I've had a bag of durum semolina lying around the house for about a year now, ever since that time I was browsing the aisles of Whole Foods and picked it up, thinking that I'd have enough time and energy to make handmade pasta conchiglie for dinner that week. Of course, the dreams of conchiglie have long fallen by the wayside, and the semolina has been hanging out in the cupboard ever since, taunting me.
Basboosa (or is it basbousa?) is a Middle Eastern kind of sweet semolina cake with rosewater, and I came upon the recipe for it last month in Food & Wine Magazine. I've been wanting to make it ever since, partly to use up that nagging bag of semolina, but mostly because I have a true to life obsession with Middle Eastern food and desserts. I love the delicate flavors of rose water, pistachio, honey, and orange blossom and, unlike some who might call them overly sugared, I adore their syrup-drenched sweetness. I like that they're cut into tiny pieces because you're not supposed to have very many, and that when you go to a middle eastern bakery you might find many, many flavors of bite-sized sweet treats from which to choose. Most of all, I like the idea that a variety of very sweet things- along with fresh fruit, dried fruit, and nuts- serves as such a beautiful, rich experience at the end of a meal that you would feel more satisfied sharing it slowly with others than you would if you ate, perhaps, a single, less rich dessert.
So, I made that Basboosa from Food & Wine and it was a slight disappointment. I mean, it was rose-scented and sweet, but thick and a little dry, as well. I knew that I wasn't having the full basboosa experience because, if it's one of the most beloved desserts in the Middle East (a big place, to say the least), then there must be something to it. Everyone wouldn't be fussing over a slightly dry cake. So I began researching other recipes and, turns out, there are about a million ways to make basboosa. I read recipes that included milk and eggs, like a regular American cake, and recipes that used yogurt, or coconut, or peanuts. I was overwhelmed because I have no reference for the thing; I don't have a Middle Eastern grandmother to ask. My granny is Southern and she'd have some tips if I called about biscuits, but I'm quite sure she's never heard of sweet rosewater semolina cake.
The original Food & Wine recipe is composed of Durum semolina, water, ghee, sugar, and baking soda, baked and drenched in a rosewater-lemon syrup. As I looked online, I saw cakes with slightly browned tops that looked delicious, so I decided to broil my basboosa in its final moments, to achieve that look and caramelized flavor. I also thought that the acid in yogurt might tenderize the cake, since semolina is extremely high in gluten and- to be honest- I was confused about how such a flour could be the entire base for a tender cake. I tried those additions, making my basboosa with semolina, yogurt, water, ghee, baking soda, sugar, and that same rosewater syrup. I was, again, slightly disappointed. Broiling the top did work, but the cake was so thick again, and even less tender than before. I wanted more syrup, more tenderness, a thinner cake, more stickiness, more rosewater, and more flavor.
Then, a game-changing moment happened. I found a video online from a chef who works at the Ritz Carlton in Saudi Arabia. As I watched him mix the cake, I saw that he mixed the ghee in very well with the semolina, before adding any water, and it dawned on me that this must be the essential tenderizing step. Like pie dough! All the flour had to be covered in fat before adding any liquid. I tried his recipe- which also mysteriously included yeast instead of baking soda, and no yogurt- making a few changes along the way, more ghee (because FAT!), lots of coconut (because STICKINESS!), resting time (because yeast!), and broiling (because CARAMELIZATION!) And, voila, I had what I (in my unexperienced opinion) thought was an absolutely life-changing dessert. To be sure, though, I'm going to have to go around Los Angeles and try all the basboosa I can find. I'll keep you posted.
Side note: I did have to buy more bags of semolina to complete this project and, yes, there is some leftover.
Makes 1 8" cake
For the cake:
- 200 grams sugar
- A small pinch of salt
- 300 grams finely milled semolina flour
- 50 grams ghee
- 3/4 teaspoon yeast
- 150 ml warm water
- 1/3 cup coconut
- 1/2 cup untoasted slivered almonds
For the syrup:
- 150 grams sugar
- 75 ml water
- 2 teaspoons rose water
- zest and juice of 1/2 lemon (or more to taste)
- Brush an 8 or 9" round cake pan with ghee. Combine the sugar, semolina, and yeast in a large bowl and use a spatula to mix very well.
- Melt the ghee if it isn't liquid and allow it to cool slightly. Then add it to the semolina mix and use a spatula to mix very well again, until all the flour feels like wet sand, and the ghee is evenly distributed.
- Add a pinch of salt and the warm water. (Not too warm or it will kill the yeast!) Stir well to combine. Add the coconut and mix again until evenly distributed. The mix will be wet and heavy.
- Spoon the semolina mixture into the prepared cake pan and use a spatula to get the surface as smooth as you can. Cover with a plate, towel, or plastic wrap and allow to rest for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- After the resting period, use a small, sharp knife to cut a square or diamond pattern about 1" wide into the surface of the cake. Don't worry if the lines blur a little, you'll cut again after the cake is done baking. No need to cut all the way through,either, but if you do it's not a problem.
- If you like painstaking tasks once in awhile, place two slivered almonds in the center of each square or diamond, at angles so they resemble a leaf or sprout. If you're feeling lazy, just put one at the center of each cake, or use halved almonds instead. Press them in a little bit so they'll stick.
- Place the cake in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the color of the cake is opaque, the edges are slightly browned, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
- While the cake bakes, make the syrup: combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Stir well until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Add the rose water, lemon zest, and lemon juice.
- Turn on the broiler and broil the cake for 3-5 minutes (depending on your broiler) until the top is golden but the almonds are not overly browned. As with anything you put in the broiler, BE CAREFUL and don't walk away! Your cake will be burned in a matter of minutes.
- Allow to cool slightly (for 10 minutes or so) and cut the diamond or square pattern again. Pour the warm syrup over the cake and allow to cool completely, until all the syrup is absorbed. If you're feeling nervous about the amount of syrup, use less at first. You can always add more, though it may not absorb quite the same way as it does when it's warm.
- Serve in tiny pieces with strong tea, mint tea, or coffee.