If one learns nothing else of Moroccan food, know this: the sweet tooth of a red-blooded Moroccan runs deep and true. Although the concept of ‘dessert’ is not one that will be found in the home or anywhere else that doesn’t cater specifically to foreign travelers, pastries and other sweets are ubiquitous. They are sold in roadside stands, served before and during meals, or alongside a glass of mint tea at any time of the day.
One of the best known pastries, and the one that perhaps speaks most to Moroccan culinary culture, are the Gazelle’s horns. These crescent-shaped almond cookies are popular at weddings. The dough is wrapped around a small roll of almond paste and baked, then often sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Other popular cookies are gribhas, traditionally made with semolina flour. These are similar to macaroons, and can be made with sesame seeds, walnuts, or almonds. Fakkas and kachel are often served with tea, and usually made with fruit and/or nuts.
Purchasing sweets and pastries from street vendors is an excellent way to try something for the first time, as the sellers will usually sell whatever amount you want, even if it’s very small, and may even give you a free sample. Some sweets best experienced this way are m’hanncha and begrhir. M’hanncha, which means ‘the snake,’ is a long tube of dough that is fried and dusted with confectioner’s sugar and sprinkled with orange blossom water. This ‘snake’ can be cooked in a long rope and cut into pieces afterward, or wound into a coil. Begrhir, most commonly seen in the mornings, is a type of thin pancake, similar in appearance and taste to a French crepe.
A general rule of thumb when dealing with Moroccan sweets is that which is savory can also be made sweet.
A general rule of thumb when dealing with Moroccan sweets is that which is savory can also be made sweet. Couscous is the official Moroccan dish, usually made with vegetables, nuts, eggs, and the like. However, its cousin seffa is a couscous dish made with milk, cinnamon, sugar, and flavored water, such as rose or orange blossom. Rice can also be used in this manner. Bastila, a laborious and complex dish made of chicken, vegetables, and spice layered with sheets of warqa dough, has its sweet equivalent in keneffa. Keneffa is made in the same way as bastila, only with almonds and cinnamon, and dusted with sugar. It is baked as a large pie, then cut into wedges to serve.
Jabane is the most common type of nougat in North Africa. It is considered a specialty of the Moroccan Jewish population, as it is traditionally served at the end of Passover. Although the various recipes for nougat involve different ingredients, it is not unusual to find a variety of nuts, seeds, or even more exotic items like ginger, flax grains, or chickpeas, used in nougat recipes. Many Moroccans have childhood memories of a ‘Jabane man,’ who would stand near their school when it was let out for the day with a mountain of nougat atop a long stick. For a few cents, a chunk would be torn off and given to the young buyer.
When I was in Morocco some years back, one of my dearest memories of the trip involved nougat. Our bus had stopped for maintenance between one city and the other, and a pair of young men selling homemade nougat alighted our vehicle almost immediately, hawking their wares. Although it was already cut into chunks and wrapped in plastic instead of held high on a stick, it was nonetheless delicious, and served as a great refreshment on that long journey.
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