CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — When cooking m'semen pancakes, Hajja Aicha's hands aren't out of the frying pan, but they do stay clear of the fire. Decorated by a deep-brown pattern of henna dye, Ms. Aicha's nimble fingers prod, adjust, and flip the flaky Moroccan pancakes that are cooking perfectly before her eyes in the kitchen at Argana, a popular Moroccan restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. To observers, it seems to be the culinary equivalent of walking on a bed of hot coals. But despite the ample availability of spatulas, it's the only way Argana's baker will make them.
She is demonstrating Moroccan pancakes for a crowd of visitors at the lively bistro, decorated with authentic Moroccan furnishings and owned by three engaging brothers from Casablanca. Younes, Rachid, and Redwan Rouzky are passionate about re-creating the culinary traditions they learned from their mother, an excellent and intuitive cook, who still lives in Casablanca. Their mother visits often, but it is her friend, Aicha, who works at the restaurant daily, baking breads and desserts and reminding them of mom.
The Moroccan pancakes that Aicha makes come in a galaxy of varieties. In addition to m'semen, she makes baghrir (honeycomb pancakes), crepes berberes (Berber-style crepes), and roza ("turban-style" with coiled strands of dough).
Those expecting a traditional "short stack" had best look elsewhere. While both Moroccan and American pancakes are flat, slathered in sweetness, and made from batter, the similarities end there.
The classic American flapjack overwhelms the palate with warmth and sweetness. Even when its toppings range beyond the traditional flood of maple syrup, the absorbent breadiness of a good pancake makes it a filling comfort food, best washed down with a cold glass of milk or orange juice.
By contrast, Moroccan pancakes are a little more flexible and surprising. Served at Argana for dessert, they often appear at Moroccan holidays and family gatherings. But some households eat them daily for breakfast. Argana's crew says a pancake breakfast requires the cook - usually the family's mother - to get up at 4 or 5 a.m. Younes says their mother typically took at least one day of the week off from cooking. "She wouldn't make pancakes on Sunday," he says, smiling. "Not for $1,000."
Some types of Moroccan pancakes emerge from conical tagine dishes. Roza pancakes are made from elaborate cords of fried batter.
The moist, spongy baghrir are infused with the gorgeous natural sweetness of honey. And the many-layered m'semen echo the delicacy and buttery intensity of a world-class croissant.
Instead of using forks, diners eat them with their right hands.
To make authentic Moroccan pancakes, one needs semolina, yeast, and olive oil. A delicate touch is required to arrive at the correct consistency and cook the pancakes evenly.
While shaping the ropy strands of dough that are coiled to make the distinctive roza pancake, Aicha makes sure the dough is at the perfect degree of stringiness before wrapping it around her hand.
"It looks like it's got magic properties," says one onlooker. Not surprisingly, the finished product tastes that way, too.
2 cups orange juice
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup orange-blossom water (optional; available in Middle Eastern markets)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup regular raisins
1/2 cup golden raisins
Combine orange juice, sugar, and orange-blossom water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add butter and raisins, and simmer until reduced by half, stirring occasionally - about 10 minutes. While hot, pour over pancakes or crepes and serve. Makes 3 cups.
5 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter
Mix eggs and milk together thoroughly. Whisk in flour until fully absorbed and lumps are mostly gone. Over medium heat, melt butter in a skillet or crepe pan. Ladle in 1/2 cup of the batter. Turn heat to low and let cook. Flip when golden, and cook the other side until golden. Makes about 12 crepes.
- Adapted from the Argana restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.