In Lebanon, there is a rich semolina pastry known as ma’moul mad (a fragrant semolina cookie bar filled with nuts, date paste, or clotted cream.) In other parts of the Levant, a similar concept is called basbousa bil joz (semolina cake stuffed with walnuts.) In Gaza, for example, kunafa ghazawiya or kunafa arabiya is the name of a dessert with similar ingredients, but different techniques and spices. All versions of this flavor pairing are delicious and all are reflective of the Levantine style of making dessert.
This version shares the flavors of the Lebanese ma’moul bar (ma’moul mad), but its texture most closely resembles basbousa – a sticky semolina cake soaked with floral syrup. I like to use both a higher ratio of fine semolina and milk to get a very moist texture. For the syrup, feel free to adjust the sweetness to your liking. Keep in mind that the pastry will continue to soak syrup as it cools.
Growing up with the alluring aromas of mahlab, orange blossom, and rose water, this dessert fills me with longing. It is an old-world style treat full of charm. And it is a true pleasure both to make and to eat. It also happens to be one of the simplest sweet recipes I know.
INGREDIENTS/ MAKES 10-12 SERVINGS
For the Pastry
1 1/2 cups fine semolina
1/2 coarse semolina
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground mahleb*
1 stick/1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons orange blossom
2 tablespoons rose water
For the Filling
1 1/2 cups walnuts, lightly toasted, coarsely crushed
1/2 cup pistachios, whole or coarsely crushed plus more for topping
For the Syrup
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon rose water
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Combine the fine semolina (farkha), the coarse semolina (smeed), sugar, salt, baking soda, and mahleb in a medium bowl. Mix together and add the softened butter, milk, orange blossom, and rose water. Knead together with your hands until well combined, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400F/200C and place a piece of plastic wrap over a round 8 inch cake pan to cover it. Press half of the semolina dough inside to make a mold. Using your hands or the bottom of a smooth cup, flatten the dough as evenly as possible. This will be the top layer. Gently pull out the dough with the plastic wrap and set aside. Grease the pan with butter and press the other half of the dough inside the pan. Scatter the nut mixture on top and gently press down. Invert the molded dough over the nuts and gently press to even it out. Place whole pistachios over the surface of the dough, decoratively if you like.
Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is a deep golden color. In the meantime, prepare your sweet syrup. Bring together sugar, water, and lemon juice in small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and stir for about 5 minutes or until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and stir in rose water and orange blossom water. Set aside.
Drizzle with sugar syrup to your liking while it is still hot. Set aside until completely cooled, cut into bars, and serve.
*Mahleb is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of a cherry species. It is most often used for Levantine pastries and can be found in Middle Eastern food stores.