M’Hencha (Coiled Snake Pastry)

M’Hencha (translates to “coiled snake”) recipes are as varied as the Moroccan chefs that create them. But they all do seem to have one thing in common: the instructions start out with “…combine in an electric food processor…” So you think I would be smart enough not to challenge that. Smart enough to realize that grinding almonds into a paste with a hand-cracked food processor was just a dumb idea. You would think. But no, I had all the time in the world. I’m self-isolated like everyone else, and even though we are not permitted “recreational boating” or even hanging out on our boats, I thought I’d sneak down to the marina and work on my neglected winching muscles. Yes, I could do this!

M’Hencha (Coiled Snake Pastry)

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1 1/2 cups blanched slivered almonds
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons orange flower water
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

12 sheets phyllo
3/4 cup (1 1/2 stick) butter, melted
1 egg, beaten with a little water

1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon orange flower water
Zest of 1 clementine or tangerine
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds

After researching a number of M’Hencha recipes I discovered that they differed not only in methods and ingredients but even spelling…M’Hencha / M’Hanncha. And some recipes called the filling a marzipan while others called it a frangipane. Which lead me to question what is the difference between marzipan and frangipane? After many cookbook and Google searches I came up with this quick little culinary elevator speech, below. And best I could tell, the filling for M’Hencha lies somewhere between the two.

Melt 2 sticks of butter. You will need 1/4 cup for the filling and the rest to brush onto the phyllo dough later. Combine all the filling ingredients into a food processor and pulse many times until you get a smooth paste. Or in a hand processor…crank. And crank. And crank until your knuckles are raw from banging them, until you’ve placed the processor on every flat surface of the boat to get a better grip, until you’re so frustrated you just give up. Which I did.

Now no Galley Pirate in their right mind would bring a Cuisinart processor onto a sailboat. But I did have another smaller, more versatile tool in my arsenal: the electric hand emulsifier my mother-in-law gave me. And I felt very confident walking down the dock with this power tool, as mechanics are “essential” and allowed in the marina during this quarantine. No one really needs to know, or can even tell, that this tool is used to make sauces. Ha!

Grind the filling into a smooth paste. Divide into three equal portions and place in the ice box to chill.

Place one or two insulated cookie sheets on your oven rack to help prevent the pastry from burning. If you don’t have those, a few layers of foil will help. Preheat your galley oven to between 350º and 400º.

Divide the filling into three equal parts. Plan A: If your dough is dry enough, you should be able to roll out each of the three sections of dough on a pastry board. Roll them out to the length of a phyllo sheet, about 1 ft. long by 3/4″ thick. If your filling is just too sticky to roll, no worries. Resort to Plan B.

Brush a phyllo sheet with melted butter. Place another sheet on top and do the same. Repeat that until you have 3 sheets of buttered phyllo dough stacked on top of one another. If you were able to roll out the three logs of filling, place one log on the long end of the buttered phyllo sheets.

Plan B: If your filling is too sticky to roll, with your hands form a “log” out of one third of the filling along the long end of the phyllo sheet. Roll the log up and bush with more melted butter with each turn of the roll. Keeping it well buttered will help keep the phyllo from breaking. Coil the first log onto a buttered pie sheet. I’m using a tart pan with a removable bottom so it will be easier to slide the baked M’Hencha off the pan. Repeat this process with the other two logs. Lay them end to end in a coil to resemble a coiled snake. You can patch any cracks with more buttered phyllo.

Place in your preheated oven and bake until golden, about 30 minutes. In the mean time, prepare the glaze.

Zest a clementine, tangerine or other thin-skinned “orange” so that you have a good tablespoon worth. The flavor of the zest of these smaller fruits is more prominent than that of oranges. (but use an orange if that’s all you have). Dry fry the sliced almonds in a small pan until golden and remove to a bowl. In the same pan over a very low flame, melt the honey and add the orange flower water. Add a pinch of the zest and set aside.

Once golden and crispy, remove the M’Hencha from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Slide onto a serving platter, drizzle with the honey mixture and sprinkle the toasted almonds and remaining zest on top. You can sprinkle a little powdered sugar on as well.

Serve at room temperature with mint tea.

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