A dense, moist, and sticky sweet Gluten-Free Coconut Almond Flour Cake, inspired by the Middle Eastern Cake Harissa.
I hope you had a great weekend! If it snowed where you live, I hope you stayed safe and warm and had the chance to enjoy the snow…or at least bake something delicious! Mike and I are in DC and we’ve been hunkered down since Friday enjoying the snow; this weekend we had our second snowfall, which was actually a doozy: winter storm Jonas! Being from Buffalo, I am in my element, and although we were starting to go a little stir-crazy by Sunday afternoon, we actually had a lot of fun.
Friday night, against my better judgement, Mike convinced me that a drive in the snow would be fun. He was right. For the first time ever in DC we had the roads (and thruway!) nearly to ourselves. (It bears noting that there was a travel advisory, but no travel ban in effect; we aren’t that much of rebels, lol. And there were just a select few people who were as crazy as us out there, and they may very well have been displaced Buffalonians as well.) We went to downtown DC and saw the monuments in the blizzard, which was a beautiful sight. (Take note, even this was not a smart thing to do, so kids – and adult kids – please don’t try this at home. I will say though, Mike’s car handles the snow pretty fabulously.)
Saturday morning (despite the fact that it was still snowing), we had a full brunch out on our snowy balcony.
Our Snowy Brunch
And of course this wintry weekend brought baking too, which was inspired by a sweet friend and fellow blogger, the very talented Dolphia of Story of Cooks. (I made her amazing Masala Wraps not long ago!) Last week, Dolphia messaged me on Facebook with a question about my recipe for Coconut Semolina Cake from my cookbook. After that I mentioned the cake to Mike and he asked me to make it. It had been a very long time since I made it, and this set off a craving, lol!
This cake is traditional in the Levant area of the Middle East; Mike has always called it Harissa (a term he learned from his Damascene mother), but it also goes by the names Basbousa and Namoura, depending on who you’re talking to and where you are. The original version of this cake uses semolina flour as its base; semolina is a coarse flour made from durum wheat that’s typically used to make things like pasta, couscous, and certain cereals. I have no trouble finding it at my Middle Eastern grocery store and I was planning to pick it up last Friday…long story short, the storm nixed that idea.
No problem; I decided I would just find an alternative to semolina flour! I’ve been using almond flour for years to make gluten-free and/or paleo-friendly baked goods, so that idea came to mind first and I ran with it. It ended up working really well! Not only did this cake have great texture, but it browned gorgeously on the top and sides, which is exactly what you want here. Mike liked it so much, he told me to make this cake with almond flour instead of semolina from now on!
The batter for this cake is fairly stiff and the cake itself should be dry, which makes it the perfect vessel for soaking up some beautifully-scented sugar syrup. Don’t be intimidated to make your own sugar syrup; if you can boil water, I promise, you’ll have no trouble making it. I flavored my syrup (which is called Qater or ‘Atr in Arabic) classically with orange blossom water, but you can switch it up to suit your tastes. Use rose water, a mix of rose water and orange blossom water, vanilla extract, or any other flavor extract you like. Mike is partial to orange blossom water though, as that’s how he remembers his mom making this dish.
Another change I made from the original recipe that’s in my cookbook was to cut it in half…it’s just two of us, and being snowed in I definitely didn’t want a full-sized cake lying around! It was easy to cut the recipe in half though, and I baked it in a cute little 6-inch pan (an 8 1/2 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pan should work too, but you may need to slightly adjust the baking time). And it was a pretty good thing I didn’t make a bigger cake because Mike polished off the entire thing (save one teensy slice I had) in a day and a half!
This cake is traditionally cut into pretty little diamond shapes, and I have a couple things to say about that. 1) Keep the pieces small because they are very rich, and 2) you may want to practice how you’ll cut the cake drawing a circle with pen and paper first! And if you want to keep your lines straight, cut along a ruler or straightedge. In the end, it will still have a homemade look to it (mine always does anyway…haha, this is what we food bloggers like to call “rustic”), which I admit, I sort-of love.
And because it’s a little different than the norm, I want to mention one other thing about this cake; instead of using butter, ghee, or coconut oil to grease the baking dish, tahini is used here. My mother-in-law taught me this method, so that’s what I’ve always done. I really enjoy the slight nuttiness it lends to the bottom and sides; I think it’s a good balance to the overall sweetness. That being said, clarified butter or coconut oil will both work fine!
What’s your favorite Middle Eastern sweet?
- ½ cup (100 g) sugar
- ¼ cup (60 ml) water
- ¾ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- ¾ teaspoon rose water or orange blossom water
- ½ tablespoon tahini, to grease the baking pan
- 1 cup (115 g) almond flour
- 2 tablespoons arrowroot starch
- 2 tablespoons tapioca starch
- ¾ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 4 tablespoons (50 g) sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup (180 ml) milk (I’ve used whole milk, 2%, and plain unsweetened almond “milk”)
- ½ cup (40 g) unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1 tablespoon blanched almonds (see Note)
- Prepare the Scented Sugar Syrup first. To do so, add the sugar, water, and lemon juice to a small, thick-bottomed saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, giving the pan an occasional swirl and skimming off any foam on the surface. Turn the heat down slightly and boil 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the rose water or orange blossom water; let it cool to room temperature while you make the cake.
- For the cake, preheat oven to 375F; brush the tahini on the inside of a 6-inch (15.25 cm) round baking pan.
- Whisk together the almond flour, arrowroot starch, tapioca starch, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Stir in the butter and then the milk until combined, and then fold in the coconut.
- Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread it out evenly; let it sit for 10 minutes.
- Score the batter into 1-inch (2.5 cm) square or diamond shapes with a sharp knife, periodically dipping the knife in hot water and drying it off before continuing to score the batter; place 1 almond in the center of each diamond.
- Bake until the sides and top are golden brown, about 30 minutes. (If the sides are brown but the top isn’t, you can broil the cake for a couple minutes to brown the top.)
- Once out of the oven, cut the cake along the lines you scored. Slowly pour the cooled syrup onto the hot cake. Let the cake sit at room temperature 2 hours to absorb the syrup before serving.
How to Blanch Almonds (also from my cookbook): (1) Place fresh, shelled (raw and unsalted) almonds in a heat-safe bowl; (2) pour in enough boiling water to fully cover the almonds; (3) let the almonds sit for 1 minute, then pour into a mesh sieve, rinse under cold water, and drain; and (4) hold one almond at the wide end between your thumb and forefinger and gently squeeze – the skin should slip right off.
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