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).
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
Let’s begin this journey.
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.
Enjoy with friends, friends of friends, and not yet friends.
And a spot of tea.