Harissa (aricha or harissa hloua) in Tunisia and the Egyptian city of Alexandria, basbousa in many Middle Eastern countries, kalb el louz in Algeria, revani or rabani in Turkey, safra in Israel, pastūsha in Kuwait, namoura in Lebanon, revani in Greece or shamali in Armenia.
Middle Eastern and North African pastries
Middle Eastern and North African pastries are sweet wonders from the Maghreb or the Middle East countries. As an example and to mention only a few among countless sweets: almond cigars, samsas, zlabiya, cornes de gazelle, bjaouia, chebakia, or ghraiba.
Those pastries are diverse and varied, but the same ingredients are generally used: honey, almonds, nuts, dates, sesame seeds, semolina, pistachios and pine nuts.
Depending on their origins, many Middle Eastern and North African pastries do not necessarily have the same name, although the same recipe is more or less used.
Those pastries are sunny delicacies, rich and full of light. Even in the most basic pastries, made with simple dough, there is always a little note of richness, a luxury that is released from the first bite.
And then there are the colors, often of a brilliant white, amber or gold, a luminosity specific to the Mediterranean or to the clear sky of all those regions that straddle Asia and Europe.
Middle Eastern and North African desserts most certainly come from nomadic cuisine, which did not have ovens but rather fires.
The nomads carried and exchanged spices and always brought dried fruits in their luggage. A simple bread could therefore become a dessert by incorporating nuts, honey, rose water, orange blossom water or cinnamon.
From these simple ingredients, the possibilities were endless and, as the caravans moved, they met the customs of settlers everywhere. Thus many delicacies were born.
These delicacies were then found in the kitchens of sultans or kings and were often improved by the French pastry chefs who had recently arrived in the East and the Middle East.
A North African pastry can be enjoyed in silence to note all its flavor. Moreover, a famous Arab proverb says about it: “The tree of silence bears the fruits of peace”.
What is harissa?
Strangely enough there are 3 recipes fighting over the name harissa:
The first is the world-famous hot pepper purée, the cornerstone of Tunisian cuisine.
The second is the Shabbat wheat berry dafina, a delicacy of Tunisian Jewish cuisine also known as haricha or arissa.
And finally the third, the aricha or harissa hloua, meaning “sweet harissa”, a delicious cake with semolina and almonds generously impregnated with an orange blossom syrup and decorated with almonds or pistachios on top.
How to make harissa hloua
The characteristics of this cake are as follows:
- the presence of semolina and, depending on the country where it is prepared, it may also contain grated coconut, almond or pistachio powder. In Egypt, for example, it can be found prepared with almond powder, topped with hazelnuts ; in Lebanon, with pistachio powder or crushed pistachios, with coconut or candied orange peel.
- the syrup that it is soaked in, in addition to water and sugar, may sometimes contain lemon or orange juice or zest, orange blossom water or rose water and spices such as cloves and cinnamon.
In many countries, and even in Tunisia, yoghurt is sometimes incorporated into the dough.
Where does harissa hloua come from?
The origin of harissa goes back to the revani of Turkish cuisine, a classic cake from the time of the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, it was first cooked by Ottoman pastry chefs to celebrate the conquest of Armenia in the 16th century. The battle of Revan, the country’s capital, now known as Yerevan, gave the name to this famous dessert.
As time went on, revani began to delight many tables during the Ottoman period and its name was changed to revan-i meaning “the precious” in the Ottoman language.
But the name revani could also have been taken from the poet Revani who lived in Turkey between the 15th and 16th centuries.
The difference between wheat flour and semolina
Confusion when talking about the difference between wheat flour and semolina is very common, even among the most discerning consumers.
Indeed, even semolina is a flour obtained by milling wheat, but the fact that it is a different type of wheat gives another name to the finished product.
Flour therefore traditionally means soft wheat flour, and semolina refers to the result of milling durum wheat.
These two types of wheat are very different from each other and it can be noticed both visually and nutritionally.
Wheat is rounder, opaque and crumbly, while durum wheat is longer, translucent and hard. The milling of soft wheat results in a smoother flour, which is more or less white in color depending on the degree of ripening, while the result obtained from durum wheat gives a light yellow and more granular flour, the semolina.
As far as the characteristics of wheat flour are concerned, it has smaller grains and a lower water absorption capacity. The dough obtained from wheat flour is certainly more stretchy but less tenacious than the dough obtained with durum wheat semolina.
Semolina makes harder doughs, more difficult to work by hand but with excellent characteristics for bread making and dough production. The fact that it is able to absorb more water allows to make pasta without adding eggs.
With regard to its nutritional benefits, semolina is rich in protein and has a higher satiating power. It is also rich in carotenoids (which give it its yellow color), excellent antioxidants.
Kalb el louz – a heart of almonds
Kalb el louz or qalb el louz (in Arabic: قلب اللوز), this is what harissa hloua is called in Algeria. It is a typically Algerian name which means “heart of almonds”. This Algerian pastry is said to be native to Constantine.
Almond powder is widely used in pastry and confectionery. It is an excellent substitute for flour in many recipes.
Almond powder (or almond meal) is used to prepare desserts such as macarons, to enrich them or to prepare marzipan, which is the basis for many recipes. It is also excellent for decorating cakes and making drinks.
The almond powder found on the market is usually prepared with broken or damaged almonds, i.e. with the waste. It is therefore preferable, and especially for this harissa recipe, to prepare it at home, for real quality end product.
There are two schools for the preparation of almond powder.
The first recommends, in order to obtain a white powder, to boil the almonds for 2 to 3 minutes, to peel them, and to roast them in order to dry them before reducing them to powder.
The second one simply recommends roasting them slightly and reducing them to powder with their skin.
Delicious harissa hloua, delicate and melting, accompanied by a good mint tea or barley syrup, a recipe to make over and over again. You will never get tired of it!
Harissa hloua (or aricha) is a cake prepared with semolina and almond meal that is popular in Tunisia, and that is known in the region under different names.
- 2½ cups almond powder
- 1¼ cup extra fine semolina
- 1 cup caster sugar
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 eggs
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons orange blossom water
- Peel of ½ organic orange
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pinch salt
- Oil for the pan
- 3 cups water
- 1½ cup caster sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 tablespoons fresh orange juice
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons crushed roasted almonds
- 4 tablespoons crushed roasted pistachios
- Stand mixer
- Cake pan (11x8 inches)
Preheat the oven to 375 F (190˚C).
- In a bowl, mix the semolina and baking powder.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the eggs, oil, almond extract, orange zest, caster sugar, orange blossom water, vanilla extract, and salt.
- Add the mixture of baking powder and semolina, and finally the almond powder.
Mix everything using the flat beater (K beater).
Grease a 11x8 inch (28 x 20 cm) cake pan. Pour the mixture and bake for about 35 minutes.
- The cake should be slightly golden but firm.
- Prepare the syrup while baking the cake.
- Add all the syrup ingredients in a non-stick pan.
- Bring to a boil over high heat and cook on low heat for 15 minutes.
- When the cake is out of the oven, let cool for 10 minutes then pre cut square or diamond-shaped slices by leaving the biscuit inside the mold.
- Gently pour the syrup over the entire surface of the cake so that it is absorbed inside the cut slices.
- Let stand at least 1 hour or more before placing each diamond or square-shape slice in individual paper liners.
- Mix the crushed almonds and pistachios and sprinkle each cake slice with the mixture.