One of my favorite comforting desserts is called Basbousa.
Basbousa is dessert made from coarse semolina, and means small kiss in Arabic.
Also known as Hareeseh, as well as Nammoura, it is a very easy dish to make.
It combines semolina, coconut, yogurt, sugar and simple syrup to create a truly delightful sweet.
Semolina is the product left over from the milling process that is not flour.
Very often used to make pasta, couscous, and some Middle Eastern desserts.
Semolina is full of fiber, protein and nutrients so it can be good for you.
Unless of course you are on a gluten free diet.
Semolina does contain gluten.
What is Basbousa Cake?
It is popular throughout the Arab world, North Africa, Iran, Greece and Turkey.
In Egypt this is the main dessert served during the feasts and holidays for both Christians and Muslims.
This is a very simple dish and a great recipe to make.
It combines some healthy ingredients that have come to be a very familiar flavor in the desserts of the Middle East.
Then it is sweetened with simple syrup and flavored with rose water.
This unique dish is a great one to share with your friends and family.
As with most recipes, the quality of the ingredients and how you use them makes all the difference.
Semolina is the bulk of this recipe (it is a semolina cake after all!).
I’ve tried using different kinds of semolina but undoubtably the best to use is coarse semolina.
I have retried this recipe in so many ways to get the right balance of ingredients.
And to try and make it taste just as good as you can get from the bakeries here in Amman.
I used fine semolina (just the once).
It was a miserable defeat!
The whole cake just fell apart in seconds.
So make sure to use coarse semolina for a sturdy cake.
You’ll want to use desiccated coconut for this recipe.
It adds to the texture more so than coconut flour would.
I think it also adds an intensity to the flavor.
The coconut really shines through.
It also helps bind the cake together really well, giving you a lovely sponge.
I always have a preference to use sheep yogurt, as this is popular in the Middle East.
I find that it has a more complex, mellow flavor to it.
The richness you find in sheep yogurt also adds less tartness to recipes.
More frequently you can find this type of yogurt in most major supermarkets.
However, if you can’t find it or don’t want to use it, you can always use cow’s yogurt instead.
Just make sure it is a plain or non-flavored variety.
Orange Blossom Water
I prefer to use orange blossom water instead of rose water in this recipe, but you can use either.
The flavor you find with the orange blossom water is more delicate and a sweeter fragrance.
Whenever I smell it, it always transports me back to being a kid in Jericho, Palestine.
When we used to visit Jerusalem, we would have to drive through Jericho.
When the orange trees were in bloom, the air would fill with this sweet scent.
Interestingly, it goes wonderful in a hot steaming bath!
How to Make Basbousa
The main thing you need to get right for this recipe is the semolina.
You will need coarse ground semolina for this recipe in order to get the right texture and consistency for the cake.
Fine semolina will have a tendency to crumble very easily.
So the fine variety is not ideal.
Firstly, preheat the oven to 350°F/400°F.
In a large bowl, combine the: semolina, baking soda, coconut, sugar and melted butter.
Make sure that all the ingredients are well mixed.
I suggest putting on a latex glove and really getting stuck in there to combine the ingredients.
There’s nothing quite like cooking with your hands!
Next, add yogurt and mix in well.
Take a 8×8 baking dish and pour the batter in.
Make sure to press the cake batter down to smooth flat.
Using a knife, score the top of the cake to create diamond shapes.
To finish it off, place an individual slivered almond on each ‘diamond’ shape that you create.
You can now place this in the oven to bake.
How to Cook Basbousa
Once you’ve assembled your cake, place it in the middle shelf of your oven.
Cook in the oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
If you don’t cook it enough, the cake will just fall apart.
If you overcook it, it will become hard and crumble as well.
Making the Sugar Syrup
To make the sugar syrup, dissolve the sugar in the water in a small saucepan.
Cook this over a high heat.
Once the sugar has completely dissolved into the water, add the lemon juice and orange blossom water.
Bring the mixture to a boil and then allow to cool completely to room temperature.
The syrup should resemble the consistency of maple syrup and should smell aromatic.
To finish the dessert, you need to pour the syrup over the cake so it absorbs the sweet goodness.
My tip here is to pour the sugar syrup over the Basbousa just as it comes out of the oven.
Pouring the syrup when the cake is hot makes sure it can absorb as much syrup as possible.
Desserts from the Middle East
We in the Middle East love our desserts and sweets!
We all seem to just naturally have a sweet tooth.
People are used to eating dates and fruits, and other sweet type of foods.
Along with the neighborhood butcher, maker and candle stick maker, you would also have the neighborhood sweet shop.
And when we talk about sweets, we mean desserts.
Traditionally, you would either collect or have delivered a tray of something delicious.
This would be done to celebrate different occasions, whether that be marriage, or the feast or just a typical family gathering.
I remember going down to the Old City in Jerusalem and the man there would make ‘Mtabuk’ – a folded filo dessert with a sweet cheese and simple syrup.
He would make them fresh right in front of us.
You just can’t beat fresh food like that!
Even now, while I’m back living in Amman, we take frequent trips to our local sweet shop where we indulge ourselves in everything we can.
Our favorite is always to get a fresh Knafeh.
They make them in these large circular trays and as it is so popular, you always get a delicious warm slice of Knafeh.
Generally, the difference I’ve found between traditional Middle Eastern and American desserts is that the ingredients seem to be less processed.
They include a lot more nuts and fruit, foods we consider to be healthier in the West.
Compared with when I grew up here to now, there are a lot more chocolate based and Western style desserts.
It’s fascinating to see how flavors blend and develop over time.
Countries and cultures innovate and borrow.
Equipment I Used
For the Cake
For the Cake
- Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
- Incorporate ingredients well by mixing them together by hand.
- Add the yogurt and mix in well.
- Press the cake batter into an 8X8 baking dish, and smooth flat.
- Using a knife, score the top of the cake creating diamond shaped pieces.
- Push a piece of slivered almond into each diamond shaped piece of cake batter.
- Place in the oven on the middle rack for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
For the Syrup
- In a small saucepan over high heat dissolve sugar in water by stirring until water is clear.
- Add lemon juice, and rose water or orange blossom water.
- Bring to a boil and then remove from heat and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.
Bringing It Together
- Remove cake once done, and cut through scored lines making sure to carve all the way to the bottom of the tray.
- Pour syrup over the cake by evenly distributing the sugar water.
- Allow the cake to absorb all the syrup.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.