Coming fifty days after Passover, Shavuot, which means “weeks” in Hebrew, commemorates the day God gave the Torah, including the Ten Commandments, to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. There are no specific requirements for celebrating Shavuot — unlike the many required observances for Passover, for example — but there are many minhagim, or customs, associated with the joyous festival.
To celebrate the harvest aspect of the holiday, many Jews decorate their synagogues and home with greenery and flowers during Shavuot. In the Middle East, the synagogues are decorated with rose petals, and Shavuot is known as the Festival of the Roses. Thus, in this part of the world, many Shavuot foods are flavored with rose water.
One of the primary customs, particularly among Ashkenazi Jews, for Shavuot is the consumption of dairy foods. The origin of this tradition is not entirely clear. It may simply be that Shavuot occurs during the spring, which is the season when cows calve and give milk.
The religious explanation is that once the Jews received the Torah, which laid out the kosher dietary laws, they could not eat any of their previously prepared meat dishes nor could they prepare any meat until they had cleansed their utensils. Thus, they were forced to eat dairy.
In this recipe, I combined the Ashkenazi Shavuot tradition of eating dairy foods with the Sephardic tradition of eating foods flavored with rose water. This classic semolina cake made with yogurt — the dairy — and flavored with rose water is a popular dessert at Shavout in Israel. I double down on the dairy by topping by cake with even more creamy yogurt and then add beautiful fresh raspberries and pink rose petals because raspberry and rose is such an elegant and luxurious pairing.
Throughout the Middle East you encounter cakes like this one — often served in diamond-shaped pieces and topped with a single almond — that are made with semolina flour and drenched in a sugar syrup for sweetness and moisture. This kind of cake has many names, but I usually go with the Egyptian name, basbousa.
Semolina is a form of durum, an ancient species of wheat that has remained popular in the Middle East and Mediterranean for making couscous, bulgar, pastries and puddings. It has a pale yellow color and slightly grainier texture than regular flour. Here, the semolina gives the cake a crumbly texture, a slightly crunchy exterior and a nuttiness that is a pleasing contrast to the sweetness of the syrup.
Rasberry Rose Semolina Cake
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 1/12 cups water
- 2 TB fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp rose water
- 2 cups semolina flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tsp. rose water
- 2 cups plain whole milk Greek yogurt
- Raspberries and unsprayed rose petals for decoration
- Preheat oven to 350 and grease a 9-inch round cake pan.
Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- Add the lemon juice and rose water, reduce heat to medium and boil for five minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Set aside 2 TB of the syrup.
- Whisk together the semolina, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about three minutes.
- With the mixer running, slowly pour in the oil and mix until combined. Add the rose water.
- Add 1 cup of the yogurt and mix until combined.
- Gradually add the dry ingredients and mix just until combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, forty to forty-five minutes.
- While the cake is still hot, slowly pour the syrup, except for the 2 TB you set aside, over the top, pausing periodically to allow the cake to absorb the syrup before adding more.
- Cool cake on a wire rack before removing from pan.
- For the topping, mix the remaining cup of Greek yogurt with the reserved 2 TB of syrup. Spread the yogurt mixture on top of the cooled cake. Top with fresh raspberries and rose petals (if desired).