Moroccan inspired M’hencha with spiced chestnut, chocolate and candied clementine filling.
This year I decided to try my hand at a Holiday Snake Cake. The question was which one? Many versions of snake cakes are baked across countries from Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Morocco and Algeria, some are sweet and some are savoury and many are prepared for the Christmas season. I can’t mention all their names, but one thing they all share in common, aside from their serpentine shapes, is that their origins are considered so ancient they disappear into the mists of history…
Renowned for shedding its skin, the snake is a widespread symbol of renewal and rebirth, so it’s not surprising that it was often associated with Winter Solstice and the New Year. In parts of Italy snake cakes such as the beloved Biscione Reggiano are prepared especially for the Christmas holiday season.
In the Umbria region of Italy, torciglione is a Christmas cake made from ground almonds, sugar, brandy, egg yolk, and egg whites shaped into a snake with pine nut scales and candied cherry eyes. It is said to originate with Umbria’s earlier inhabitants, the Etruscans (the 8th to 3rd century BCE) who worshipped the snake and served “a honey and almond dessert in the shape of the reptile for the winter solstice. The cake’s twisted shape recalled the cycles of the year and life’s perpetual motion of birth and death.” In Spain, the Anguila de mazapánis (Marzipan Snake or Eel) is made for Christmas and it too it is said to originate with pagan practices surrounding the winter solstice, symbolizing the eternal cycle of life and the triumph of good over evil.
Today in Bulgaria a coiled cake called the“Banitsa” with fortunes – is a must at the New Year’s Eve dinner table. This is a savoury dish filled with a special cheese made for the occasion. Twigs tied with little papers with wishes and messages of luck, and coins are placed over the finished cake – or baked in right in. Tradition dictates that there should be enough pieces for everyone in the house + 1 additional piece for St. Mary. This was likely a Christianized name for the old pagan practice of leaving food offerings and bowls of milk to snakes at this time of year.
In the Western Balkans, the snake has been associated with the fertility of the earth mother since the Neolithic. According to this interesting article “house snakes as the incarnation of the house protector spirit in Balto Slavic religion. In the Baltic, cornerstones were filled with milk to attract the snake to the house.”
Morocco’s M’hencha (literally Snake Cake) is made with buttery layers of flaky dough filled with almond paste, spiced nuts, perfumed with rose or orange blossom water, cinnamon and lemon, then dipped or fried in honey. Some say this dessert dates back to the Ottoman Empire, others say its origin is from Turkey or Greece but it is most often attributed to the Imazighen of North Africa, once referred to as the Berber. And while M’hencha literally means Snake Cake there is little I could find connecting it to actual snakes or snake cults – aside from the tradition of snake charming!
The Berbers different tribal groups are spread across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, Niger, the Canary Islands and Egypt, and are the descendants of North Africa’s indigenous people. While the masculine plural term Imazighen is most often used, the word “Timazighin” the plural of the feminine would better describe what was once a pre-Islamic matrifocal culture which held a special reverence for springs, caves, trees, mountains and other sacred sites in nature.
Traditionally, women always filled a central role in Imazighen society, and in one Amazigh tribe, the Tuareg, matriarchs still preside. The Tuareg still practice matrilineal descent, women have control over their marriages and economic resources, they have the right to divorce and own their livestock. Amazigh women teach the language, literature and poetry and are guardians and carriers of their cultural identities and traditions.
Their prehistoric ancestors are believed to have left an amazing record of rock art illustrating their way of life. Tassili n’Ajjer in World Heritage Site, Algeria, is considered one of the most ancient rock art sites in the world. Dating back at least 10,000 years, are some of the earliest images of women most often painted in red ochre. Female figurines such as this Tan-Tan proto-sculpture from southern Morocco dating back 300,000 and 500,000 years ago are much older.
It’s a common belief amongst Pleistocene archaeologists that modern humans arose in sub-Saharan Africa and from there began to spread, first in Africa, then in Asia, and finally in Europe. So I can’t help but wonder if it was the ancestors of Imazighen that brought the snake cake with them? Of course, there’s no way of knowing, it’s just my wild speculation, all we know for sure is that M’hencha is a cake traditionally made for special occasions and holidays.
So for my Holiday Snake Cake, I chose to go with a M’hencha inspired cake – well, because it could be the original of the genre! M’hencha is traditionally served with mint tea and broken up into pieces so each guest receives a section. I made two, the first a double-layered Snake Cake filled with chocolate, spiced chestnut and candied clementines, and the second a more traditional version with marzipan, cardamom and rose and orange blossom water. And do I need to tell you – they were delicious!
The recipe for the pretty little Marzipan Rose Snakes I’m saving for Gather Victoria Patrons, but I’m sharing the opulent chocolate chestnut version here. Its brightened with traditional Christmas notes of orange, in this case, candied clementine, but any orange peel will work fine.
Chocolate Chestnut & Candied Clementine M’hencha
- 1 ¼ cups chestnuts, cooked or roasted OR same amount of unsweetened chestnut puree
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp rum
- 1 tbsp espresso or dark coffee
- 1 tbsp cocoa powder, unsweetened
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 & 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons of candied ginger (optional)
- 1 cup dark chocolate, finely chopped, or good quality chocolate chips
- 4 tablespoons of candied orange or citrus peel
- 2 tablespoons of icing sugar for dusting
- 6 sheets filo pastry
- 4 -5 tablespoons butter, melted
- ¾ cup honey
Blend all the ingredients except for the chocolate in your food processor until coarse, thick paste forms. It should hold together when squeezed between your fingers. If it is dry, add a splash more of rum or espresso or rum. Mix in the chocolate.
Preheat the oven to (350 F)
Lightly dust a large area of work surface with icing sugar. Layout 5 filo sheets in a long single row with the short edges of the phyllo sheets facing you. Make sure each sheet overlaps the previous one by 2-3 inches. (keep the 6th sheet to patch up any holes or tears.)
Dollop the filling about a tablespoon at a time along the length of the pastry in the bottom third, leaving a 2-inch border of pastry at the bottom, and the same at either end.
Lightly brush the exposed pastry with melted butter, then fold the left end over onto the filling. Next, roll the entire pastry from the bottom up to encase the filling. (even though this video is for a different pastry it gives you a good visual idea of the process. Pretty simple really.)
Brush the whole thing with more melted butter, then, starting from the left end, roll the sausage carefully into a snug coil, trying not to split the pastry. Tuck the unfilled flap of pastry at the right end under the coil to secure it, then brush the whole thing with more melted butter. Bake until lightly golden, about 15 minutes.
Serve dusted with icing sugar.
Note: While I usually research & write about traditional foods and dishes found in my ancestral heritage – and they literally stretch literally across the European Continent – I always want to be careful about cultural appropriation i.e. telling stories that are not mine to tell and this M’Hencha Cake qualifies. I apologize for any cultural insensitivities, colonial blunders or historical inaccuracies I have made and am happy to be corrected.