The whole fenugreek seed in this Palestinian cake can have a strong, bitter flavor, which is why the recipe calls for soaking and cooking it. Some of the reserved cooking water is used in the batter, underscoring the seed's subtle maplelike aroma.
This recipe comes from Palestinian cook Um Zoheir. When cookbook authors Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt visited her, she recited the long and tragic love-ballad of Jamil and Jamila.
A 9-by-13-inch baking pan is just a bit smaller than what's needed here; we used a disposable aluminum baking pan that is often used for lasagna.
Nigella seed looks like black sesame seed and has a faint cumin flavor. It is sometimes called charnuska. We found it at Penzeys and at Dean & DeLuca. If you can't find it, leave it out.
Make Ahead: The fenugreek seed needs to soak for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight. The cake batter needs to rest for 1 1/2 hours.
Yield: Makes one 10-by-14-inch rectangular or 12-inch round cake
- 3 tablespoons fenugreek seed
- 3 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups medium-grain semolina
- 1/2 cup light olive oil, warmed (may substitute a combination of 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus 1/4 cup canola oil)
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 tablespoon nigella seed (see headnote)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seed
- Butter or tahini, for greasing the pan
- Pine nuts or whole blanched (skinless) almonds, as needed, for garnish
- 2 cups simple syrup (see NOTE)
Place the fenugreek seed in a small bowl of cold water; soak for 30 minutes or up to overnight. Drain the seed and discard the water.
Transfer the seed to a medium saucepan and cover with the 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes or until the seed is soft to the touch and looks slightly puffed. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a mixing bowl to drain the seed, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees for a total of 2 minutes, then turn off the oven.
Combine the semolina and warm oil in a mixing bowl, using your hands to help saturate the grains. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, yeast and baking powder, then stir it into the semolina mixture until well blended. Add the drained fenugreek seed, the nigella and sesame seeds, then just enough of the reserved fenugreek cooking water (3/4 to 1 cup) to form a pliable batter. Cover and transfer to the oven (which is warm but off); let rest for 1 1/2 hours. The batter will have risen and will feel soft to the touch.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Use a little butter or tahini to grease a 10-by-14-inch rectangular baking pan or a 12-inch round cake pan with sides that are at least 2 inches deep.
Spread the batter evenly in the pan, using the palm of your hand to flatten it as needed. Use a sharp knife to score the batter on the diagonal -- vertical lines first, then diagonal lines across -- to form diamond-shaped pieces. Place a blanched almond or pine nut at the center of each diamond. Bake for 45 minutes or until golden. If the cake is browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil. If the top is not yet golden, switch the oven to broil briefly, taking care not to burn the surface of the cake.
Transfer the hot cake to a wire rack (in the pan). Immediately pour all of the simple syrup over the cake. Let the syrup soak into the cake for a few minutes before cutting and serving.
NOTE: To make the syrup, combine 2 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon of fresh lemon juice (optional) in a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes. Let cool before using.
Adapted from "The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey," by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt (Just World Books, 2012).
Tested by Andy Sikkenga.
Email questions to the Food Section at email@example.com.