There was death in Fes. And figs.
It was the summer of 2013 and one moment I was sidestepping a mule moving crates of soda down another of Fes al Bali’s innumerable labyrinthine streets (one of Fes’ medinas–the typically walled “old city” characteristic to many North African cities–and thought to be the largest car-free urban area in the world) and in the other I was plastered against the wall as a crescendoing dirge came around the corner: a group of men rushed past us, a shrouded form on a stretcher between them. We swapped looks across the alley (which was starting to move again) and our unruffled group leader and friend, without missing a beat: “So… now you’ve seen it all.”
And we had, more than most people can boast. I haven’t had many occasions to honest-to-goodness feast in my life, but for the group of us who’d taken our aforementioned friend up on his invitation to attend his sister’s wedding (a three day affair) prior to a 10 day tour of his home country, our first memories were of plenty. Plenty of time–lazing through the afternoon the day we arrived in a rented villa by the sea, miles from the headache of wedding logistics, until we were picked up at 8 for dinner at the family home; plenty of plenty–mountainous platters of couscous crowned with a heady beef (or was it lamb?) stew (there was so much that our table was having a laughing fit engineering tunnels through the thing; I don’t think the other guests felt the same), half a roasted lamb for each table the night of the ceremony, crescent-shaped Cornes de Gazelle (“gazelle horn”) cookies scented with orange blossom water and cinnamon, and hot mint tea poured from above and poured often.
I wish I could tell you the whole story, all two weeks of it. How without knowing the language(s) and next to nothing about the country, I never imagined I’d get to Morocco so soon in my life. Yet there I was in the wee morning hours of the wedding ceremony, dancing with someone I’d only just met, both of us having given up on attempts to communicate in French, Arabic, or English, but beaming regardless.
I learned to love olives and had quince for the first time (in a tajine with eggplant, tomatoes, and an assortment of squashes, on a rooftop in a fortified city rising out of the palms). Casablanca was taken off the itinerary, but we saw Marrakesh, Ourzazate, Ifrane, and Fes. I bedded down at a camp between dunes in the Eastern Sahara under the silver light of the Milky Way (the engineers in our group pointed out the satellites). I remember being jolted awake by the call to morning prayer outside my window, lying in darkness listening to the faint street sounds stirring below.
See, if my memory weren’t a) garbage you’d get it all in excruciating detail, but I’m b) also getting the sweats just thinking about the possibility of it because it’s almost been a year since I went to Japan and I’m still chipping away at day two of that series (do better!!).
And yes, there was a camel (or eight) along the way. It would have been faster if I’d gotten off and walked to our camp that night, but getting my spine realigned up a dune and down another on top of one of those funny-looking, but altogether marvelous ungulates was an experience.
When I was living in Boston, there was this little basement grocery (I believe it was Turkish?) by the Haymarket that sold sheets of fresh msemen–with all the chewy and buttery layers I remembered having morning after morning during our trip. I haven’t the foggiest idea where to find that where I’m at now, but I’ve had a hankering and it could only be sated with oil and butter.
by Christine Benlafquih
The finished meloui can be served with jam and is especially good dipped in a syrup of butter and honey (heat equal amounts of both until hot and bubbly). Or you can achieve a similar effect by slathering it in the leftover softened butter, then drizzling honey on top. I made a minor mess; I was covered in butter and honey. Dreams really do come true.
For the dough:
2 cups AP flour (250g)
2 cups fine semolina (360g)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
For folding and cooking:
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup very soft butter
1/2 cup semolina
Making the dough
- Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add 1 1/2 cups of warm water and mix to form a dough. Add more water if necessary to make a dough that is soft and easy to knead, but not sticky. If the dough is too sticky to handle, add a little flour–a tablespoon at a time–until you reach the right consistency.
- Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for 10 minutes (or knead the dough in a stand mixer with a dough hook for 5 minutes), until the dough is very smooth and elastic.
Folding and cooking the meloui
Be mindful that there are two resting periods (about 20 minutes each) during the folding process: once when you first divide the dough into smaller balls for the individual meloui and the second after you roll out and roll up the dough into its butter-dotted carpet-esque bundles. You can follow along here in the companion piece to the original recipe if you want photos of each step.
- Divide the dough into balls the size of small plums (which will give you meloui about 5 inches in diameter, but you can make them any size you’d like). Cover with a towel and leave to rest for 20 minutes.
- Oil up your hands (and keep them oiled), take a ball of dough, and flatten it on a large, oiled work surface. Stretch and flatten the dough as much as possible into a narrow, elongated rectangle.
- Dot the dough with butter and sprinkle with a little semolina, which helps add texture and keeps the layers separate as they cook. Fold the dough into thirds lengthwise–fold the left third of the dough into the center and then fold the right third over the first. You should be left with a narrow strip of dough. Dot the folded dough with more butter and sprinkle with more semolina.
- Starting at the bottom of your dough strip, roll it up as tightly as you can like a carpet, flattening any air bubbles that form as you go along. Seal the edge of the dough by pinching it to the roll.
- Set the rolled dough upright and leave to rest for 20 minutes or longer. The coil might want to topple over as it rests, so flatten the tops slightly to help them stand upright if this is the case.
- Fold and roll the rest of your dough. Keep track of which rolls were made first–they’ll have rested the longest and will be easier to flatten when it’s time to cook them.
- After resting, flatten the dough into a circle by hitting and patting it with your hand. Keep your hand and the work surface oiled. (I may have given my dough circles a few passes with my rolling pin to get them flatter, but slapping them down really is a stress reliever… so long as you don’t wake up the entire house in the process)
- Place the meloui in a frying pan or on a griddle and cook over medium heat, turning several times until it’s golden brown on both sides (about five minutes).
Yield: about 20 meloui (4 inches across) according to the original recipe; I halved mine because I wasn’t feeding a full house and ended up with 5 meloui roughly 6 inches in diameter.