Our new family favourite treat to eat in the morning or afternoon with coffee/hot chocolate.
The temperatures in Algeria are starting to cool down and with that there is rain. It’s not an “everyday” occurrence here, as in my home country of England. When it does happen, it is usually briefer and more intense i.e. a shower or, more scarily the gush of rain during a thunderstorm!
Cooler Autumn days are ideal for getting out the metal Tajine to cook Msemmen, Ftir, Bradj, Matlou, Baghrir, and now Mbesses. Which are simply Bradj without the date-paste filling. Furthermore it is similar to Harcha.
The metal Tajine is not related to the conical earthenware pot we use to cook stews in. Its equivalent is the Desi Tawa/Tava or the British Girdle/Hot Plate. A crêpe pan or heavy-based frying pan are also acceptable replacements.
Traditionally you cook Mbesses on the metal tajine over a Tabouna – a gas brazier. I haven’t got one and suffice cooking on the stovetop over two burners. The Tabouna is better though, as it’s a larger heat source and distributes said heat more evenly. This means you can cook more than 6 pieces at a time. Normally I do just throw them all on there when I’m not juggling the camera too.
What’s more you can fry Mbassas then dip them directly in honey-syrup.
Then they resemble Makrout without the date-paste filling. My recipe does vary slightly when frying. Subscribe (for free) to the blog to know first when that and other new recipes go live.
The Main Ingredients
These rustic shortbread cookies are made with few ingredients, mainly Semolina and Smen.
Smen being fermented clarified butter. I’m yet to taste real Smen made from real butter. I use Smen you buy at the supermarkets here, which is vegetable oil-based.
Still it is quite potent stuff, the smell being like marmite: you either love it or, you hate it. I’m in the love-it catergory, whilst my children literally turn their noses up at it and say “that smells horrible”.
The taste I’m happier to report is milder than the smell. To placate the children, I don’t use all Smen when making my Mbesses. Instead I choose a ratio of 2:1 Smen to Margarine.
You can totally make these cookies with all Butter or Ghee (clarified butter) if Smen isn’t available where you are and/or you despise vegetable-based fats. I feel ya.
Mbesses مبسس linguistically means ‘very crumbly’.
Even with all the vegetable-based spreads disguised as butter, these cookies are irresistible, you can’t stop at merely one. They are: deliciously crisp and crumbly on the outside with a tender crumb that almost melts-in-the-mouth.
I say almost because don’t forget these are made from medium-grain/coarse semolina. Known as ‘Samid Moyenne’ in Algeria. Giving Mtekba a pleasant sandy texture.
A Few Notes On The Method
They are easy to put together providing you stay true to the method. Resting times are essential, first to let the fats solidify after rubbing into the semolina mixture.
Second, to allow the dough to relax 5mins minimum before rolling out.
I use a 5cm square cookie cutter and get 12-13 pieces. You can try a different size/shape cookie cutter if you like or, with a knife cut into diamonds/wedges. The yield will differ.
How to Eat Mbassas
Unlike regular shortbread this has little sugar. We like to compensate by topping our Mbesses with honey, syrup or my favourite apricot confiture. In that sense they are more like pancakes.
You can enjoy them without any toppings too, I know I do. Afterall semolina has its own natural sweetness. Or serve with dates on the side and a tall glass of cold Lben – Buttermilk.
Have it your way with the shape and toppings. Be adventurous (or not) and tell me about your experience below in the comments section
Mbesses / Mbassas / Mtekba / Mteqba
Algerian semolina shortbread cookies. Rich and buttery, tender and crumbly.
They’ll be your new favourite to make for afternoon tea / coffee.
- 500 g coarse Semolina (medium-grain)
- 1 tsp table Salt
- 2 tsp Vanilla Sugar
- 100 g Smen / Ghee / Clarified Butter (melted and cooled)
- 50 g Margarine *or* Unsalted Butter (melted and cooled)
- 2 tbsp Orange Blossom Water
- 125 ml Water (tap)
- In a large mixing bowl combine dry ingredients. Thoroughly rub the melted and cooled Smen/Margarine into the Semolina mixture (as you would do when making pastry or, as you would when traditionally seperating couscous – rubbing between two hands) cover bowl and leave for 30mins.
- Gently break up the Semolina grains by gently rubbing between your hands. In the same method, bit by bit mix in the Orange Blossom Water and Water until you can bring the dough together. More or less water maybe required depending on the quality of semolina and choice of fat(s) you use. Cover dough and leave to rest for 5-10mins.
- Pre-heat metal tajine / tawa / crepe pan / flat griddle or girdle (hot-plate) / large skillet or heavy based frying pan over low heat. Meanwhile….On a lightly greased worktop take care to roll / press out dough to a thickness of 1 ½ – 2cm. Cut out Mbesses using your desired size cookie cutter (I use a 5cm square) or, with a knife into diamonds or wedges. Re-roll and continue cutting out until no more dough is left. Makes approximately 12-13 pieces.
- Cook Mbesses in batches for approximately 12 mins in total, turning often and until they are a lovely golden brown colour. Remove from the tajine and enjoy! Best eaten at room temperature but may be enjoyed warm. Serve as is or topped with honey, syrup, jam etc.
- Best eaten the same day.
- Store for no more than 2 days at room temperature.
- Re-heat in pan for a few minutes if needed to refresh crisp texture.