El behla’s anatomy: an old shortbread that’s worth knowing
Ghriyba is a sweet round shortbread that has been around in the Arab world (but also Persian, Turkish, Eastern European and Greek) for centuries. It travelled the world with their conquests (think Spanish and Mexican Polvorones and mantecados).
Ghraybeh, ghoraybeh, Kurabiye, ghreiba, ghrouiba, ghoraibi, ghriba(pronounce it “ghreyba”) are all words referring to a variety of that round-shaped sort of sweet which can be made of a humble combination such as butter/flour/sugar (just like a shortbread) or other elaborate combinations of ingredients (nuts, eggs, flavouring…etc). In Arabic, it’s mostly written the same way (غرّيبة)from Morocco to the Middle-East. The word in Arabic refers to “stranger”.
Today’s ghriyba is almost the same as the Egyptian Ghoraybeh or The Levantine Ghraybeh as far as the main ingredients are concerned. It only changes in shape and has a rather funny name: “El Behla” which means “silly”.
Now there are two stories behind that name:
- It’s a silly sweet because it can’t “behave” properly while baked as it cracks so fast. How funny that is because it’s also a sign of its success. If you don’t get the cracks, you can’t call it Ghriyba behla! Only good bakers can get that (without cheating that is).
- It’s a silly considering it a cheap thing due to its humble ingredients. Nowadays, sesame seeds, almonds and cinnamon have found their ways into the ingredient list. This has partially allowed this melt-in-the-mouth ghriyba to go back to the main list of highly appreciated Moroccan sweets.
For those Moroccans who are like my grandma (+90 years old), ghriyba behla has always been and will remain a favourite. I guess its texture has a lot to do with it considering its melting aspect. However, it is because at their times, this must have been a childhood sweet that they were able to get regardless of their “social class” and day of the year, unlike the almond sweets.
|These are traditional things we serve during funerals in Fes when people
pop up to offer their condolences . Ghriyba Behla is served on the left.
El Bahla has also other names: it’s called ghrieba lemremmla for its sandy texture, ghrieba dial smen (as it has a hint of our Moroccan cured and preserved butter) or ghrieba dial ezzit (ezzit in reference to the oil used in some versions).
I have recently encountered the name “sesame ghrieba” or “sesame shortbread”. Maybe this must be a new name (in the 2nd half of the 20th century) after the sesame seeds got added to it but this is definitely not the original name. This would be good news in case you are nut-allergic: just follow the original recipe.
Unlike Mantecados which are also very common in some areas of Morocco (brought with the Moors expelled from Andalucia), ghrieba el Behla has a golden colour and sometimes can take “extra colouring” which is what will happen if your oven is not a professional one (which is the case of Most of the Moroccans back home).
In Morocco where common public ovens are still available, a home-cook will send about a hundred (or more) of these ghriebas in one big baking sheet to bake. Considering the delicate dough and the attention it needs, it could take some extra “tanning” but let me tell you that it’s not damaged as long as it didn’t really burn..Even if it becomes a tiny bit hard, a rest of 24 hours will fix it.
|When I saw these ghriebas at my friend’s place before Eid El Fitr, I asked her to take some
to my grandma who was so happy to have Bahla on her tea table. Although it looks overbaked,
it’s still fine and acceptable for serving.
I have to say that I never had to make ghrieba el behla since it was always made by someone in the family and in all honesty, I never bothered since it has fallen out of favours for a while and I was happy it did: there is not a single Fassi house where it was not served and I was a bit blasée.
Never say never, I miss it so much that I decided to make it. It’s so delicate that it took me 3 recipes and a few tests to get it right.
I was not keen on kneading it for 30 minutes as it used to be done. I don’t own a meat mincer to shortcut that long kneading process (as some people do in Morocco). I was trying to figure out why on earth the new generation of homebakers decided to leave the dough for 24 hours in a closed pressure cooker (also a shortcut to avoid kneading) while others decided to leave it in the fridge overnight (but you still need a meat mincer in this later case).
The logic behind this dough is as follows:
- The ingredients should amalgamate and the flour should absorb all the fat, even more than a standard shortbread. This was the reason behind the old kneading method.
- The ghriyba should be melt-in-the-mouth to the teethless mouths. It should expand to get that curvy shape it’s meant to have.
|A special baking sheet for ghrieba (baked on the curvy the back side)
while the front side is for other bakes
Texture: since baking powder was invented and found its way to Morocco, it has enhanced the texture of El Behla. So that helped in the overall texture.
Fat: old recipes used a butter which was rather previously clarified, and sometimes, mixed with oil before being clarified. This sort of butter was used in baking and lasted more than the other fresh butter especially during hot days.
I had very old recipes using this sort of clarified butter (mixed with oil) and other recipes using clarified butter and oil. Bottom line: using both (oil and butter) is good to help the dough spread and keep the melt-in-the-mouth effect.
The crackling effect: baking the dough starting from the top grill then baking the bottom is a known trick even to all those who make the modern version of El bahla (sadly without the curvy look in most of the cases, even in Morocco). Now these cracks should not damage the edges and should stay within their limit.
The edges: due to the curvy look, edges should be thiner than the center, but slightly thick is also fine. This actually depends on how it’s been patted before the dough was placed in the baking pan. I have given more pressure in the middle with my finger while usually the light flattening of the small dough balls should be between the palms and that’s it. But it’s not big deal as the texture and the crack are all what matter.
The additions: toasted sesame seeds, fried pre-blanched almonds and cinnamon happen to be wonderful additions which made this ghriyba taste even better. I don’t see the addition of vanilla with good eyes though!
Curvy vs not curvy bottom: as I mentioned before, it has become quite common to see a flat-bottomed ghrieba behla in Morocco. So don’t feel guilty if you can’t make it curvy. Some people do not even bother buying the special baking sheet even in the heart of Morocco. It’s a fading tradition unfortunately. I was recently asked to explain what was that baking sheet for and the question came from a 20ish years old Moroccan girl.
The old recipes for ghrieba behla all came in ratios and ingredients were weighted using a bowl. I have converted the recipe used in this post.
Warning: you need to know your oven very well to make this recipe. The reason why I missed some tests is because the oven in my rented flat is a small bad overheating oven. But I ultimately got it in the 3rd round.
|Ghriyba from the back. Y = good ghrieba behla. N = not good at all
|From left to right: 1- Good shape and crackling patterns but needs more colour.
2- Acceptable but cracks are getting to the edges. 3- Bad shape and cracks.
4- Overbaked while inside is still pale, cracks too big
Makes 50 +++ ghriebas/depending on the size
Prep: 30 min – Resting time: 3 to 12 hours – Baking: 20 min/baking sheet
- 400 g all purpose flour (+/- 50 g)
- 100 g fine durum semolina flour
- 120 g of fine sugar or 50%-50% fine and icing sugar (add 30 g if you like it sweet)
- A pinch of salt
- 150 ml of melted butter (clarified in case butter contains less than +82% fat)
- 1/2 tsp of smen (Moroccan cured clarified and preserved butter)
- 100 ml of vegetable oil
- 14 g of baking powder
Optional (but highly advisable)
- 100 g of unhulled sesame seeds (Toasted in a pan and shake until they become fragrant)
- 100 g of blanched almonds, fried and coarsely ground
- 1 tsp of ground cinnamon ( I like the warmth it brings to the ghrieba)
|Sizes may vary by ideally, a good size should be
about 5 cm diametre (bottom left)
You can either knead this dough for 30 minutes (the old way) and bake it straight away or do the following:
Use either a food processor (for 5 minutes with a few stops), a Kitchen Aid for 10 minutes with speed 2 then 3 (fitted with a paddle) or just a worktop to mix all the ingredients except the baking powder. If you are using a food processor, Do not add the nuts at this stage.
The flour should absorb all the fat. Knead if for 10 minutes using the palm of your hands. You may use the paddles for 10 minutes but I tend to prefer the hands in this case as they give a better result.
|Make sure the flour is absorbed all the fat.|
Transfer the dough in a deep container and seal with a cling film. Place in the fridge for 3 to 12 hours.
Add the baking powder and the nuts and give the dough a few pulses during 1 min. Make sure that all the dough has been processed that way (use your hands to scrap off the sticky bottom, mix the dough and put it back if you have to).
Preheat the oven at 170 degrees C.
Form small dough balls of approx. 25 g (you will get the hang of it in no time and produce equal balls).
|I made the mistake of flattening the middle with my finger, avoid that and just place it
between the palm of your hands and flatten it lightly (for a traditional thin edge).
Lightly flatten the dough balls and place them on the baking sheet (no need to grease the sheets).
Place the baking sheet at the lower shelf of the oven and start by position “grill or broiler” for about 5 to 6 minutes until it start discolouring. It may not crack now but not fully.
Turn off the broiler and bake the bottom for about 15-20 minutes but bring the baking sheet to the middle of the oven. You will have to sacrifice one as it will break once you move it to check the colour of its bottom which should look nicely and uniformly golden (see picture below).
|A very nice golden colour from the bottom side of El behla|
Set aside to cool for a few minutes before transferring it on a grill to cool completely.
Store in airtight containers for up to 10 days and keep them in a dark place. Freeze the extra ghriyba especially if you live in a very hot area of the world.
Feeling in the mood of trying other Moroccan ghriybas (absolutely easy to make)?