Recently, I came across a recipe I got from Priscilla Martel, whose All About Food business was serving Mediterranean delicacies at a James Beard Awards ceremony many years ago, and though it is called Sfef – a North African Wedding Cookie, I decided it would make a delicious and somewhat mysterious and multicultural addition to a holiday cookie plate.
It also provides a refreshing change from other cookies in the way the dough is put together, as each ingredient is cooked before being combined, including the flour, which is roasted in a dry pan. My next thought was, Hmm, I wonder how this was made in the olden days, before Moroccans became so first-world as to take white flour and confectioners sugar for granted, and so I burrowed into the past a little bit by going online and asking some Moroccan cooks what they could tell me about sfef.
There was a thundering silence and then, “Do you mean sffouf?” Well of course I had no idea if I meant sffouf, but I went along with it.
“Sffouf is not a Moroccan wedding cookie!” Oh, well, what was it then?
“It is served only on the naming day of newborns and in Ramadan.” The more nuts you add, they said, the more flavor you get, and each Moroccan state makes it differently from the others. “I, personally,” one cook said, “don't add any flour. I make it with just nuts, fennel, and pure organic honey.”
Another cook added, “For the history of it my information is they used to give it to the woman that is breast feeding,” and when I hazarded a guess as to why that might be I was told that it was to prevent colic, as fennel (and anise) are both good colonics and digestives; and furthermore sffouf was said to increase the flow of mothers’ milk.
Another cook remembered, “My mom used to make huge buckets of sffouf and zomita for my father when he was in Army to take with him because during war they can't cook. So those were the only things they ate.”
Being a real pain, I then asked what Zomita was, and was told, “Zomita is the cousin of sffouf , but more healthier and has lots of seeds, whole wheat, nuts, and you toast everything and you grind. It’s popular in Fes, Meknes, Rabat, and Sale' and we have a very famous song called Zomita. All Moroccan people know about it.”
Okay. All right. I thanked the Moroccan cooks profusely and came back to my kitchen and made the original recipe I had from Priscilla. All she’d done to alter it in the last twenty years was to halve the recipe. I was glad of that because forming those little cones is a time intensive, backaching business. I was half done when I realized that a small, cone-shaped coffee scoop could do a much neater and faster job.
These things are absolutely delicious! They’re even better frozen, which in my household is a severe drawback to the longlastingness of Christmas cookies.
Although nothing about this is very local (except the flour, butter, and, possibly, fennel seeds), all ingredients are available at the Co-op.
Note: Times for baking and roasting and mixing are highly individual. Keep a sharp eye out not to burn and/or over process.
Sfef (or Sffouf)
adapted from a recipe from Priscilla Martel
Yield: about 2 dozen
• 1/2 cup (3 ounces) hulled sesame seeds
• 1 cup (5 ounces) whole blanched almonds
• 1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
• 1 cup (4.5 ounces) all purpose flour
• 1 cup (4 ounces) confectioner’s sugar
• 1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
• grated whole blanched almonds or blanched almond flour for garnish
Preheat oven to 350°
- Place the sesame seeds on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 3 minutes. Pour them into the bowl of a food processor and set aside while toasting the almonds
- Place the almonds on the baking sheet and bake 8 +/- minutes until they darken slightly Add them and the fennel seeds to the food processor along with the sesame. Process this mixture for 3 minutes until it is finely ground and well blended.
- Cook the flour in a large, dry, skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until the flour develops a pale yellow color.
- Add the flour to the nut mixture along with the sugar. Pulse to combine.
- Pour in the warm melted butter and pulse until it forms a pliable mass.
- To form the cookies, place a large teaspoon of the mixture in the palm of your hand, form it into a small cone about 1 1/2 inches high and slightly pointed. Place the cookie on a tray and proceed with the remaining dough (or use a cone-shaped coffee scoop like the one pictured).
- Let the cookies set for at least 2 hours before serving, then dust them with freshly grated blanched almonds or almond flour.
These will keep, well covered, in a cool place for about 1 week or in the freezer until you need them or have gobbled them one by one.
This little article was published in the Rutland Area Food Co-op Newsletter , Winter, 2013