A tray of Moroccan mesemmen, mlawis (mlaouis) and rghayef (rghaef)

How to make Moroccan Msemmen: recipe and tutorial

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North African Msemmen is a soft of laminated dough which comes in different forms It can also be laminated with different types of fat. Msemmen can be stuffed or unstuffed but surely cooked in a pan with a heavy bottom. When they are baked or fried in oil, we call them Rghayefs, although these days people are calling those msemmen as well.

This is a basic recipe for the dough and how to shape it. We do make them plain or stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings.

 

A tray of Moroccan mesemmen, mlawis (mlaouis) and rghayef (rghaef)

A tray of Moroccan mesemmen (middle), mlawis or mlaouis (left and right), rghayef or rghaef (front and back). Credit @Nada Kiffa

Practice makes perfect

Msemmen and rghaif take a bit of practice to get right. It requires getting the feel and the texture required and a few tricks to get the lamination right. Both comes with practice but I can ensure you, it’s worth it. Once you get the hang of it, it will be as if you’ve done it all your life.

If you plan to make a large batch for freezing, I suggest you add a pinch of yeast to the dough. They’ll come wonderful after reheating them. For msemmen to regain crispiness, it’s imperative to reheat them in a pan or in the oven (not a microwave). 

The pinch of yeast is not added when the intention is to make baked rghaifs.

Fine semolina flour vs fine semolina

It is important that you use fine semolina flour in the dough as well as during the lamination as it gives an authentic texture and help separating the layers while they puff.

Plain msemmen square served with honey

Plain Msemmen square served with honey. Credit @Nada Kiffa

Now it’s worth knowing that depending on countries and brands, fine semolina can be a fine wheat flour with a rough texture (flour) as opposed to all purpose flour. It can also refer to the fine calibre of semolina (fine semolina used to make Revani or Basboussa).

Here is a photo to help you understand the difference. Both are used to make msemmen dough but it might require different time and method to work the dough.

Fine semolina flour, called la’hrech or finot in Morocco, is a bit yellowish with a slightly coarser texture as compared to the usual plain flour.

Fine semolina flour called finot on the left. Fine semolina on the right

Fine semolina flour or finot on the left. Fine semolina on the right


Ingredients
Serves 8 
Prep: 40 – Rest: 20 min- Cooking: 3 min/pancake

Main dough

  • 250 g of strong white bread flour
  • 250 g of fine semolina flour (not the coarse semolina)
  • 1/2 tsp of dried instant yeast (optional, see note)
  • 1 1/2 tsp of salt
  • 260-290 ml of water, lukewarm

For shaping and laminating

  • 100 g of butter, at room temperature with a cream-like texture or melted and cooled
  • 150 ml of vegetable oil
  • 200 g of fine semolina flour or fine semolina

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Preparation

Prepare the dough

In a bowl, place the flours, salt and yeast (each in one side). Add the water to 3/4 and start mixing either by hand or by machine.

The dough need to be thoroughly kneaded to become smooth and soft without being sticky. It takes about 20 minutes by hands and 10 minutes with a KitchenAid.

To achieve the desired dough texture, gradually add the other 1/4 of water according to the absorption of the flours used.

You could leave the dough, covered, to rest for 15 min (in cold weather) or skip this step if the weather is too warm.

Shape the dough balls

Oil your hands as well as the dough. Depending how big or small you want the Msemmens to be. Form smooth dough balls the size of a small apricot to the size of a large egg. At all times, you should keep the outer dough as well as the hands oiled.

The way how I will describe it might help you go through this step: try to push the dough between your thumb then try to strangle the dough from the top or what should look like a little head peeking.

Pull that bit of dough with your other hand to detach it from the main dough. Make sure to form a dough ball by smothering its bottom.

Place each dough ball on a generously oiled surface. We usually use a big tray where we place them all. Roll the dough balls in oil and cover with foil or a plastic. Set aside to rest for 15 min.

Clean a flat and smooth work surface and place the ingredients for laminating the Moroccan pancakes next to you. I suggest you also keep a kitchen roll handy.

Although Oil the worktop, flatten the dough very thinly with your hands. Make sure you flatten it to reach a large rectangular or square form (practice makes perfect). Sometimes we want it rather round-shaped but not for today. The dough is each to stretch when well kneaded so fixing the corners won’t be a big deal.

It’s important that you avoid tearing the dough while you flatten it and stretch in order to get a see-through thin layer.

After you flatten the dough ball with one set of fingers, you will need the other set to stretch it outwards; we go from the centre towards the edges  which should also be equally thin and see-through.

Keep your fingers as well as the work surface oiled at all times.

Shape Msemmen/Msimnates

In this shaping step, you should always remember these rules:

  • The thinner and even the first rectangle of dough is the better.
  • Always remember the rule of thirds (see below). 
  • After you shape a square of folded layers, you need to leave the dough to rest for at least 10 min. It helps getting on with the next flattening step.


The edges can be stretched with fingers to form a perfect tall rectangle where all layers are covering each others neatly.

1- Once the dough ball is flattened to a rectangle of thin and transparent layer, smear with a bit of butter and sprinkle with fine semolina flour. 

Visually divide this rectangle into 3 thirds from top to bottom and from right to left. Both surrounding thirds will have to be brought back to the third located in the centre. That’s pretty much the logic of shaping a Msemmen square.

2- Bring the top third to the middle and fold it equally on it by stretching any edge. Bring the bottom third on top of the two and make sure it’s covering the first 2 thirds.


3- Sprinkle with a bit of fine semolina flour and place a few dots of butter as well and bring the third bit of dough from the right into the middle then the left third to the middle to close the square.

5- Set aside for a few minutes, slightly oiled from the surface and covered with cling film.


6- To couple Msemmen (a standard msemmen is built with 2 msemmens actually, one inside the other), just place one msemmen slighly flattened in the middle of another see-through layer of dough and repeat the procedure. Set aside when you carry on with the rest of the dough.

A coupled Msemmen for a better texture

7- Flatten each formed square again so the layers become even thinner. Avoid tearing the dough or poking holes in the square of dough while giving it extra centimetres. If you are making a single Msemmen, you stop here for now.

8- The Msemmen or R’ghaif squares are ready to be oil-fried (single Msemmen), baked (we do that when we stuff 3 or 6 msemmen inside each others) or pan-fried (single or coupled Msemmen).

9- Flip each Msemmen a couple of times from each side. They’re better pan-fried over medium heat. Bring the heat down if the pan is too hot.

9- In some region, Msemmen gets somewhat crushed during the first couple of seconds between the hands to allow the steam to escape and keep the layers separated. Alternatively, you can use a flat spatula and run it right across the inside of the msemmen. You can skip this bit if it’s to fiddly for you.

Once you become expert, you can tackle the giant Msemmens as they’re sold in our streets..

Giant standard Msemmen square sold in the streets of Morocco

Giant standard Msemmen square sold in the streets of Morocco. Credit @Nada Kiffa

Always serve warm with a hot beverage (tea mostly).

Notes

1- Small msemmens the size of 10 cm or less do not need to be coupled or doubled.

2- After you have finished shaping a Msemmen square, make sure the work surface or your hands do not have a lot of semolina flour as this will disturb you while flattening the dough for the next one. This is where the kitchen roll comes in handy.

3- Msemmen or meloui with yeast in the dough is last longer. It’s even freezer-friendlier than a non-yeasted dough verison. Some like the texture as well while others like the other version.


How to clean and freeze raw artichokes

Artichokes are one of the cheapest seasonal vegetables in Morocco. When I left Morocco, little did I know that I will get to miss them and cherish them. They happen to be very pricey in all the countries I lived in.

As a Moroccan, to satisfy my craving in artichokes, I need at least 4 firm units. I need to peel them myself, nibble on a couple before I get to boil the rest..Compute the same need to cover the need of a large family…Yes, we’re in love with this healthy vegetable.
We like to eat artichokes raw, we serve them in salads (mostly boiled or steamed), in tagines cooked on their own or mixed with other seasonal vegetables.
If you have tried fresh artichokes, you won’t buy them tinned anymore. I just can’t relate the two products.
That much of artichokes for one family meal.
The good thing about heads of artichokes (the most edible part) is that you can parboil them and freeze them. That’s what we do, to keep the bounty for the rest of the year.
Wild artichokes. Nowadays, we buy them already peeled and cleaned to my mother’s confort.
We have two types of artichokes in Morocco. The common one is globe artichoke while the wild artichoke (beldi) has lost its fame (who would want to hurt herself handling it).
So here is how to tackle a common raw globe artichoke, heads on, no fear
What you need
– Fresh artichokes
– One lemon cut into two
– A bowl of cold lemony water.
– A good chef’s knife.
How to clean artichokes (raw)
Cut the long stalk from the base. We peel that too and only keep its heart. Peel the first leaves until the white artichoke heart shows. Rub it with lemon.
Now start peeling off the outer leaves, one after the other for the 2/3ds until you get to the softer ones. We tend to nibble on the white bits on the top of these leaves.
Now you should be left with this: soft leaves, artichokes hearts and the “beard” inside.
Cut through the leaves just 1/2 cm from the artichoke heart (the most edible part). Go all around to split this part from the leaves.
With the tip of the chef’s knife, carve the heart of the artichoke to remove the “beard”. Rub the heart with lemon and place it in lemony water. You could do the same for your finger as some of them must have darken by now.
By now, you should have peeled off and trimmed the hearts of artichokes and there is no beard or green bit left on top but it’s ok to leave a few millimetres of the soft artichoke leaves to keep a sort of crown. This is actually useful when we stuff the hearts at a later stage.
Leave the artichoke hearts in the lemony water for 20 minutes and then use them.
How to prepare the artichokes for the freezer
Cover the artichokes with water and lemon (about 1/2 lemon for 1 litre of water). Parboil until they’re al dente.
Drain and set aside to cool.
Store in plastic bags.
Use straight from the freezer to the stew or steam and cool again for salads.

Mastering many Moroccan dishes by mastering just a few master recipes

The good thing about Moroccan food is once you know how master recipes work, you can decline them by season and make plenty of dishes without having to look for a written recipe anymore!

Whether you cook these Moroccan dishes using a heavy cooking pot or a tagine, It will only differ in the cooking time and the quantity of liquid added during the cooking process, but the “spicing” logic remains the same. So make sure you check these posts  This is the reason I wrote a few post on how to get you there:

Many Moroccan tagines are cooked M’qalli style with small variations in some cases. They just need coriander, turmeric, ginger, salt and pepper, ginger, saffron and olive oil.

This is an example of how you can master a few stews by mastering just one: learn how to make Moroccan broad beans (fava beans) stew or tagine and you would have learned how to make:

  • Green peas tagine

 

 

  • Artichokes tagine (globe artichoke or wild artichoke)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • A version of the potatoes tagine (tagine dial lebtata bezzitoun), you could add paprika

 

 

  • Courgette tagine (tagine dial guera’a khedra), just add thyme or/and oregano which can be cooked with chicken, red meat or served vegetarian.

 

 

  • Some tagines are just associations of vegetables which are usually available in the same season make the best of dishes. They are also cooked the same way as the master recipe.

 

A dash of paprika is the only addition to the master recipe in order to make this
medley of vegetables tagine
  • Or a combination such as this one

 

Courgette, green peas, fennel and artichoke tagine garnished with
different local olives

 

  • Or just a limited mix of vegetables..

 

Another green peas, tomatoes and olives tagine

No wonder our grandparents cooked without piling cooking books or even writing down any.

So find the common spicing combination between all the Moroccan dishes you know and see what you can come up with. I think this is an easy method to learn faster.

 


Cooking Moroccan stews Part 2: how to handle a stew/marqa from start to finish

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I have witnessed an interesting discussion between a few people on whether Moroccan cooking requires browning meat and birds or not.

In the panel, there were Moroccan cooking amateurs, Moroccan home cooks as well as some Moroccan food experts. One thing for sure, the discussion shows the diversity of Moroccan food..

While this was happening, I did spot a small confusion related to the word “browning” which maybe got lost in translation.

So, do we brown the meat or not? when do we add the spices? when do we add the oil? how the we start cooking a Moroccan dish with marq’a (sauce) from scratch anyway?

There are few practices depending on the regions and sometimes depending on the families, a sort of secret of the trade.

The old method of cooking consisted of making a sort of runny spice rub then rubbing the pieces of meat or the bird with it. They will be then left to infuse all the spices.

The spice rub will be slightly liquefied with water and not oil as opposed to other methods around the world. Then the cook moves to the first method of cooking mentioned below. Do people still do that? I can’t answer for all the Moroccans out there unfortunately. I can only say that some still take time to pre-marinate their meats and that’s good news.

The boiling method

Unlike the browning/searing method commonly used in some Western cooking, we would like to achieve 2 things here:

  • Make sure the meat absorbs all the flavours from the spices and all what’s around it. The browning method will rather stop this process as the meat develops a crust that will disturb this process. While people believed that searing meat traps the moist inside and makes it tender, cooking this way as well makes the meat easy to pull off the bone especially when it takes time to cook and goes beyond the stringy point.

Bear in mind that meat in Moroccan cooking should reach a falling-off-the-bone sort of tenderness and should be cooked through.

  • Make sure the meat infuses its flavour in the sauce to make it even better (instead of adding bouillon). The slow cooking method in Moroccan cooking allows the concentration of flavours by the very end of cooking time.

In this method, we place the cooking pot over medium heat. We add a few spoons of water so anything that comes after does not stick. We start adding the pieces of meat or birds one by one and ideally not overlapping. Either we start layering the chopped onions or the meat.

Marinated meat, spices and onions are layered in a big cooking
pot without browning and cooking over low heat 

We carry on with the salt and other spices, onions, herbs, garlic (if the recipe call for that) and we pour enough water to cover the ingredients. Give the mix a few minutes until in starts bubbling. Add the fat (smen, olive oil..) from the sides of the pot. We cover the pot and reduce the heat.

In this method, it’s more like boiling the meat over low heat in a fragrant water. As the meat cooks and water reduces, the flavours concentrate as you are actually making your own bouillon.

If we are making a vegetable tagine, we wait until the meat cooks to add them to the sauce (we can pile them on top of the chicken and cook straight away altogether since chicken takes less time).

If the recipe calls for a few minutes of roasting, fish out the meat /bird which you place in the oven while you carry on reducing the level of liquid in the pot to reach a thick consistency.

Some people like to have a runny marq’a (sauce) to soak their bread in but some dishes really can’t taste that good if they’re not properly reduced, M’hammer or M’qalli are one of them.

In this case, we would start with boiling then we get to browning (throught roasting) and reducing (to concentrate flavours). We kind of reverse the process of the usual browning commonly known in the Western world.

Getting every bits from the pot and concentrating the flavours
at the end of the cooking

The reason why fat is added from the sides of the pot is to allow the meat to keep “communicating” with the spices (Ref: Khadija Bensdira who is a great reference in Authentic Moroccan cooking for decades, she covers all types of cooking accross Morocco).

This sort of cooking is called “Makhzani” in reference to the Royal Palaces who keeps the centuries old traditions alive.

It’s also one of methods followed by the old folks in my family.

A form of searing

Instead of starting with a few spoons of water in the pot. This method consists of adding a fat element (a mix of olive and vegetable oil) then onions and meat or meat and onions followed by spices. The ingredients are stirred and we cover the pot which should be on medium.

While searing meat to brown it is about high heat to caramelize the surface and form a crust, this Moroccan practice traps the moist into the pot by covering it. So can we still talk about searing and browning? In Moroccan, we refer to this step as Chahhar which intend that I infuse the meat with the other flavours around it, or Q’alli which has a hint of frying in it.

In this tagine, I started with heating the oil then I added onions, chicken and
spices which were covered for a few minutes until the onions are transparent

In this method, the ingredients render their own liquid and blend from a few seconds to a few minutes without any intention of browning the meat the conventional way. A bit of water can be added before we add the rest of it.

We top the ingredients with the necessary water needed and carry on the cooking as instructed in the recipe. 

Chicken does not take much time to cook so vegetables are
placed on top at the same time


This method is quite common and we do tend to use one of them depending on the dish.

Both methods give slightly different depth of flavours but the first method allows the meat or bird to take in some colouring from the spices used while the second one does not. Each one of them has its fans.

Browning

Fat is heated on a medium heat, comes in the meat with salt to be seared for a 5 to 7 minutes until the browning stage.

The rest of the ingredients will be added after this step and the rest is just like the methods above.

Fatima Hal, an international reference in Moroccan cooking has used this method in many of her recipes (See The Food of Morocco and Le Grand Livre de la cuisine Marocaine).

Browning is not a method used in the cooking of Fes and I can’t really tell if this is an old method as far as the cooking of “Imperial cities are concerned”. 

In his book ofDelicacies of the Table, the Best Foods and Types of Dishes” written by Ibn Razin al-Tujibi between 1228 and 1243, he mostly describes the 1st and 2nd cooking methods which happen to be the method I grew up familiar with.

Having said that, if you have difficulties to reproduce a dish you had in Morocco, one of the reason could be that the cook has started cooking the dish differently than what you may be doing. Knowing about it is a good starting point.


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