These square, laminated pancakes are called msemen or sometimes rghaif. They’re a popular breakfast and tea time treat not only in Morocco, but also Tunisia and Algeria. If you haven’t tried one, it’s time you do!
Although easily bought at bakeries or as a street food, many Moroccans prefer to make msemen at home. That way the texture, flavor, size and quality can all be controlled.
Serve them plain—I like them this way hot off the griddle—or spread with butter, honey, jam or cheese. The most traditional way, however, is to dip msemen in hot syrup made from butter and honey. A bit messy to eat, but sticky sweet and delicious.
The elastic bread-like dough used to make msemen can be unleavened or barely leavened. For the latter, just a tiny bit of yeast is used. In recent years, I’ve seen some cooks replace the yeast with baking powder.
I prefer the barely leavened method, which is what my recipe below uses. It yields msemen with well-defined layers, a slightly crispy exterior and chewy interior. There is room to play in terms of changing ratios of flour or replacing some or all of the white flour with whole wheat, but if you’ve never made msemen before, I encourage you to try the recipe as is.
Don’t be alarmed by the quantity of oil and butter used in the process of shaping the msemen. All that oil won’t be absorbed into the dough. Done properly, msemen shouldn’t feel greasy or be any more indulgent than other rich treats such as croissants or donuts.
You’ll need ample work space to shape the dough into squares. A well-cleaned, clutter-free granite counter top, a large flat plastic or metal tray, or a large Moroccan gsaa will all do. Once, cooked, the msemen store beautifully in the freezer and are easy to reheat on short notice, so plan to make them ahead of time.
Msemen are a flat, square-shaped Moroccan pancakes usually served for breakfast or tea time. They're made by flattening rghaif dough on an oiled surface until paper thin, dotting it with butter and semolina, then folding it into thirds (twice) to shape a layered pancake.
You can make the msemen ahead of time and keep in the freezer until needed. Measures for butter and oil are approximate quantities. Be prepared to use more or less for folding the msemen.
- 3 1/2 cups white flour, all purpose or bread
- 1/2 cup fine semolina or durum flour
- 2 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp dry yeast (less in very warm weather)
- 1 1/2 cups warm water (not hot)
- 1 cup vegetable oil (more if needed)
- 1/2 cup fine semolina (can use coarser caliber if you like)
- 1/4 cup very soft unsalted butter (more if needed)
Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the water and combine to make a dough.
Knead the dough by hand (or with a mixer and dough hook) until very smooth, soft and elastic but not sticky. Adjust water or flour as necessary to achieve that texture.
Divide the dough into balls the size of small plums. Be sure the top and sides of the balls are smooth. Transfer the balls of dough on an oiled tray, cover loosely with plastic and leave to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
While the dough is resting, set up a work area. You'll need a large flat surface for spreading and folding the dough. Set out bowls of vegetable oil, semolina and very soft butter. Set your griddle or large frying pan on the stove, ready to heat up.
Generously oil your work surface and your hands. Dip a ball of dough in the oil and place it in the center of your work space. Using a light touch and quick sweeping motion from the center outward, gently spread the dough into a paper-thin, roughly shaped circle. Oil your hands as often as needed so that they slide easily over the dough.
Dot the flattened dough with butter and sprinkle with semolina. Fold the dough into thirds like a letter to form an elongated rectangle. Dot again with butter, sprinkle with semolina, and fold again into thirds to form a square.
Transfer the folded dough to the oiled tray and repeat with the remaining balls of dough. Keep track of the order in which you folded the squares.
Heat your griddle or frying pan over medium heat until quite hot. Starting with the first msemen you folded, take a square of dough and place on your oiled work surface. Oil your hands and pat the dough firmly to flatten it to double its original size.
Transfer the flattened square to the hot griddle and cook, turning several times, until cooked through, crispy on the exterior and golden in color. Transfer to a rack.
Repeat with the remaining squares, working with them in the order in which they were folded. You can flatten and cook several at a time if your pan or griddle can accommodate them.
When each msemen has cooled for a minute or two, pick it up from opposite ends and gently flex it for a few seconds with a quick back and forth, see-saw motion. This helps separate the laminated layers from each other.
Serve the msemen immediately, or allow to cool completely before freezing.
Msemen can be reheated directly from the freezer in a frying pan placed over medium-low heat, or directly on the rack in a preheated 350° F (180° C) oven.
To make the traditional Moroccan syrup for dipping, heat equal portions of unsalted butter and honey in a frying pan. When hot and just beginning to bubble, turn off the heat. Dip the warm msemen into the syrup to coat the pancake on both sides.
- You can make msemen as small or as large as you like. I prefer to keep them small as described here.
- If you don't have a double griddle, use two or three frying pans on different burners for more efficient cooking.
- Instead of all vegetable oil, you can use a mix of oil and melted butter.
- Some of the white flour can be replaced by whole wheat flour. Adds nice flavor, but the final product might not be as crispy.
- You can also use a mix of half white flour and half semolina. It yields msemen with coarser texture. It's my preferred mix when making meloui, a round, coiled cousin of msemen.