Around the World in Twelve Plates – Egyptian Basbousa
I say it’s high time I bake something sweet for our little Around the World in Twelve Plates blogger collaboration. Basbousa is an Egyptian classic cake made from durum semolina and a whole lot of dairy which is also popular in many other Middle Eastern countries. The cake is quite rich with a unique texture but it’s the syrup that provides all the flavour!
What is unique about this month’s ATW12P country is that I have actually been to Egypt. When I learned that my husband had a work trip to Egypt scheduled in January 2008, I knew I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to tag along. The company he was working for scheduled private tours for me in Alexandria and I was under the close supervision of several female tour guides. Alexandria is much smaller than Cairo and when I mean ‘much smaller’ I am talking in terms of millions of people with a 2008 population of just over 4 million while Cairo at that time was around 18 million. Though Alexandria is a popular resort destination for Egyptians, I visited during the ‘off season’ when temperatures were quite a bit cooler (18-20° C) and traffic wasn’t a horrendous nightmare (though really it was pretty much a nightmare anyway compared to where I live!). I was glad we had our own driver even though we found out later he was legally blind. The drive from Cairo to Alexandria is around 3 hours on one of the world’s deadliest highways and we made it there and back safely so I guess he wasn’t so bad after all.
I really regret that this trip happened before I started my blog. Looking back at the photos, my skills probably matched the equivalent quality of my camera gear. Though we stayed in what was the most gorgeous hotel surrounded by the Montaza Palace grounds right on the Mediterranean, my photos are all quite grey, lackluster, and blurry. I visited Alexandria Library (though it’s a much more modern version of the famous antiquities library that was burned down by Julius Caesar), the Citadel of Qaitbay (a 15th-century defensive fortress established in 1477 AD by Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay), the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa (a necropolis which consists of a series of Alexandrian tombs, statues and archaeological objects of the Pharaonic funeral cult mixed with Greek and early Imperial Roman influences) as well as the Graeco-Roman Museum, the Alexandria National Museum, and the ruins of a Roman Auditorium and Bathhouse.
But the REAL highlights of this trip were:
- realizing that young Egyptian lovebirds flock to Montaza Palace grounds to make out in cars at night.
- eating my first BLT made with beef bacon
- crossing the street by myself (think Frogger but deadlier) to shop in the bazaar
- sitting on the breakwater and watching the fishermen catch fish out of skinny dug out canoes
- listening to Shakira on repeat for 3 hours on the way to Alexandria
- paying $3 US for 5 squares of toilet paper at the Pyramids of Giza (and yes, I know that’s 75% more than what I was supposed to give her)
- eating a multi-course dinner in the penthouse piano bar at the Hilton Ramses in Cairo
- chatting about life with my female tour guides. One was single, the other was married…the single lady drew all sorts of attention from the ‘tourist police’ at every stop on the tour
- a two hour camel ride in the desert to find a geocache.
- my hubby’s face after a two hour camel ride in the desert and bribing the gatekeeper to let us back in to the back area of the Pyramids at Giza.
- a dinner cruise on the Nile River which included belly dancing and Whirling Dervishes
- accidentally handing a bribe to the Egyptian customs officer at the airport
After my husband was finished work in Alexandria we had a day to tour around Cairo and ended up (as one inevitably does) in Giza to explore the Pyramids and gaze at the Sphinx. We had a chance to enter the Pyramid but I just couldn’t do it. I felt there was an electricity in the air; a strange imbalance or feeling of unrest or sadness. I felt it was just wrong to go in. We did climb up to get our photo taken and those blocks are a lot larger than I thought they would be!
As far as food went, we had some great dinners but the ones that are most memorable to me were the ones that had huge crates of fresh fishes on ice. We chose our fish and how it was to be cooked (fried, grilled, etc.) then we were seated and fed small but delicious dishes until our main meal arrived. We didn’t ever really have dessert but finished our meal with a fresh orange or a mango smoothie. Egypt was where I fell in love with mangoes…until then I had only ever had the tasteless mangoes (which I call Canadian mangoes) that have to be imported halfway around the world. So, if I would have had room for dessert I would have probably chosen a slice of Basbousa with extra syrup.
Basbousa (adapted from The Mediterranean Dish)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter; melted
- 1 cup plain yoghurt
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cups semolina flour with mixed textures (such as 1 cup fine plus one cup coarse)*
- 1/3 cup milk
- 1 tsp baking powder
- whole unpeeled almonds
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup honey
- 3/4 cup water
- 4 whole cloves
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 6 cardamom pods
- 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
- rose water (optional)
- Mix the yoghurt and sugar together in a medium bowl.
- Add the semolina, milk, and baking powder and mix well. Let sit for at least 20 minutes.
- Press into a lightly greased shallow 9 inch baking pan and score the top with a sharp wet knife. Arrange almonds.
- Pre-heat the oven to 350 F and bake for 45 minutes. If you want the top to be a nice golden colour, use the broiler for a few minutes. Don’t get distracted!!
- While the cake is baking, combine the next seven ingredients in a pot and allow to boil. Simmer lightly for around ten minutes, then discard the aromatics. If there is a lot of foam from the honey, you should skim it off.
- Add rose water to taste…remember a little goes a long way!
- When the cake is finished remove from oven and pour half of the syrup over top, taking care to coat the surface in an even layer.
- Serve each slice with a little extra syrup and some strong tea.
* I spent two hours looking for coarse durum semolina flour. My ‘go-to’ place was out and I eventually figured out that couscous would do the trick as it is, essentially durum semolina mixed with water to make larger particles. I threw two cups of couscous in my blender and gave it a whirl for a minute. I ended up with the perfect mix of fine and coarse semolina!
Are you as excited as I am to hear about what the other ATW12P bloggers are up to for this month’s Egyptian cuisine challenge? Please give them a visit and show them some love and appreciation!
Gabby Peyton at The Food Girl in Town
Nicoletta and Loreto at Sugar Love Spices