Recipe: Sweet Semolina Cake with Lemon & Rosewater | Basboosa

Love’s every whimsy can be found in the tender, fragile curve of a rose. Arab cooks must know this in their hearts, as they imbue many of their desserts with the essence of this great flower. Rose water is made from hundreds (thousands!) of rose petals and I’m convinced there is magic in every drop.

Today’s cake, called Basboosa, is heavy with such magic. This incredibly moist cake is conjured up with durum semolina, then soaked in a pool of syrup made with sweetened rose water and fresh lemon juice.

Each bite is like a garden at sunrise. The dreamy perfume of roses and lemons unite, overflowing the senses like King Fahd’s Fountain in Saudi Arabia (the tallest fountain in the world… “The water it ejects can reach a speed of 233 miles per hour and its airborne mass can exceed 18 tons.” Wiki).

This magic is glorious with a cup of strong tea (I’m talking about both the cake and the fountain).

King Fahd's Fountain. Photo by Jan Tielens.

King Fahd’s Fountain. Photo by Jan Tielens.

I’ve seen recipes for Basboosa throughout the Middle East.  Today’s version is typical of what you’d find in Saudi Arabia. The owner of our local Middle Eastern market went to great lengths to explain how to make this incredible treat. As he waved his hands from side to side, explaining this option and that… I learned, as recipes go,  basboosa is incredibly fluid.

He said his wife likes to use farina, while he prefers durum semolina (quickly adding that others like to mix the two flours). Then he shrugged in the direction of the peanuts, almonds, and pistachios, indicating that I could decorate the cake with any sort of nut I desired.  His speech quickened as he rattled off a list of possibilities : rose water or orange blossom water; folding in coconut or even just sprinkling it on top; that I might consider adding yogurt; and, when it comes to leavening, that yeast or baking powder are both acceptable.

He took a breath somewhere in there, too.

The main thing he advised?

“Basboosa is meant to be shared.”

So it’s with those words that I send you off into your stovetop travels, to happy bites of basboosa and perhaps a vision of King Fahd’s Fountain.

A note to the eager cook: be careful to use the correct semolina. I found mine at a little Middle Eastern market labeled “Durum Semolina” and it worked perfectly. There are other grinds that won’t soak up the syrup properly, which I discovered when I made it with another variety.

Makes one 8″ cake


For the cake

3 cups durum semolina
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup melted ghee, plus extra for greasing
1 1/2 tsp yeast
1 1/2 tsp rose water
1 1/4 cups warm water

For the syrup

1/2 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp rose water


small handful of almonds or peanuts
whipped cream


Let’s begin this journey.

Mard castle in Saudi Arabia. Photo by Nora Ali.

Mard castle in Saudi Arabia. Photo by Nora Ali.

Find a little corner of a castle and get to cookin’.

Mix all the ingredients together until a thick batter forms.

Let the batter rest for at 15-30 minutes. To pass the time, send a greeting card to someone who needs a smile. Then, grease an 8″ cake pan and preheat the oven to 325F. Pour the batter into the baking pan, score with the tip of a knife in a diamond pattern, and decorate with nuts.

You can choose one large nut, or several small. I liked pressing mine on in the shape of a little flower.

Bake the cake for 35 minutes, or until cooked through.

Slice the cake along the score lines and set it aside.

On the stovetop, simmer the sugar, lemon juice, rose water, and water for about 5 minutes, or until the sugar dissolves and the whisper of roses and lemons fills the kitchen.

Pour the syrup completely over the sliced cake. It’ll look like a glass lake. Completely submerged. You won’t think it’ll all soak up. No fear. If you used the right semolina, it will.

P.S. Don’t worry if a few of the almonds float away, you can reposition them later.

Let the cake rest about an hour to let all that sweet, syrupy goodness soak into the cake. While you wait, watch a Traditional Saudi Dance.

Here’s my cake the next day, in the early morning light… no traces of that glass

Amazing. The moisture is sublime.

Enjoy with friends, friends of friends, and not yet friends.

And a spot of tea.


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  1. That looks and sounds divine!

  2. This is a common Lebanese dessert as well. . . I just had some this weekend in fact! We don’t usually put lemon juice though and sometimes there is orange blossom water in addition to rose water.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      I can’t wait to try this with the orange blossom water. I bought it for our Moroccan Global Table and need to use it again!

  3. Hi I heard about your website on Rick Steve’s radio show. It was broadcast Sunday Dec 30 in Nashville, TN.
    I logged onto the web site and am delighted to learn about your recipes. I am trying the Irish Guiness Chocolate cake this weekend.
    Also, our family is hosting an exchange student from Slovakia, so I’ll keep posted for this S country.


    • Sasha Martin says:

      Hi Karen, Nice to hear from you – welcome. Hope you love that cake as much as we did :) I’d be curious for any tips from your exchange student. It’s always the best when locals weigh in. Best wishes for a great New Year.

  4. Is this similar to Halwa? And do you think I could replace the ghee with coconut oil? Looks very yummy!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Hi Kelsey, I would go ahead and try it with coconut oil – since it’s only 1/4 cup I think it’d be okay. Good luck and let us know how it goes if you get a moment :)

  5. Lovely, gorgeous site. I’ve added it to my blogroll.
    Happy travels and cooking,

  6. Did I miss the link for printer-ready copy? I see that I can tweet it, facebook it, google+ it, but not print it. Drawback extraordinaire.


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