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“The snake” (m’hanncha)

"'The snake' is one of the best desserts in Moroccan confectionery, a treat not to be missed," writes Paula Wolfert. "It is served most often after a special dinner, with a glass of mint tea. The cake is prepared in the form of a coiled snake, and guests are invited to break off pieces the size they desire. Some cooks have taken to remaking the dish by dividing the almond paste and paper-thin pastry into individual servings. I like it in a snake form and have opted to present it that way here. The cake will keep for several days in an airtight tin stored in a cool place. You can decorate the top with chopped blanched almonds or dust with icing sugar and lines of cinnamon. The almond paste improves in flavour if made a few days in advance. The almonds are best ground when soft. Moroccan cooks boil them, then soak them in hot water for at least an hour before peeling in order to obtain the proper softness. I soften them by blanching them in a bowl of water set in the microwave for several minutes." In The Food of Morocco, Paula Wolfert gives instructions for making warqa, "the most prestigious pastry in Moroccan cuisine," and offers it as a traditional alternative to the fillo pastry used in this recipe.

You'll need

450 gm natural almonds 2 small pieces gum arabic (see note) 2 tbsp caster sugar 105 gm icing sugar 30 gm clarified butter, softened 2 tbsp rosewater or orange-flower water, or to taste 8 fillo pastry sheets 55 gm clarified butter, melted ½ tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon, plus extra for dusting 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten 65 gm blanched almonds, chopped (optional) For dusting: icing sugar (optional)


  • 01
  • To make the almond paste, blanch the almonds (see recipe introduction above), then peel them. Grind the gum arabic with 1 tsp of the caster sugar to a powder in a mortar or blender. Dump into a bowl. Working in batches, grind the almonds with small amounts of the remaining caster sugar in the blender until fine. Dump into the bowl with the gum arabic and icing sugar, and mix well. Add the soft butter and fragrant water and mix well. Cover and chill.
  • 02
  • Divide the chilled almond paste into eight balls. Divide each one in half and roll each ball into a 15cm-long pencil-thin cylinder.
  • 03
  • Preheat the oven to 190C. Place a fillo sheet on a work surface and lightly brush it with melted butter. Place two of the cylinders of almond paste along the lower edge of the fillo sheet, about 3cm from the bottom, and roll it up tightly, tucking in the ends. Shape into a coil and place in the centre of a lightly buttered 25-30cm ring mould set on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining fillo leaves and cylinders of almond paste, extending the coil in the shape of a coiled snake, to fill the ring. With the palm of your hand, gently flatten the snake to fill the ring.
  • 04
  • Add ½ tsp ground cinnamon to the egg yolk. Lightly brush the top and in between the coils with the egg mixture. Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Carefully invert, with the ring, onto another baking sheet. Scatter the chopped almonds on top, if using, and bake for 20-25 minutes. Carefully slide the pastry, with the ring, onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
  • 05
  • Serve warm or lightly reheated. If you didn’t use the chopped almonds, garnish the cake with a light dusting of icing sugar and a dribbling of ground cinnamon in straight lines to form a lattice pattern.

Note Gum arabic, also known as mastic, is a plant resin; it's available from Middle Eastern grocers and Greek delicatessens.

The Food of Morocco ($65, hbk) by Paula Wolfert is published by Bloomsbury. This recipe has been reproduced with minor GT style changes.

At A Glance

  • Serves 12 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 12 people

Featured in

Nov 2012

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