Food is more than just sustenance…it’s cultural.
Hot Docs is on. This annual documentary film festival takes place in Toronto, Canada in late April/early May and features documentaries from around the world on a wide variety of subject matter. Though food is in its own category it is still prevalent for all films. The enticing smell of buttered popcorn is ubiquitous in North American theatres and considered by many to be part of the movie-going experience. This led me to do a mini-series on food inspired by my Hot docs trilogy. First up: Speed Sisters and basbousa.
Speed Sisters is a film by Canadian director and film maker of Lebanese heritage Amber Fares. It chronicles the story of the first all women race team in the Middle East. Filmed in Palestine in the throes of the Israeli occupation, this film explores the individuals that make up the team and the familial and societal expectations they face.
“Outside the car is one thing but inside is another world.”
I had been meaning to make basbousa for a while and tonight was the night. It would be the perfect complement to the salty popcorn I had and culturally à propos as basbousa is a Middle Eastern dessert.
This sweet egg-free cake, made with semolina flour, is found under various guises in the Mediterranean region. There is a Turkish version but basbousa is often associated with Lebanese and Egyptian cuisine. The cake is made with semolina flour, topped with almonds and doused in a sweet syrup after being baked. It is traditionally cut into diamond shapes.
Semolina is made from durum wheat, the same grain used to make pasta, breakfast cereals and couscous. Besides semolina, the other commonalities in different basbousa recipes are almonds and a copious amount of sugar. Some recipes include coconut while others use either yogurt or milk.
After cross-referencing several recipes in my Middle Eastern cookbooks and on the internet, I came up with the following recipe.
My recipe alchemy
Changes I made to the original recipe:
*I reduced the sugar in half in both the cake and syrup. Using two types of sweetener at full strength is excessive. Less sugar and some honey makes for a balanced sweetness.
*I opted for coconut flour instead of coconut to give the cake a little more body. You can use regular flour to reduce the crumbliness of the cake.
*I cut them into squares instead of diamonds. Looks pretty much the same and individual portions come out more even.
*Many recipes call for rosewater but I used orange blossom water instead. Feel free to use either or none. Orange blossom is less bold than rosewater and barely detectable. It basically tempers the sweetness.
This recipe will divide up nicely into 12 palm-sized portions. Feel free to double it for a crowd or make your own additions. This cake would make a lovely accompaniment to tea or cardamom-spiked coffee.
1 cup semolina flour
¼ cup fair-trade cane sugar
¼ cup butter/oil
½ cup of dairy or non-dairy milk mixed with ¼ teaspoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract (I recommend Madagascar)
½ teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda
1 Tablespoon of coconut flour
a handful of almonds for topping (1 almond per serving)
- Mix lemon juice with milk; set aside for 10 minutes to curdle.
- Melt butter; set aside to cool. If using oil, no need to heat; you just want liquified fat.
- Combine dry ingredients with a whisk. Add in melted butter and soured milk. Mix until combined. Let sit while you prepare the baking pan.
- Pour into greased/lined baking pan and level out. Place almonds on top to mark each serving piece.
- Bake in a preheated 350º oven for 30 minutes. Remove and cut into individual portions. Colour should be golden.
- Pour syrup on top. Let sit 10 minutes until syrup has soaked in. Carefully remove pieces from the pan and enjoy!
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup honey (or alternative liquid sweetener)
¼ teaspoon each of orange blossom water and lemon juice
- While cake is baking, bring ingredients to a boil.
- Turn heat down and let simmer about 10 minutes.
- Keep warm until you are ready to pour over the cake.
I was so happy with the results that I ended up eating the whole cake, save 2 pieces, in less than 24 hours! Basbousa, I’ll be back!