This pastry is called basbousa, but it is also called harissa, aricha, harissa hloua, revani, rabani, kalb el louz, chapka, chamia, safra, pastūsha, namoura, alnmorh, or shamali. Whatever its name, this delicious cake is famous around the world.
What is basbousa?
This cake is one of the most popular in the Middle East and North Africa, in some Balkan countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Turkey or in Armenia, located in Western Asia. It can be found everywhere, in restaurants, in bakeries, and there will always be someone to offer a piece.
Semolina is the key ingredient of basbousa and, depending on the country, it can also contain almond or pistachio powder, as well as grated coconut.
In Egypt, for example, it can be found prepared with almond powder, and generously topped with hazelnuts on top; in Lebanon and Syria, with pistachio powder or crushed pistachios, with coconut or candied orange peel.
As soon as it comes out of the oven, basbousa is generously soaked with a cold sugar syrup, which can sometimes contain lemon or orange juice (or zest), or orange blossom water or rose water, as well as spices such as cloves or cinnamon.
What is the origin of basbousa?
The origin of basbousa goes back to the revani of Turkish cuisine, a classic cake from the time of the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, revani was baked for the first time by Ottoman pastry chefs to celebrate the conquest of Armenia in the sixteenth century. The battle of Revan, capital of the country, today called Yerevan, gave its name to this famous dessert.
As time passed, the revani started to delight many tables during the Ottoman period and its name was changed to revan-i meaning “precious” in the Ottoman language.
But the name of revani could also have been taken from the poet Revani who lived in Turkey between the fifteenth and sixteenth century.
What are the other names of basbousa?
It is called basbousa in many Middle Eastern countries but also harissa or harissa hloua in Tunisia and in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, kalb el louz in Algeria, chamia in Morocco, revani or rabani in Turkey, safra in Israel , pastūsha in Kuwait, namoura in Lebanon or Syria, revani in Greece, shammali in Cyprus, or shamali in Armenia.
This cake is very popular among many Jewish and Muslim communities around the world. The Sephardic Jews know it as tishpishti (tishpitti or tezpishti) in Turkey.
The Jews of Turkey prepare it for special occasions such as Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) or Pesach (Passover). Tishpishti is the most popular cake during Pesach when the semolina is then replaced by matzo flour (unleavened bread).
Muslims have made it a must in the holy month of Ramadan.
Sugar syrup is a very important pastry preparation in baking.
To find the first trace of syrups, we must go back to the end of the eleventh century, at the time of the Crusades in the Middle East, in the Indus Valley between India and Pakistan. At the time, the Crusaders discovered a beverage called charab.
They became so fond of it that they will keep the word by transforming it into a Western word. The word “syrup” thus comes from the Arabic charāb, which means “drink” in Arabic and Latin sirupus designating a drink based on a sweet and flavored solution.
As for fruit syrups, their origin goes back to the history of Ancient Greece and Rome. At that time, fresh fruits were kept in honey.
Then, in the seventeenth century, François Vatel, the cook of Louis XIV, highlighted the fact that the use of cane sugar allowed the best preservation of fruit, while respecting the taste.
But if the idea of syrup came from it, the technique that is used is different: it is not about adding sugar to the fruits, as the confectioners or jam makers do, but of evaporating the water of the fruits to concentrate it, then add it to a sugar syrup.
It is also the cooks who initially prepared recipes like grenadine syrup, in the eighteenth century.
It is in the eighteenth century that we can read for the first time the expression “syrup” (sirop) in French, in a text that evokes syrups used in pharmacy and cooking. At the time, people mainly used flowers and plants such as chamomile, rose or elderberry. It is on July 28, 1908 that the word “syrup” appeared for the first time in a regulatory text.
Sugar syrup is a very important preparation in baking and cooking. It is also very easy to make at home. It is the base of all sorbets, meringues and other confectionery.
Pastry syrup is called “sugar syrup” or “simple syrup” and it is very quick and easy to make. This basic preparation can be used to sweeten hot or cold drinks, in cocktails such as punch, to make candied fruits or to moisten cakes or make caramel.
Different viscosities can be obtained for the sugar syrup. Depending on its thickness, it is used for different recipes.
There are 3 forms of syrup.
- Light syrup, simple syrup or sugar syrup which is made with 1 volume of sugar for 2 volumes of water and which is used to moisten or completely soak cakes and make them soft and sweet.
- Medium syrup, that is to say not too heavy with one volume of sugar for a volume of water and which is ideal for drinks; to sweeten iced tea or to make candied ginger for example.
- Thick syrup with 2 volumes of sugar for one volume of water, used as a base for many sorbets.
For the recipe of the basbousa, the syrup is between the light syrup and the medium syrup.
Whether they are still hot or cold, you can soak all your cakes when you want, provided you follow a strict rule.
Indeed, the golden rule to soak a cake well, whatever its temperature, is to:
– Soak a hot cake with completely cold syrup
– Soak a cold cake with hot syrup
The custom of soaking cakes that are baked or fried, in flavored syrup, is typical of Middle Eastern pastry. It’s a way to make the aroma both delicate and persistent.
Basbousa is a delicious cake that is very easy to prepare. Do not be afraid about the amount of sugar. It is incredibly good and it is very difficult to stop when you start tasting it.
- 3 cups fine durum wheat semolina
- 1 cup ground almonds
- ⅓ cup caster sugar
- ½ cup cooled oil (or melted butter)
- 12 oz. plain yogurt
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 4 oz. roasted and crushed pistachios
- 1 cup caster sugar
- 1 cup water
- 2 tablespoons rose water (or orange blossom water)
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- Start by preparing the syrup as it will need to be completely chilled to soak the hot cake.
- Pour the water, sugar and lemon juice into a saucepan over high heat.
- Bring to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and cook the syrup over low to medium heat for up to 10 minutes.
When the syrup is completely cold, add rose water (or orange blossom water) and mix well.
- In a large bowl, combine the semolina, ground almonds, caster sugar, salt and baking powder. Add oil, yogurt, and mix.
- Grease a baking dish and dust with flour before pouring the preparation.
Pack the preparation well and smooth it out to the corners with a spatula. Using a knife, pre-cut 2-inch (5 cm) squares.
Allow the preparation to rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 F (200°C ) while the dough is resting.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the cake is golden brown.
- As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, pour the cooled syrup over it, leaving the cake inside the mold and spreading the syrup evenly.
- Sprinkle generously with crushed pistachios. Allow to cool completely before cutting the pieces along the pre-cut marks.