Helba, which literally translates to ‘fenugreek,’ is a sweet, rich, and sticky Palestinian cake made with fenugreek seeds, semolina, and olive oil. The nutty seeds are simmered away until tender and then kneaded into the dough along with the water infused with their flavor. After baking, the cake is drizzled with a lemon sugar syrup and served warm or at room temperature. The most difficult part about making this is waiting for it to bake while being hypnotized by its deliciously nutty aroma. The flavor of fenugreek is bittersweet and resembles that of maple syrup or dark caramel. It is absolutely unique and adds a degree of complexity to so many dishes, sweet and savory. The seeds are also popular for their medicinal properties.
Few things make me feel closer to my Palestinian grandmother. She had a beautiful soul and was always full of spirit. She fled her homeland with her eight children due to war, but despite such experiences, I never saw her without a smile on her face. She was always happy and one of her greatest pleasures was indulging in desserts. Sugar was her weakness and I remember her often asking me to covertly run to the corner store to bring her sweets. As a child, such a request was more than welcomed. Together, we would often sneak out to the nearby bakery or spend afternoons baking away in her rustic Amman home. She taught me to love fenugreek since I was a little girl.
These are the memories that I most fondly recall when I make Levantine sweets such as helba. They take me back to the most blissful of times in my childhood. They are able to bring back emotions, experiences, and the most distant of memories. And for that reason, this dessert is all the more delicious.
I hope that you enjoy this family recipe which I have only slightly altered to enhance its flavors. It will yield a large batch as I use a 12 in. pan here, but I have never made it any other way. You will understand why after trying it. 🙂 PS this cake is naturally vegan if you use vegetable oil in place of butter.
For the Cake
4 tablespoons fenugreek seeds
3 cups/ 525 gr. fine semolina
1/2 cup/ 68 gr. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup/ 58 ml. olive oil
1/2 cup/ 117 ml. melted unsalted butter (or vegetable oil for a dairy-free version)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons yeast
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons tahini paste, for greasing
halved almonds, for topping
For the Syrup
3 cups/ 600 gr. sugar
2 cups/ 470 ml. water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1. Pour 3 1/2 cups/ 822 ml. of boiling water into a saucepan, stir in the fenugreek seeds, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a medium-low, and leave to simmer for 25 minutes.
2. In the meantime, combine the semolina, flour, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl and whisk together. Then pour in the olive oil and butter and work your fingers through the mixture for a few minutes until the fats are well integrated into the flour. Set Aside.
3. Strain the cooked fenugreek seeds while preserving their water. Let the fenugreek water come to a lukewarm temperature and pour 1/2 cup (117 ml) of it into a small bowl, mix in 1 teaspoon of sugar, and gently stir in the 2 teaspoons of yeast. Leave to sit 10 minutes, and after the water has foamed up, work it into the flour mixture. Mix the seeds into the flour mixture and then slowly pour in the remaining warm water just until you have formed a moist dough. You will need about 1 cup/ 235 ml. to 1 1/4 cups/ 300 ml. of water (including the water used with the yeast) depending on the humidity of your environment.* I used 1 cup/ 235 ml. plus 2 tablespoons in total. There is no need to knead. You just want to work the dough until it is well combined, moist, and holds together. It will be rich and dense.
4. Preheat oven to 200 C/ 400 F. Grease a 12 in. round pan with the tahini, transfer the dough mixture to the pan and flatten with your hands to even the surface. Use a knife to gently cut the dough into diamond shapes. Press an almond slice onto the center of each diamond, cover the pan, and leave to rest in a warm place for 30 minutes. Bake the cake for 43-45 minutes or until lightly golden.
5. While the cake is in the oven, prepare your sugar syrup. Pour 2 cups of boiling water and 3 cups of sugar into a small pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the lemon juice and simmer while stirring occasionally until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside to cool. Evenly pour the syrup onto the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven and let it set for at least 10-15 minutes. Note: this may seem like a large amount of syrup, but the cake will just keep absorbing it. Feel free to first use 2/3 of the syrup and add the rest later as needed. Serve warm or continue to cool and enjoy at room temperature.
*Keep some warm water aside in case your fenugreek water reduces to more than what you need for the dough.