Honeyed Sweets from North Africa
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It was back in 1960 or 1961, sometime in-between those years that my wife, Freda, and I welcomed guests from Morocco to our home. Idris and Amina were the first Moroccans I had ever met. Idris, a member of the long-standing Kittani family was a professor in Casablanca, while his wife’s family hailed from the historic city of Fez. Our Toronto home became the meeting place of the Arab world of the east and Idris and Amina’s Arab world of the west.
Their two-week sojourn in Toronto was a time of learning and fun. We felt like one big family. There were so many commonalities between us. We communicated in Arabic albeit, the Moroccan dialect took some time to understand. Our priorities were the same – family and friends were important and were the essence of how one carried on his life, despite the daily grind.
Of course, without saying, the Arab code of honour that involved hospitality and generosity was ever present. Those first few days, my wife outdid herself with spreads of Syrian Arab food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Kittanis loved her baklawa and her ghurayba shortbread cookies, her nammura and her ma’moul, all which she served with the traditional demi-tasse of Arabic coffee. I remember my wife telling Amina that she always made sure to have a large container of qatr (sugar-based syrup) on hand to use for impromptu desserts she would decide to make. Amina said she did the same – but always had a cache of honey set aside, often flavoured with orange blossom water.
And there was the difference. Amina’s North African Arab sweets were honey based, while ours were normally drenched in qatr. She insisted that since we had made her feel that our home was hers, it was now her turn to invite us to a week of the sweets of Morocco. And this she did, preparing honey drenched cookies and pastries whose flavours and tastes took us to Arab North Africa and taking honey to a new level in every sweet we ate. They were absolutely delicious, some sweeter than others, but all infused with the flavour of this, nature’s sweetener.
The delicious desserts of North Africa are not the invention of today but whose history, in the main, goes back to Moorish Spain when in the palaces and villas of the wealthy or in those of the middle class, no table of any self-respecting host would be without trays of succulent sweets.Today, these desserts are usually offered, as Amina did for us, with refreshing mint tea usually sometime after a meal, and if in North Africa, in often attractive Moorish type surroundings. And it was these sweets that I sought out on my many trips to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and even to Egypt – honey, honey, and more honey.
Two specific evenings in North Africa come to mind. One in Rabat, Morocco’s capital and the other at the home of friends in Tunisia at the end of Ramadan. Both times I had been invited for a diffa, a feast of a medley of multiple national dishes set out for us amid the soft strains of Andalusian songs and music. Late in the evening, after the fairy tale feast, platters of the most prized of North African honey-laced sweets were laid before us – from among them – braiwat-an almond-filled honey-dipped pastry; makroodh– date filled squares in their honey syrup; shabakiya or grioche-plaited pieces of dough dipped in orange blossom flavoured honey.
Through cities and towns throughout my travels through the North African Arab countries, countless shops and stalls could be seen with their trays piled high showcasing varieties and varieties of their glittering honey or syrup coated sweets and pastries. Baghrir street vendors are found everywhere and anywhere flipping over these ‘Arab pancakes’ and then soaking them in honey.
These two invitations set me on the road to discover the joys of North African sweets. Later I made more than a dozen trips to that part of the world. When I returned home, I always replicated them with my own versions. These below are a sample of these ageless sweets, most modified somewhat by the utensils and ingredients of the modern age.
Semolina and Honey – Algerian Tamina
I first had a taste of Algerian tamina in a most unexpected way. We had stopped in Tlmecen to refresh ourselves for our continuing 3-hour bus ride. While absorbing the historical Arab-Andalusian atmosphere around us, the textiles, and handicrafts, we suddenly became part of an impromptu celebration. One of the families had just announced the birth of a new baby, and plates of tamina were being passed around. Despite our status as tourists, the family happily invited us to enjoy this tasty, toasted semolina sweet.
Tamina is one of those desserts that are part of North African culture. It is traditionally served on Mawloud, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and, also, given to a mother upon giving birth. The belief is that the semolina represents sustenance, the honey- the sweetness of love for one another, and butter – rich blessings from God.
1 cup of ground medium or coarse semolina or farina
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons honey mixed with 1 teaspoon orange blossom
ground cinnamon (garnish)
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (garnish)
1/4 cup blanched whole almonds (garnish)
1/4 cup raisins (garnish)
In a saucepan toast the semolina over medium-high heat. Stir semolina continuously all the while shaking the pan in circular motion to get a consistent and even golden brown colour. Pour into a bowl & set aside. This should take about 3 to 4 minutes.
In the same saucepan, melt the butter then remove from the heat. Stir in the honey until well blended with the butter.
Stir in the semolina and combine well.
Spread onto serving dishes and decorate with the cinnamon, nuts, and raisins.
Almond and Date Stuffed ‘Thin Pancakes’ – Baghrir
Makes 10 to 12
This Moroccan sweet makes a great dessert or breakfast dish. Best served with hot mint tea.
1 cup flour
1 cup fine semolina
1 package yeast along with 1 teaspoon sugar, dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water
and allowed to stand for 10 minutes
2 cups warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2-pound dates, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted and ground blanched almonds
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
4 tablespoons honey, melted and mixed with 2 tablespoons butter
Place flour, semolina, egg, yeast, water and salt in a food processor and process into a smooth light batter, adding more water if necessary. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, in a bowl, make a filling by combining the dates, almonds, 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon and the orange blossom water, then set aside.
Grease a non-stick crepe pan and heat over low. Pour about 2 tablespoons of batter and quickly spread to cover bottom of pan to create a pancake. Cook for 1 minute on one side or until bubble appear and break, then slide onto a plate, cooked side down. Repeat until batter is finished. Do not overlap baghrir.
Spread filling on baghrir then roll and cut in half. Sprinkle with honey, remaining cinnamon and icing sugar then serve.
Almond Butter – Amalou
While my wife would put out the staple spreads of a healthy Syrian breakfast, labna, the traditional yogurt spread, olives, and zaatar mixed with olive oil, Amina would add a dish of amalou, a thick mixture of almonds and honey and argan oil that looked like a spread of peanut butter. To compensate for our guilt of emptying the plate each time it was put on the table, she would remind us that amalou, a southern Morocco specialty, was healthy to eat thanks to the honey and argan oil in it.
1 cup blanched and pulverized toasted almonds
2 tablespoons pulverized walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
5 tablespoons honey
Thoroughly combine all ingredients; then serve as a spread on toasted or hot bread for breakfast or as an after-meal dessert.
Date Cookies – Tunisian – Makroodh
Makes about 25 pieces
Dates for which Tunisia is renowned are often, such as in this case, used as an ingredient in sweets.
2 1/2 cups semolina flour
1 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely chopped dates
1 cup honey
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
2 cups oil
2 tablespoons icing sugar
Combine semolina, butter, vanilla, eggs, and salt; then knead until dough is smooth, adding a little water if necessary. Shape dough into about 2 1/2-inch-long cylinders, one inch in diameter; then take one at a time in palm of hand and make a small trench. Place about 1/2 teaspoon of dates in each trench; then close and pat into rectangular cookies. Allow to rest on a tray for one hour.
In the meantime, make syrup by placing in a saucepan honey, water, and orange blossom water; then, stirring constantly, bring to boil. Set aside but keep warm over low heat.
Heat oil in a saucepan; then deep-fry the makroodhs over medium heat until they turn golden brown, adding more oil if necessary.
Dip hot makroodhs in honey syrup, then drain and allow to cool. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve.
Semolina With Honey – Laassida
Serves 6 to 8
If a new bride in Morocco wants to please her husband, the first morning after their wedding she will cook him laassida, swimming with honey.
3/4 cup semolina
3 cups cold water
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoons orange blossom water
1/2 cup honey
Place semolina and water in a saucepan; then stirring constantly bring to boil. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter and salt; then stirring constantly to make sure semolina has not stuck to the bottom of saucepan, cook over medium/low heat for about 10 minutes or until semolina is cooked, adding more water if necessary.
Combine in another small saucepan remaining butter, orange blossom water and honey; then heat. Transfer to a gravy bowl; then set aside.
Pour semolina into a serving bowl; then spoon half the honey mixture over top. Serve hot along with remaining honey mixture with each diner adding some of the mixture to taste.
Griouche or Halwa Shabakiya
Makes about 30 pieces
Shabakiya or in the Moroccan dialect ‘ch’bakkiyya’ are served at the breaking of the fast during Ramadan with harira, a hearty and thick soup, usually the first food item to end the fast.
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted and finely ground
3 cups flour
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
1 pinch saffron dissolved in 2 tablespoons warm water
1 package yeast along with 1 teaspoon sugar, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
and let stand for 10 minutes
2 cups liquid honey
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
In a mixing bowl, add the ground sesame seeds, flour, egg, vinegar, butter, olive oil, 1 tablespoon of the orange blossom water, the dissolved saffron and the yeast solution then knead into a dough. Cover and allow to rest for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
Roll out the dough as thinly as possible then cut into 3 in x 3 in squares. Roll out each square and score into 1/2-inch strips leaving the ends attached. Lift each alternate strip with the finger of one hand then, with the other hand, pull lightly the other strips and gather the strips together, pinching them slightly to form the halwa shabakiya. Cover and let sit for 30 minutes.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the honey with the remaining orange blossom water, mixing them well then leave over very low heat.
In a large-sized saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium. Deep-fry until golden, turning them over once. Place the hot halwa shabakiya in the honey making sure to coat on each side, then remove with slotted spoon allowing any excess honey to drip off.
Place the halwa shabakiya on a serving platter and sprinkle evenly all over with the toasted sesame seeds then serve.
Fruit Dessert – Halawah bil-Fawaaki
During Ramadan, the enticing sweets one sees for sale in great abundance in all cities of North Africa are made delicious by being soaked in honey syrup or with honey as an ingredient.
1 large plum, diced
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and diced
1 medium peach, diced
1 cup diced cantaloupe
1/4 cup raisins, rinsed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup honey, melted
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup couscous
2 tablespoons crushed pistachios
Combine plums, apple, peach, cantaloupe, raisins, lemon juice, honey and water in a saucepan then cover and bring to boil then cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add butter, cinnamon and couscous, then, stirring often, cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until couscous is done, adding a little water if necessary.
Transfer to a serving platter then allow to cool for 1 hour. Sprinkle with pistachios just before serving.
Honey Dipped Pastry – Braywaat
Makes approximately 36 pieces
Unlike in the eastern Arab lands where honey is rarely utilized in the preparation of pastry, in Morocco and generally throughout North Africa, this bee product is extensively used in the preparation of sweets. The tradition of using honey to create mouth-watering desserts was brought to North Africa by the expelled Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula.
1 cup blanched toasted almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound package filo dough, thawed according to package directions
2 cups cooking oil
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
2 cups honey
Place almonds and sugar in a blender, then blend until the almonds turn semi-fine. Stir in cinnamon and butter; then set aside.
In a small bowl, beat egg then set aside.
Cut each filo sheet into two, lengthwise, then place around 1 tablespoon of almond mixture near the right-hand bottom corner of each half-sheet. Fold sheet in half lengthwise over the filling, then fold closed sheet upward into a 3 by 2-inch rectangle or a triangle shape. Brush seams with egg and set aside.
In a saucepan heat oil over medium and fry the braywaat in batches until braywaat until light golden, turning them over once.
In the meantime, place orange blossom water and honey in a saucepan and thoroughly heat, then lower heat to very low. Remove brawaat from oil with a slotted spoon, then place in honey for few minutes. Remove braywaat from honey then place in a strainer until honey drains. Transfer to a serving platter.