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Is Hand-Rolled Couscous Really Rolled By Hand?

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Many a weeknight meal in Amanda and Merrill's forthcoming book is built on couscous. But not just any couscous: They recommend seeking out M'Hamsa Hand Rolled Couscous in particular.

Why a special search for fancy couscous? As Amanda puts it:

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The uneven shapes and texture make it more interesting to eat, and I find that hand-rolled couscous has better bounce and structure, and holds up better in sauces. If you think about artisan hand-shaped bread versus factory made bread, it's a similar difference.

Green Couscous and Cookies
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Green Couscous and Cookies

But is hand-rolled couscous really rolled by hand, or is the term just a marketing ploy?

It turns out that couscous is traditionally made by hand—and those hands can even be yours! While the boxed couscous might be inconceivable to produce at home, the coarser beads are not so out of reach. As Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert wrote:

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I demonstrate couscous making whenever I get the chance. I’ve taught the staff at Chez Panisse and at the Napa Valley Culinary Institute of America. I like to think that there are chefs across the country who are ‘rolling their own’—couscous, that is.

To make it, you need to gradually moisten semolina flour with water (Joan Nathan recommends using a spray bottle) while moving your palms over the semolina circularly, in the same direction. The goal is to end up with small granules rather than a dough, and techniques vary. Wolfert's method involves using moistened coarse semolina as a "magnet" for the finer flour.

Your Favorite Ways to Use Leftover Couscous
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Your Favorite Ways to Use Leftover Couscous

Those granules are then pressed through a sieve to make their size more consistent (and Wolfert then shakes these granules through yet a finer sieve to remove excess flour). You can discard the leftover small beads and the flour, or add additional water and use use them to make the next batch (or supplement the first one).

To make larger granules, the process is continued. Additional water and semolina is sprinkled onto the beads, and they're rolled slowly until they increase in bulk. "Through this elemental process, we are able to turn out an incredible diversity of couscous sizes and textures," explains NY Shuk, an artisanal food producer specializing in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisines. "The larger the grain, the longer and more labor intensive it is to make."

Couscous Salad with Zucchini, Lemon and Ricotta Salata

Couscous Salad with Zucchini, Lemon and Ricotta Salata by Amanda Hesser

Carrot Chickpea Couscous Salad

Carrot Chickpea Couscous Salad by Kendra Vaculin

The large, bead-like grains that are the result of much sprinkling and rolling are known as pearl couscous, mograbiah, giant couscous, matfoul (Palestinian couscous often made with bulgur wheat), or berkurki. And while they're sometimes mistaken for Israeli couscous, that term is, actually, a misnomer: Israeli couscous not couscous at all.

Why? You'll have to wait until tomorrow's post (just try and hold out!) for the explanation.

How Couscous Saved My Dinner Party (& Can Save Yours, Too)
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How Couscous Saved My Dinner Party (& Can Save Yours, Too)

Have you ever made couscous by hand? Success, failure, or something in between? Share with us in the comments!

Tags: couscous