Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dessert: Basbousa

I've been known to say things before thinking at times. That may have been the case when I joyingly announced that Fridays was to be dessert day. I realized after this past Friday that there really aren't all that many Egyptian desserts I'm familiar with; watermelon or chocolate were the desserts of choice growing up. But that's ok, I've collected the few I do know and will be trying them out.

So I decided to take on a typical dessert: basbousa in egyptian, herissa in Alexandria, namoura in Syria, or revani in Turkey and Greece. All different ways to say sweet semolina cake oozing in honey/syrup.

While it's definitely not a dessert my family makes; ever, it's one that I've always loved saying: bas-bou-sa. Beautiful! And it sounds a little indecent too.

Being that this was not a family specialty, I got to feast my eyes on it during the times we would hit up the Middle East bakery. If you haven't been to one, you should. The smells of pistachio and rose water are just enough to make you think everything will be light and fluffy, when in fact it's all soaking in butter and syrup. So everything is quite heavy, and very, very sweet. It's probably one reason the Middle East has a high rate of diabetes.

But back to the dessert store. There are trays of conafa, baklawa, kahk(cookie stuffed with nuts/dates) mamoul (cookie stuffed with dates), and basbousa, all layered and begging to be eaten. I always gravitated towards basbousa for a couple reasons: it's the easiest one to eat, and calling it basbousa in egyptian gave me a little connection to my food. Most of the dessert places are Lebanese, so when they hear 'basbousa' immediately a conversation ensues in Arabic, and I explain in my broken Arabic after several questions are directed at me that 'i speak a little' 'very little' and then we all laugh and someone mumbles something which I don't understand, and I hope I get a discount for being from the same region.

Basbousa is made from semolina which is ground durum wheat. It's the same wheat used in pasta throughout the world, in couscous throughout North Africa, and in salads or meat pies in the Middle East (tabouleh, kobaeba). The wheat itself may have originated from the southern Mediterranean countries and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). It was also grown in Egypt during the Byzantine period (Middle Ages).

With the rise of Islam, trade between the Islamic empire and Europe began. Durum wheat was one of the Muslim world's biggest exports. Also, with the Islamic empire spreading all the way to Southern Italy, durum wheat inevitably made its way into Europe as a pasta.

It's hard to say exactly how the dessert itself came to be, but it seems to follow a common theme with most of the desserts: bread-like, very very sweet, and buttery. It also doesn't require too many ingredients.

The basic list of ingredients is semolina flour, sugar, milk, water (or rose/orange blossom water) and almonds/pistachios. I would suggest getting some rose/orange blossom water for this one because it really adds flavour. My recipe uses coconut flakes as well, going back to my coconut problem, but you could easily eliminate it. Though I don't know why, when you could have sweet, crunchy, coconut...

It's simple enough to make, but one piece is really all you want. So make sure you know more than two people, since you'll need help finishing all of this. Or I suppose you could just half the recipe. That would be smarter. But I didn't think of that. So I have a tray of syrupy delights and not enough space to run circles in.


Total Preparation Time: 25 minutes

Yield: 4 huge portions, 8 large portions, or 16 reasonable portions



2 cups of semolina

1 cup of dried coconut (unsweetened)

1/2 cup sugar

150 g (3/4 cup) butter

1 cup of milk


1 1/2 cup of sugar or honey

1 1/2 cups of water or 1/2 cup orange blossom/rose water 1 cup of water

2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice




1. Preheat oven to 350F

2. Mix all ingredients

3. Add to a buttered dish

4. With a wet spoon, or hands, flatten down batter in dish so it is smooth and evenly distributed

5. You can almonds to decorate the top either before or after it is baked

6. Put in oven.


7. Add all ingredients to a pot

8. Bring to a near-boil while constantly stirring on high heat

9. Once sugar has dissolved, or honey has melted down, take off heat

10. Syrup should be clear, but not caramelized

11. Once cake is golden brown on top, take out of oven

12. Cut into squares or diamonds

13. Pour syrup all over and let it stand for a couple hours to cool and soak

And done and done. Serve it with strong coffee and lots of water. It tastes better by day two when the syrup has fully absorbed and each bite is like biting into a bag of flavoured sugar with buttery goodness.


  1. Super informative! Basbousa takes me back to childhood vacations in the Balad for Eid. Well, that and Kahk and the smell of burning dung in the morning country air :)

  2. Just had a co-worker bring some of this in today. It was wonderful!

  3. I just found your blog..and I LOVE it!!Keep up the good work..I will be trying the basbousa out! It's great that you have measurements for the ingredients..because if I ask my mom, she doesn't know..because she does it all by taste and sight!

  4. WOW ! Just found your blog - at 4 am in the morn ! ...and simply love it ! ..your writing style is superb ! ...thanks for taking so much trouble and sharing such lovely recipes. Will be back surley ! ciao !

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I'll be updating my blog soon, so keep checking in.

  5. Ah, I have very fond memories of basbousa from my days in Alexandria. I've tried to make it before, but it never turns out quite as I remember it. I think it's about time to try again!

  6. I just made basbousa the other day. This post is so wonderful!!! It gave a little history on the basbousa, which is what I was wondering about. :) Thanks so much!!!

  7. i was so shocked to eat Basbousa in Bahrain. I thought its indian native food which i grew up eatting in Africa. we are Indian Origins. and my grand parents were making these cakes since 1920's

  8. Of all the basbousa recipes I found on the 'net, I liked the looks of yours best...that syrup looks incredible. I have one question: One cup of coconut is a lot of bulk, and I *have* to leave it out because coconut will kill me dead, it's my scariest allergy. So should I put in more of the grain to make up for the missing mass, or just leave it out?

    1. Hi Minyassa,
      I would leave it out, but maybe add half a cup extra of the semolina.
      let me know if that works out.