Churchkhela can look a bit odd and suspect at first glance, especially if you’re not sure what these odd, sausage-like Georgian food items are. Found throughout Georgian markets and fruit and veg shops, this is Georgia’s favourite sweet and one bite can transport you to this beautiful country in the Caucasus. If you’re wishing to experience this yourself, are wondering how to make churchkhela or just want an entertaining cooking project, then make sure to try out this churchkhela recipe.
Georgia is a country known for its cuisine, but it isn’t especially well-known for its sweets. In fact, Georgia really only has one “dessert” and that is churchkhela! Sometimes also spelt as churchxela, these strings of walnuts or hazelnuts covered in a thickened grape juice mixture called tatara is often referred to as Georgian snickers.
Resembling candlesticks, this Georgian candy is sweet but fairly nutritious compared to other desserts, especially when comparing sweets from neighbouring countries (namely, Armenia gata and Azeri baklava are far more fattening and have a higher sugar content).
If you’re intrigued by this iconic sweet and are want to learn how to make churchkhela, then you’ve come to the right place. This churchkhela recipe is sure to please!
What is Churchkhela?
Before I jump into the churchkhela recipe, we really should tackle just exactly what churchkhela is if you don’t have much of an idea. And the answer to this question is actually fairly simple: churchkhela are strings of nuts that are coated in a concentrated grape juice mixture and left to cure for a few days (and up to a few months!).
In Georgia, churchkhela is traditionally made with walnuts. If you’ve browsed a few of the other Georgian recipes we’ve covered, you will likely realise that walnuts future heavily in Georgian cuisine. In fact, there is even a saying in Georgia that says “Georgians put walnuts into everything except their wine.” To remedy this, however, they have figured a way to combine grape juice and walnuts — just not in an alcoholic setting!
To make churchkhela, walnuts are threaded on a string and then dipped into the grape juice mixture. They are then hung to dry for a day or two, dipped again, and then hung to cure for a few more days until consumed.
Churchkhela are typically made in late summer and early autumn around the time of the grape harvest (rtveli) and are then are left to cure for a few months before being consumed around Christmas – which is celebrated on the 7th of January along the lines of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Churchkhela Recipe: How to Make Churchkhela
Making churchkhela may seem like a complicated undertaking and the process can seem a bit long, however, it does actually only use three major ingredients and is relatively simple to make, you just need to be patient!
First things first, you need to make sure that you have top-quality ingredients. I made this churchkhela while being in Georgia where I was able to use fresh-pressed juice from Rkatsiteli grapes, but any kind of grape juice will do.
It doesn’t matter if you use white grape juice, red juice or a mixture of the two, but the one thing you need to ensure is that it is 100% juice with no added sugar and it’s not from concentrate.
The first step of making churchkhela is to make the tatara — the mixture of concentrated grape juice and flour that thickens beautifully to coat the strings of nuts. The traditional way to do this in Georgian cooking is to reduce down the grape juice for about an hour before stirring in flour to thicken the mixture and then dipping the churchkhela. I, personally, think this lends to a gummy, raw flour taste in the churchkhela that is undesireable. So I modified it slightly.
To make the tatara, begin by making a roux. Heat some oil in a saucepan over medium heat until just shimmering before whisking in flour in order to make a loose paste. Cook the roux, whisking constantly, until the flour darkens slight and a faint toasted smell begins to come off of it — about 3-5 minutes.
Slowly pour in the grape juice, whisking constantly in order to avoid lumps. The mixture will sizzle and seize up initially — don’t be alarmed. It will loosen as more liquid is added and make sure that you are constantly whisking to eliminating it clumping up.
Once the juice has been incorporated, bring the mixture to a boil (it will thicken considerably as soon as it starts to boil), reduce the heat to low and cook until the mixture is very thick (but still viscous) and reduced by about half — about one hour. Make sure to whisk occasionally to loosen the tatara and to ensure that it doesn’t scorch on the bottom.
While the tatara is cooking, it’s time to move onto phase two of this churchkhela recipe — stringing the walnuts. This is a fairly straightforward process where all you need is a needle and thread (and some walnut halves). Thread your needle (double up the thread so it makes a loop at the top — this will make dipping and hanging the churchkhela later much easier) and make a substantial knot at the end of the thread, a few centimetres from the bottom.
If you want a visual aid to this process, make sure to check out this recipe on Youtube!
String walnuts through the needle until you reach the bottom the thread, stacking them on top of each other and taking care to not leave any space in between. How many walnut halves you decide to put on each string really depends on how long you prefer your churchkhela to be. Traditionally, there are supposed to be 25 walnuts per churchkhela, however, I only make them with around 15 walnut halves because I find shorter ones a lot easier to manage when dipping and coating them with tatara.
Once you’ve strung your walnuts and the tatara is cooked, remove the tatara from the heat and allow to cool and set slightly for about five minutes. Then, take a string of walnuts and dip it into the tatara, holding it from the top loop and ensuring the walnuts are completely covered in a think layer of tatara.
Carefully lift the walnuts from the mixture and allow the excess to drip off for a few seconds before hanging in a safe place to dry — we used our laundry drying rack! Repeat this step with your remaining strings of walnuts.
Allow the churchkhela to set and dry for 24 hours before making a second batch of tatara and repeating the dipping process in order to make a thick layer of grape juice over the walnuts. Allow the churchkhela to dry for another 48-72 hours or until they are firm and not very soft. After that, they are ready to eat!
How to Eat Churchkhela
When we first arrived in Georgia, I had no idea how to eat churchkhela properly and was just eating it by taking bites off of the string. Little did I know that this is absolutely the wrong way to go about this! To eat churchkhela properly, you are meant to pull the string from the bottom and then cut it into pieces before consuming.
I believe there is no right or wrong way to eat churchkhela, however, it’s best not to let a Georgian see you eating it incorrectly!
How Long Does Churchkhela Last?
Churchkhela is meant to last for quite a long time and, in fact, few Georgians will eat it fresh. Traditionally, they are made September and October and left to age, wrapped in towels, for a few months to be consumed at Christmas and New Years. There is also lore that Georgian women would send churchkhela with their husbands to fight in wars as they don’t get bad.
That being said, however, I think that churchkhela is best consumed within a couple of weeks of making and I wouldn’t keep them for more than a few months. Keep in mind that as the churchkhela age, they will develop what looks like a fine white powder covering them that can easily be mistaken for mould. It is not. These simply sugar crystals that form as the candy ages.
- 120ml neutral oil, divided
- 150 grams flour, divided
- 2 litres 100% fresh grape juice, divided
- 250 grams walnut halves
- In a large saucepan, heat 60 millilitres of oil over medium heat until shimmering. Whisking, add 75 grams of flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the roux darkens slightly in colour and gives off a lightly toasted smell, about 3-5 minutes.
- Whisking constantly, pour one litre of grape juice over the roux. The mixture will sizzle and seize as the juice is added but will loosen as more liquid is incorporated. Whisk continuously while incorporating in order to avoid lumps.
- Bring mixture to a boil and reduce heat to low, allowing to simmer, whisking occasionally to break up any lumps and prevent scorching on the bottom, until very thick and reduced by about half. This grape juice mixture is called tatara in Georgian.
- While the tatara is cooking, prepare the walnut strings. Using a needle and thread, tie a knot at the end of a thread, leaving a few centimetres at the end, and string walnut halves until you reach desired length. Traditionally, churchkhela is made with 25 walnut halves, but you can make them any length you choose. I find that 15 walnut halves are the most manageable. Once strung, leave a few centimetres at the top of the string in order to be able to hang the churchkhela to dry once dipped.
- Once the tatara is cooked and thickened, remove from heat and allow to cool for about five minutes, or unit it has thickened a bit more but is still quite viscous.
- Working one at a time, fully submerge walnut strings into the tatara, holding onto the top string and keeping it from the grape juice mixture, using a spoon to completely cover the walnuts, if necessary. Lift string from tatara, allowing excess to drip off for a few seconds (do not shake off the excess) before hanging to dry in a safe place.
- Allow churchkhela to dry for 24 hours before repeating the process, making a second batch of tatara, and dipping one more time.
- Allow churchkhela to hang to dry for at least 48-72 hours before eating (they can be stored at room temperature for up to three months). Remove the strings by pulling it through the walnuts before consuming. The churchkhela will darken in colour slightly as they dry.
Churchkhela are traditionally made with walnuts (and sometimes hazelnuts) and grape juice, but they really can be made with any kind of nut and any kind of fresh fruit juice using the same guidelines in this recipe, so feel free to experiment and be creative!
So there you have it! A perfect churchkhela recipe that will have you enjoying Georgia’s favourite sweet in as little as three days! Though the process of making homemade churchkhela can be time-consuming, it is relatively simple and very rewarding and totally recommended as a fun project!
Have you enjoyed Georgian churchkhela before? Have any questions about this churchkhela recipe? Let us know in the comments!