Harissa aka Basboosa (Semolina Cake)

basbosa harissa

Harissa is a typical Middle Eastern dessert very popular in Egypt. It is a dense, moist cake, gooey with a fragrant simple syrup. Harissa, also known as basboosa is a semolina sweet cake with a delicate balance of citrus notes, coconut, optional rose notes, and accented with golden almonds on top. It is the perfect treat to serve to guests with tea and coffee, and its simple recipe method will entice anyone to prepare it!

Many Egyptians also call this dessert basboosa. Basboosa is my nickname my father used for me as a child. The name basboosa literally translates to my sweet or my precious when used as a term of endearment, so it can certainly be applied to both your loved ones or this scrumptious dessert! Depending which region of Egypt one is from, it would be referred to as harissa (Alexandria) or basboosa (Cairo and the vicinity). Growing up, basboosa has always been a part of our family dinner parties, a basic sweet to have on hand for casual guests, and of course, for the month of Ramadan. I recall enjoying basboosa many moments with friends and families. It is truly a delightful treat, and especially nostalgic because you really only receive or serve it in the home, made with love by your mother or grandmother. I remember enjoying this dessert with my best friend in Ramadan; we sat there savoring the gooey delicious little cakes, licking our fingers from the sticky crumbs that remained.

I am so fond of making harissa at home, especially when we have guests because it is SO easy to make! You can whip all ingredients easily in a bowl with a spatula and no eggs are needed for the batter! Mixing this up is truly a cinch, yet the flavor and texture so complex.  My Syrian and Lebanese friends refer to this very cake as namoura in their homes and Turks may refer to it at Revani. I have seen versions of this dessert in Jewish traditions, as well as Greek and Armenian cuisine! As I always say, bonding and connection always happens through food! 

I love my mom’s recipe because it is so light and not overly sweet and heavy like some Middle Eastern desserts can be. Although this is a syrup soaked cake, the batter is a nice and fluffy semolina and coconut mixture with minimal sugar (you could even omit it in the batter). The syrup that soaks into typical Middle Eastern desserts is a simple sugar syrup, heavy with rose water or orange blossom essence added to it. The syrup used for this basboosa is very fragrant and light. As my mom always does, I simply use a dash of lemon juice, and orange rind for flavor which balances nicely with the sweetness of this semolina cake. 



Harissa is made with coarse semolina flour, which you can find in any Middle Eastern market, Italian specialty shops, or other specialty grocery stories. If you cannot find it, a good substitute you may use is the Cream of Wheat cereal mix made with farina wheat. Just make sure it is not the instant variation as that grain is too fine. This recipe cannot be made with fine semolina, it should be the coarse type.

The cake is made without eggs, and uses yogurt and sour cream instead. Be sure to use plain yogurt as flavored kinds have additives that can change the recipe. It is easily whipped together in one bowl and bakes in one large sheet pan. It cannot get any easier!

The simple syrup is incredibly easy:  dissolve sugar in water and boil it until it becomes thickened, add a hint of flavoring with lemon juice and orange juice, and optionally rose water, and then a tablespoon of butter. In my mother’s recipe for syrup, a fresh squeeze of lemon juice is important to help the syrup thicken. I add the rind of an orange to scent and flavor the cake with more depth of flavor. In the winter, when we have great citrus I like to add orange zest into the batter of the basboosa, for variation. 

I rarely use rose water because I don’t like the quality of the rose syrup we have locally. However, if I get my hands on some of the pure rose essence, it is a must! I have also started boiling rose buds in the syrup water, before I add the sugar. This makes for a similar fragrant effect that is purely rose. The delicate scent of rose in each bite is so lovely.

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Other people like to add orange blossom to the syrup. You can use what you love! The syrup should be prepared in advance as it needs to be poured after cooling, onto the hot cake, fresh out of the oven. The syrup becomes fully absorbed by the cake this way, making it so lusciously moist and gooey. 


The batter is so incredibly easy you will want to get up and make this as soon as you read this! All you need is semolina flour, baking powder, yogurt, a dash of butter, coconut, sugar and sour cream. No eggs! You mix all of these together into a nice thick and creamy batter, allow it to sit and rise for 30 minutes, and then spread into a 9 inch rectangular pan. Bake at 400 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes. In no time, you will have gorgeous little semolina squares to enjoy for dessert!


Harissa is traditionally presented with a slivered almond on top of each slice and cut into squares or diamonds. This sweet semolina cake pairs perfectly with coffee or tea.

basbosa harissa

Basboosa AKA Harissa

This simple cake made with semolina and coconut is a dense, moist cake, gooey with a fragrant simple syrup. This cake has a delicate balance of citrus notes, coconut, optional rose notes, and accented with golden almonds on top.
Course Dessert
Cuisine egyptian, Middle Eastern
Servings 12 pieces


For the cake:

  • 2 c coarse semolina
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/2 c butter or coconut oil
  • 1 c finely shredded coconut
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 c plain yogurt
  • 2 tbsp sour cream
  • 1 tbsp orange zest optional
  • 1/2 cup halved almonds optional, for garnish

For the syrup:

  • 1 3/4 c water
  • 2 c sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp orange juice
  • rind of fresh orange peel optional, for flavoring or 1 tsp rose essence, or 1 tsp orange blossom essence
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract


  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees (F).

For the syrup

  • First make the syrup as it needs to cool and thicken and cool before pouring onto the baked cake. Pour the sugar and water into a pot and bring to a boil.
  • Once the sugar has dissolved, add the lemon juice and orange juice. The pectins allow the syrup to thicken, instead of caramelize into a hard candy.
  • Allow to simmer 3-5 minutes until the mixture slightly thickens. Do not leave it for too long or it will caramelize and burn. Add orange rind as it boils, or after the syrup has thickened.
  • When the liquid has reduced a bit, remove the rind if added, and add the butter and vanilla and stir well. Add rose essence, or orange blossom essence once you remove it from heat. Remove from heat once the butter has melted and allow to cool.

For the cake batter

  • For the cake, mix all the ingredients together in bowl until well combined. Cover with a towel and allow to sit for 30 minutes.
  • Spread into a 9″ baking pan and place a halved or slivered almond on top where you will slice each square. Bake for 30 minutes until the top is golden. You may also top the basboosa with slices of citrus.
  • Once you remove the pan from the oven, pour the cooled syrup over the entire cake, evenly, while the cake is still hot. Allow it to absorb; you might not need to use all of the syrup. Slice into squares or diamonds, garnish with more crushed almonds or pistachios, and enjoy!


Basboosa is traditionally topped with nuts. My mom uses slivered almonds, but in Egypt I have seen crushed pistachio or hazelnuts as well. Use what you like! For a nut-free version, I use slices of fresh oranges as we have allergies in our home. Make it beautiful and top with what you like.
Keyword almonds, cake, coconut, lemon, rose, semolina, syrup

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