Moroccan sellou, also called sfouf or less commonly zmita, is a rich, nutty confection of ground fried almonds, ground toasted unhulled sesame seeds, and browned flour. Flavored with cinnamon and anise and sweetened with honey or sugar, sellou might be presented as a powdery, decorated cone; as a rounded, molded mound; or as compact bite-sized balls or squares. Butter, which adds flavor and binds the ingredients, can be adjusted in quantity to vary the texture from dry and sandy to moist and pliable. My own preference is to make sellou moist enough to pack and eat by hand.
Although sellou might be served at any special occasion, it’s strongly associated with Ramadan, when it’s Moroccan tradition to enjoy this energizing treat when breaking the fast. It’s also customary to serve sellou when celebrating the birth of a baby, perhaps because sellou’s high nutritional and caloric values make it a satisfying tonic for a new mother. My own first encounter with sellou was connected to the birth of my first baby; my mother-in-law traveled overseas, ingredients in tow, to personally prepare the requisite sweet. While my newborn baby was still reversing her nights and days, sellou became my midnight snack of choice.
Every family adapts sellou according to regional or personal preferences. Some like it sweeter, some prefer honey over sugar, some like more cinnamon. Some add texture by mixing in coarsely ground almonds or whole sesame; others prefer all ingredients be finely ground. The recipe below is a Fez variation as taught to me by my mother-in-law. It follows a simple ratio of 1:1:1 by weight (almonds to sesame to flour) and uses clarified butter to bind. You may slightly increase the almonds or sesame, but don’t increase the flour or you risk compromising nutty flavor.
The recipe makes a typically large batch, enough to last my family through the month of Ramadan. Read through the recipe carefully as much of the work must take place before the ingredients are combined. A good food processor is important for grinding ingredients—if you’re fortunate enough to own a Thermomix, even better!—and a very large bowl, basin or similar container is a must for mixing. Once prepared, sellou will keep for several months in an airtight container or longer in the freezer.
This popular Ramadan and special occasion sweet is a rich, energizing confection of ground fried almonds, ground toasted sesame seeds and oven-browned flour. Cinnamon, anise and butter add flavor.
Mixing time below does not include ingredient preparations which must be done ahead of time.
- 2.2 lbs whole raw almonds, or a little more
- 2.2 lbs unhulled sesame seeds, or a little more
- 2.2 lbs all purpose flour
- 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, or to taste
- 4 tbsp ground cinnamon, or to taste
- 2 tbsp ground anise, or to taste
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp mastic gum, several drops, ground to a powder (optional)
- 1 lb unsalted butter, approx.
- vegetable oil, for frying almonds
Blanch and peel the almonds. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Divide the almonds into several batches. Drop one batch of almonds into the water and return to a boil for 1 or 2 minutes. Drain and immediately begin peeling the hot almonds by pinching the skin off between your fingers, or by rubbing the almonds vigorously in a towel. Repeat until all almonds have been blanched and peeled.
Spread the blanched almonds on a towel to dry for several hours or overnight. Be sure they are completely dry before storing in an airtight container.
Clean and toast the unhulled sesame seeds. If the sesame seeds feel gritty or are visibly dirty, wash them in several changes of water and drain. Spread them out on trays and leave to dry thoroughly for a day or more in a warm, sunny place. Carefully pick through the sesame seeds to remove any debris.
Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C). In batches, spread the sesame seeds into a single layer on a large baking pan and toast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the seeds are slightly darker in color, crunchy in texture and nutty in flavor and aroma. (As a stove top alternative, you can toast the sesame in batches in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until nutty and crunchy.)
Allow the sesame to cool thoroughly before storing in an airtight container.
Brown and sift the flour. Preheat your oven to 400 F (200 C). Spread the flour in a very large baking or roasting pan (in batches, if necessary) and place in the oven. Cook for 30 minutes or longer, stirring every 5 minutes, until the flour is evenly colored a light to medium golden brown. Do not burn.
When the flour has cooled, sift it several times, discarding any balls that will not break apart or that can not be pressed through a sieve. Take your time with this step, as a properly-sifted flour is very important to sellou.
Store the browned, sifted flour in an airtight container until needed.
Clarify the butter. Melt the unsalted butter over low heat in a medium or large pot. Continue heating the butter until the milk solids separate to the bottom of the pot and foam forms on top.
Carefully skim off and discard all the foam. Place the pot in the refrigerator and leave overnight. In the morning, the butter will have hardened and the milk solids can be poured off. If necessary, rinse the hardened butter and pat dry to be sure no milk remains. This is an important step to ensure that the sellou will remain fresh and unspoiled.
Save the clarified butter in the fridge until ready to use.
Fry the blanched almonds. Pour 1/2 inch of vegetable oil into a large, deep-sided frying pan and place over medium heat. When the oil is hot, fry the almonds in batches, stirring constantly, for 5 to 10 minutes, until light to medium golden brown. (If they are coloring faster than this, the oil is too hot and the temperature should be reduced.) Once the almonds are colored, quickly transfer them to a strainer, and then to a plate or tray lined with paper towels. They will continue to darken as they cool.
Completely cool the fried almonds before storing or grinding.
Set up your work area. You'll need a very large bowl or container for mixing the sellou by hand, a fine sieve for sifting, and a food processor for grinding. Have all ingredients within easy reach.
Melt the clarified butter. Set the clarified butter in a pot over very low heat. Leave to slowly melt while you proceed.
Sift and blend the dry ingredients. Use a fine sieve to sift the browned flour, 2 cups of powdered sugar, cinnamon, anise, ground mastic gum, and salt into a very large bowl or container. Discard any tiny balls of flour that are trapped in the sieve. Use your hands to toss, stir and evenly combine the dry ingredients.
Grind the toasted sesame. Reserve a small bowlful of toasted sesame seeds. Grind the rest of the toasted sesame (in batches, if necessary) in a food processor until nearly a paste. Transfer both the whole and ground sesame to the flour mixture.
Grind the fried almonds. Reserve a small bowlful of fried almonds to be stored separately for later use as a garnish. Grind half of the remaining fried almonds to a smooth, moist paste and the other half of the fried almonds to a powdery paste. Add both types of ground almonds to the flour mixture.
Blend in the ground sesame and ground almonds. Use your hands to thoroughly blend the ground sesame and ground almonds into the flour mixture. Spend a good 10 minutes or more tossing, blending and rubbing the mixture between your palms to be sure that all is well-mixed and that it's free from balls and clumps.
Taste and adjust. Taste the sellou mixture for sweetness and spices. Add more cinnamon, anise or sugar as desired.
Add the clarified butter. Slowly and gradually work in the clarified butter, taking care not to add any milky liquid that may have separated in the pot. Mix and knead the sellou with each addition of butter, ultimately using only as much butter as needed to make a glistening, stiff but pliable mixture. (Use less if you prefer a powdery sellou.)
When all is well-mixed and the texture is to your liking, transfer the sellou to a storage container (or containers). Leave to cool for several hours before covering.
Sellou will keep for several months at room temperature (transfer to smaller containers as the volume decreases) or up to a year in the freezer.
To serve, loosely heap or shape the sellou on small plates. If desired, garnish with powdered sugar, fried almonds and toasted sesame seeds.
Moist sellou can be shaped into petite balls or squares and placed in mini wrappers or liners.
- If using mastic gum, the drops can placed in a small bowl with a little bit of granulated sugar. Use the back of a spoon to crush the drops. (The sugar keeps the gum from sticking to the spoon.)
- It is normal for the oils to rise to the top of the sellou, particularly in warm weather. If this happens, simply stir the oils back into the mixture before serving. If you feel the oils are excessive, blot them up with a paper towel.
- It is also normal for sellou stored at room temperature to dry out a bit as the sellou continues to absorb the butter.
- Although not as traditional, the almonds may be toasted and ground for a healthier version.
- For extra crunchy texture, coarsely grind a small bowlful of the fried almonds and mix into the sellou.
- Honey may be used in place of powdered sugar. As it adds moisture, less clarified butter is necessary to bind the sellou.
- Instead of clarified butter, some people prefer to use a little oil from frying the almonds.
- Olive oil may also be used instead of butter. It's regarded as healthier but does give a different flavor.