The yearly conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) draws everyone from home economists, restaurant chefs, culinary teachers, cookbook authors, cheese makers and chocolate specialists to magazine and book editors and publishers. We gather for four days of eating and drinking and talking about eating and drinking. I have met many of my best foodie friends through IACP, including our Throwback Thursday author of the week Cindy Mushet.
Looking for all the world like a golden brown snake coiled up for a nap, this dessert is an adaptation of a berber dessert from North Africa, where it is called m’hencha, or the serpent. The flavors here are a luxuriant cross between a sophisticated Fig Newton and the richest, chewiest almond macaroon with an accent on lemon and anise. Relatively easy to make, it is a beautiful and unusual ending to a Mediterranean meal. I prefer to use dried Black Mission figs, which are usually moist and pliable – very important here – as well as flavorful. Whatever variety you choose, avoid dried fruit that is very hard or brittle because there is no addition of liquid in this recipe to plump it up.
Equipment and Advanced Preparation:
- One 9-inch x 2-inch round cake pan. Brush the sides and bottom of the pan with a generous coating of melted butter
- A soft-bristle brush
- A serving platter that is perfectly flat (or nearly so). A curving platter might distort the shape of the pastry as it sits and will make slicing the snake more difficult
If you are using frozen filo, allow 24 hours for it to thaw in the refrigerator, then place the filo box on the counter to come to room temperature, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- 8 ounces moist, dried figs, preferably Black Mission
- 7 ounces almond paste, cut into ½-inch pieces
- ¼ teaspoon anise seed
- Zest of 1 lemon, very finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons (1½ ounces) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (1½ ounces) honey
- 10 sheets filo (the sheets should be 17 inches long, if possible), room temperature
- 2 large egg yolks
- 6 tablespoons (3 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and lukewarm
- Powdered sugar
- Candied lemon zest (optional)
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven.
- To prepare the filling, trim the hard stems from the figs and discard. Place the figs, almond paste, anise seed, lemon zest, sugar and honey in the bowl of a food processor and process until mixture is very finely chopped, about 15 to 20 seconds. Each component should be discernable, though in very small pieces – do not grind to a homogenous paste. Remove mixture from the processor bowl and divide it into 5 portions (about 3½ ounces, or a little less than ½ cup each) on a plate.
- To prepare the filo, remove it from its package and unfold it so that the stack lies flat on your work surface, then cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel to prevent the filo from drying out. Roll and rewrap any remaining filo sheets twice in plastic wrap. Return to the refrigerator and use within 3 days.
- To assemble the snake pastry, place the egg yolks in a small bowl and stir just to blend. Take out a sheet of filo and re-cover the rest (be sure to cover the remaining sheets each time you remove a new one). Place the sheet on your work surface, with one of the long sides towards you. Brush the surface lightly with melted butter. Place another sheet of filo on top and brush lightly with melted butter. Take one of the portions of fig mixture and make a long, even mound with it on the filo, about 1 inch from the edge nearest you, that extends all the way to the two short edges of the dough. Fold the bottom up over the filling, then proceed to roll it up, jelly-roll fashion to within 1-inch of the opposite long edge. Do not try to roll it very tightly or the filo will crack as you try to bend it - give it a little push and let it roll up naturally. Use your finger or a small brush to apply a small amount of egg yolk along the top edge, then continue to roll the dough on top of it so the seam side is down. Arrange the roll, seam side down, along the outer edge of the buttered cake pan. Brush the inside of the roll with a light coating of egg yolk.
- Prepare 4 more rolls as directed above and place each one in the cake pan, extending the coil by attaching the new roll to the end of the last roll with a dab of egg yolk. Brush the inside of each roll with egg yolk that so that as the rolls coil around and touch each other, they will adhere to the roll on each side of them – this is very important when slicing the pastry for serving. Brush the final roll with egg everywhere except the bottom before you put it in the pan, as the last roll will fit snugly and there will not be room to add the egg afterward. The last roll should curl tightly around itself, filling the center of the pan. If your filo sheets are short (the sheets for this recipe should be 17 inches in length) and the 5 rolls do not fill the cake pan, quickly adjust the coil (while the egg yolk is still damp) so that the center is filled – if the outer edges do not touch the cake pan, that’s okay. Brush the top of the pastry evenly with the remaining egg yolk.
- Place the pan in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely.
- To unmold, run a thin, sharp knife around the edges of the pan, loosening any filo that may have stuck. As you do this, gently press the knife into the side of the pan to avoid gouging the pastry. Gently place a plate upside down on top of the cake pan and, holding the pan and plate together, flip the two over. The pastry should slide out onto the plate. (If the pastry sticks to the bottom of the pan, place the pan in a hot oven or over a burner for a few seconds, just long enough to warm and loosen the butter and egg, then try turning it out again). Place your serving platter upside down on top of the pastry, then flip the two over so that the pastry is right side up.
- Serving and storage notes - Dust the top of the snake very lightly with powdered sugar if you like, allowing the golden filo to show through. Use a thin, sharp knife to cut wedges of the pastry, transferring each to a plate using a pie wedge or cake server (the coil is delicately bound with the egg yolk and could break apart if not supported). Top each slice with a few pieces of candied lemon zest (optional) and sprinkle a few pieces around each plate as well. Store at room temperature, lightly covered with plastic wrap or foil, for up to 4 days. The pastry is at its best about 8 hours after it has been baked, as the flavors begin to meld.
- Snake Pastry with Apricots, Almond Paste, and Orange: The bright flavor of dried apricots is a perfect pairing for the sweet, slightly bitter essence of almond paste. Try to find tart California dried apricots for this recipe. If your only option is Mediterranean or Turkish apricots, reduce the sugar in the recipe to 1 tablespoon. Otherwise, follow the recipe above, substituting 8 ounces dried apricots for the figs and the finely chopped zest of 1 orange for the lemon. Omit the anise seed altogether. Garnish with candied orange zest (optional).