Algeria ❀ Makrout (honey and almond pastries)

I know I promised some fans a spicy couscous recipe today, but along the way I got seduced by some Algerian pastries.  They fluttered their eyelashes at me winningly, and I melted like so much warm honey.  I just couldn’t resist switching to traditional desserts for a week – hopefully you’ll find them equally seductive!

Algeria is a big country, and once again the cuisine differs quite a lot depending on where you find yourself.  Couscous is the staple everywhere, but the sauce or stew it is served with varies from region to region.  Whole roast lamb cooked on a spit, fresh dates and fiery merguez sausage are only some of the goodies you’d be eating on a trip to Algeria.  There are a lot of Berber and Turkish Ottoman influences, found in dishes such as flatbread and pita bread.  But the French seem to have left a few things behind as well, notably a love of baguettes.  This site goes into all the fascinating detail far more knowledgeably than I can, and includes a few recipes should you want to make a whole meal of it.

But national dishes come both savoury and sweet, and the Algerians also seem to consume an impressive amount of cookies, cakes and pastries.  As usual, my first port of call was a friend from the country, and it was Faten who first pointed me in this direction:

Couscous is not really seen as a unique ‘speciality’…Algiers and its surroundings is more known for its cakes – that is a real Algerian speciality because you don’t have it elsewhere.

From there, it didn’t take me long to dig up a few recipes for makrout, one of the most ‘Algerian’ of sweets, if such a thing can be said to exist in a region where cuisines have crossed borders to such delicious effect.  Makrout are festive food, often cooked at Eid to break a month of Ramadan fasting.  They look and taste a little like baklava, but have their own quirks:  they are flavoured with orange blossom water and made with semolina, not filo pastry.  They can be filled with either dates or ground almonds, before being fried and drenched in honey.  Knowing already about my fear of cooked fruit, you can imagine which filling I went for… ;-)

I’ve slightly adapted this recipe, which comes with a helpful illustrated tutorial.  I found makrout a little tricky to make (you’ll notice they look nothing like those in the tutorial!), so I’ve included a few tips to help you avoid my pitfalls.  I’d never cooked with semolina before, and was a little intimidated until I figured out that it was basically just flour – but flour made from durum wheat, to make it a little more granular.  I like the texture, and can see why a lot of cultures use it for cooking desserts.

What Did I Need?

For the dough:
350g fine or medium semolina
35g flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
160g melted butter (or vegetable oil if you really have to!)
2/3 cup orange flower water (you can get this at most Asian grocers – dilute according to instructions on packaging)

For the filling:
150g ground almonds
60g sugar (I used brown sugar)
1 1/2 tablespoons orange flower water
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

To finish:
vegetable oil, for frying
340g honey
1 tablespoon orange flower water
toasted almond flakes, for decorating (optional)

How Did I Do It?

1. Oil the semolina. Blend the semolina, flour and salt. Add the melted butter and use your hands to toss the mixture for several minutes to ensure that each grain of semolina is individually coated with the butter. If possible, cover and set the mixture aside for an hour or longer before proceeding.

2. Make the dough. Use your hands to gradually work the orange flower water into the semolina mixture. Don’t knead, but do rake the semolina and mix/squeeze with your fingers to incorporate the liquid until a moist ball of dough forms and holds shape. (If necessary, you can add a little more water, a few teaspoons at a time, to achieve this.) Cover, and set the dough aside to rest for at least an hour while you make the almond paste in the next step.

3. Make the almond paste. Mix the ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon, butter and orange flower water until they form a smooth paste.

4. Shape the pastries. Divide the almond paste into four portions, and shape each portion into a thin log about the diameter of your finger.  If it doesn’t form a paste, but rather breaks into smaller pieces, don’t worry – we’ll deal with this in the next step.

Divide the dough into four portions. Take one portion, and gently shape it into a log the same length as a log of almond paste. Make a deep canal that runs the length of the dough and insert the almond filling.  If the filling is crumbly rather than solid, sprinkle it inside and pack tightly.  Gently pinch the dough around the filling to enclose it (pinch off and discard any excess dough on the ends), then roll the dough back and forth a few times on your work surface to seal and smooth it.

Decorate the roll of uncooked pastry by gently pressing the length of the roll with your fingers or palm to slightly flatten it.  You can also score the top of the dough with the dull side of a knife to make a pattern or lines to further decorate it.

Slice the log with diagonal cuts into 3 cm wide pieces. Transfer the cookies to a baking sheet or tray, and repeat the process with the remaining almond paste and dough. Lightly press the sides of the pastries if needed, to make sure the filling is packed as solidly as possible and won’t leak out.  Leave the cookies to rest, uncovered, for 30 minutes or longer before cooking.

5. Cook the makrout. You will need a deep pot for frying and a smaller pot for honey.  Place 1″ of vegetable oil in your pot over medium heat. At the same time, heat 2 cups of honey in a smaller pot until very hot but not boiling. Add a tablespoon of orange flower water and remove from the heat.

When the oil is hot (a test piece of scrap dough should simmer rapidly when placed in the oil), fry the pastries in batches until golden.  Immediately transfer the fried cookies to the hot honey and allow the cookies to soak for a few minutes while the next batch cooks. Transfer the honey-soaked pastries to a plate.  If desired, garnish them while hot with toasted, slivered almonds.

Allow the makrout to cool for several hours before storing in an airtight container.

So How Did It Taste?

Decadent.  A nutty, chewy centre surrounded by crumbly, sweet and perfumed pastry, with a little crunch from the almonds.  For the South Africans reading this, think of a flower- and nut-flavoured koeksuster.  Mmmmmm.  I’ve just had some for dinner (my second helping today), and now Joe will have to knock down one of the apartment’s walls before I’ll be able to make it outside tomorrow.  Actually, because the pastry itself doesn’t contain sugar, it’s not sickly sweet…but still best nibbled with a cup of tea rather than consumed all in one sitting!

If the above recipe looks like a coronary on a plate, or like too much of a faff, there are two variations I would suggest:

For a healthier option:  bake, rather than deep-fry, the pastries, as this blogger does.  In fact, I might do this next time to cut down on the fat.  It also looks easier to do, although frying is still more traditional.

For an easier option:  Cook makrout without the filling.  Just form the pastry into little balls instead, and then follow the rest of the recipe.  They’ll still have more than enough flavour.

As usual, Joe has the last word:

I can’t really taste the orange flowers, but the honey just infuses the whole thing with flavour.  And did you like the almonds I toasted for you?

Hey,  I never said I did it without any help, did I? ;-)

We’ve been eating our way around North Africa and Central Asia since the blog began, but next week it’s off to a different part of the world.  I’m leaving most very small countries out (sorry, Andorra!) so next week it’s Angola.  As much as I love almonds and butter, I’m looking forward to something distinctly African next week.

Stay tuned!

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