Sugar: the lovely white crystals of sucrose that I crave almost obsessively. See, some people are addicted to the hard stuff like booze or pills or reruns of The Golden Girls. Me? I’m addicted to sweet things and savory things. Things that require lots of butter and milk fats and mmmmm…sugar. Things that will inevitably make my butt bigger and my cholesterol levels soar. I am an eater. And when I was a kid, despite the fact that I ate pretty much anything I could to keep my roly-poly prepubescent figure intact, my major weakness was, and still is, sweets. (I’m eating a box of Reese’s Pieces as I type this. No lie.)
My mama, and the rest of my family for that matter, definitely played her part in enabling my addiction. My mother had a pretty sizable sweet tooth as well and our house was always full of cookies, bundt cakes or some sort of 70s-inspired JELL-O/Cool Whip concoction. Not to mention the hoards of Arabic desserts that lived in our spare freezer waiting to be consumed when nothing else was readily available.
My mom would keep tupperwares full of baklava or mamoul– the kind with dates or cinnamon-sugary walnuts. If she ever made katayef (a sort of pancake filled with the aforementioned cinnamon-sugary walnuts that was shaped into a half-moon, baked and doused in simple syrup), she’d make enough to freeze for later enjoyment. The funny thing is – I never really loved Arabic desserts when I was younger. I had a couple that I couldn’t live without, specifically ghraybeh, but mostly I thought they were all kind of boring because none of it was covered in chocolate, stuffed with cream or oozing hydrogenated oils.
And though I still love sweets dunked in chocolate and injected with sugary lard, I’m learning to expand my palette in order to embrace desserts like the one I made this week. Desserts that are simple and straightforward and made with ingredients you can pronounce – mostly. Harisseh is basically a semolina cake – a little dense and perfectly sweet when you add simple syrup.
3 cups smeed (semolina flour)
1 1/3 cup whole milk (warmed)
1 cup sugar
1 cup semnah (clarified butter) (warmed)
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
tbsp. of tahini
handful of slivered, blanched almonds or pine nuts
Mix the sugar, warmed semneh, baking powder and baking soda together until smooth. Slowly add the smeed and warmed milk to the mixture until evenly mixed. I use my hands for mixing because you get a better sense of how much it needs to be worked.
Line the bottom of a cake pan (a little bigger than 9 x 13. Make sure it’s not too deep or too shallow) with the tahini and pour in the mixture. Top with slivers of blanched almonds (or pine nuts) in such a way that each square gets one almond and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top.
3 cups sugar
3 cups water
tbsp. lemon juice
Pour sugar and water into a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Once the mixture comes to a boil, add the lemon juice and let it reduce for another 7-10 minutes. Take off the fire and let cool while harisseh is baking. Once it’s finished baking, let the harisseh cool for a bit, cut into squares and pour the warm attir over the cake. Let it soak in all the syrupy goodness for a bit and enjoy!