Harissa: Syrup-Drenched Semolina Cake

20141011_185020Before you call me crazy, let me clear something up: no, this dessert has nothing to do with harissa, the spicy North African chili paste. You see, harissa is also the Arabic name for a deliciously fragrant cake consumed all throughout the Middle East, particularly in Syria.

This cake, also called basbousa, was an extremely popular treat throughout the reign of the Ottoman Empire, and rightly so — the semolina flour adds an addictive nubby texture and sunny flavor while a douse syrup, called attar, keeps the cake moist while permeating it with fragrant sweetness. Although traditionally served with breakfast, harissa is definitely decadent enough to stand up against any dessert. This recipe will become a mainstay in your kitchen — unique enough to impress guests and delicious enough to keep them coming back for more!

The first step to make harissa is creating the attar, just like many other Middle Easter dessert recipes. The recipe for attar is incredibly simple, and can be found here.

If you try out this recipe for harissa and enjoy it, please consider donating to The After School Special’s fundraiser for children in Syria, or spread the word about it to friends and family!

Without further delay, the recipe:

Harissa — Syrup-Drenched Semolina Cake

October 13, 2014


  • 2 cups fine semolina flour
  • 1 cup butter or ghee, melted
  • 3/4 cup milk or yogurt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 1 cup attar (rose simple syrup, recipe here), separated
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds (optional)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt (if using unsalted butter)


Preheat the oven to 400F.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the semolina, sugar, baking soda and salt together.


Stir the melted butter in until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. The clumpy mixture should look and feel like wet sand.


Stir the milk and 1/4 cup of attar into the mixture to make a batter. Add more milk as necessary until the batter takes on the loose consistency and sunny, golden color of polenta or thick grits. Pour into a greased 9×9 baking dish. At this point, you can decorate the cake with almonds (or pistachios, coconut, etc) if that suits your fancy.


Place the baking dish in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cake takes on a beautiful golden brown hue and passes the toothpick test.


While the cake is still hot, pour the remaining attar all over, using a spatula to smooth the syrup over every square inch and into every nook and cranny. The cake will absorb all of the syrup, becoming plump and just perfectly sweet (as the cake itself contains but a small amount of sugar).


Wait for the cake to cool completely before cutting. The inside will then have set itself up completely, and a crunchy sweet crust will have formed on the surface.


The final product: a rich, dense, moist cake with a distinct cornbread-like crumb and a sunny, golden yet nuanced flavor. It is no wonder that Syrians are so fond of harissa.

If you enjoyed this recipe, please consider donating to my fundraiser for children in Syria and spreading the word. Together, we can make a difference!

Syria Donate Button

 {click the UNICEF button to donate to The After School Special’s fundraiser for children in Syria}

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