which murabba used lye for texture: There are only four preserves which use lye (alum), available at pharmacies, and it is always added at the last stage. They are pumpkin, watermelon rind, green walnuts and a small eggplant.