Harissa (Basbousa) or Mr. Foodie’s Favorite Coconut Cake

This coconut dessert is Mr. Foodie’s favorite sweet treat. One of his aunts makes this for his family every so often, and he positively adores it! His family calls it Harissa which is confusing because harissa is also a chili pepper paste, but it is also known as Basbousa. Whatever you call it, just know that our version is packed with coconut and soaked with rose-flavored simple syrup. I tried for months (no joke) to replicate his aunt’s recipe, hunting down six different versions online and mixing and matching ingredients to try and achieve the right texture and flavor. I finally came up with this version which, even though it still differs from his aunt’s, makes Mr. Foodie smile. I call that a win.

slices of harissa cake with arab coffee

Because this is so sweet, I usually serve small portions, and my preference is to eat them with strong, dark coffee. This recipe is more involved than I usually go for with desserts, but some steps you can do ahead of time to make the final effort quicker. After so many attempts, I can make this in my sleep 😛

Step 1: Blanch some whole, raw almonds. You can certainly buy fancy blanched almonds if you want, but this takes a minute, literally. Bring some water to a boil, drop in the almonds. Drain after 1 minute. Then squeeze the almonds out of the skins – they will pop out easy.

Step 2: Make the simple syrup (sometimes I make the syrup after I’ve put the cake in the oven – you just need enough time to let it come to room temperature). Usually simple syrup is a 1:1 combination of water and granulated sugar, but many of the recipes I looked at called for 2 cups of water to 1 cup of sugar. I recommend sticking with the 1:1 ratio and making 2 cups (you can always keep any extra for cocktails). Cook the water and sugar over medium heat for 5 minutes or so until the sugar is dissolved entirely. Off the heat, add a dash of rose water (a little goes a looooongggg way) and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Let cool to room temperature.

Step 3: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. This is hotter than usual for baked goods, but the cake should have a nice golden appearance which is hard to do at 350. At this point you can also grease the pan. I’ve used both a 9″ round cake pan and a 8″x8″ glass pan for this recipe. I have also tried greasing with both tahini and with regular cooking spray – both pans and both grease options work just as well. The tahini is also in the cake and has a nutty flavor, so it does add a little something to the crust that develops.

photo of wet harissa dough

Step 4: Make the cake! Combine the dry ingredients thoroughly. Combine the wet ingredients separately; then add to the dry ingredients. The dough should resemble a wet-ish version of cornbread. Pour into greased pan and spread evenly. Then, with a wet score the top of the cake into a pattern of your choice. I usually do a diamond pattern. The purpose of this is to make it beautiful, but also to help make sure that each piece gets an almond. Once you’ve scored the top of the cake, place a blanched almond in the center of each piece. Bake for 30 minutes (or more if your oven runs colder) until you see the crust form around the sides and the top is golden.

Step 5: Pour the syrup over the cake while the cake is still warm. Let it rest until all the syrup is absorbed and the cake cools. Tip it out of the pan using a cutting board, flip over, and cut the cake along the scored lines to serve.

harissa cake diamond pattern with blanched almonds

Harissa Coconut Cake


1 Cup raw almonds, blanched

2 cups simple syrup (1:1 sugar and water)

dash of rose water

squeeze of fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp tahini for greasing or cooking spray

2 cups semolina flour

1 1/2 cups shredded coconut (unsweetened if possible)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup melted butter

1 1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or one egg)

1 Tbsp tahini

Condensed Instructions:

Blanch almonds in boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and peel almonds; set aside. Combine 2 cups of water with 2 cups of granulated sugar in a pot and cook over medium heat until sugar is dissolved (3-5 minutes). Off the heat, add a dash of rose water and squeeze of fresh lemon juice to syrup. Let cool to room temperature. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9″ cake pan or 8″x8″ pan with 1 tablespoon tahini or cooking spray. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl until thoroughly incorporated. Combine the wet ingredients separately. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Pour the cake batter into the greased pan and smooth out evenly. Using a wet knife and extra water or a wet towel, score the top of the cake to make even pieces. On top of each piece of cake, push a blanched almond into the batter. Bake the cake for 30 minutes or until a brown crust forms and the top is lightly golden. Pour the simple syrup over the cake while it is still warm. Once the syrup is soaked into the cake and the cake has cooled, tip onto a board and flip over to cut along the scored lines and serve.

Note: You can blanch the almonds and make the simple syrup ahead of time if you want. Keep the cake in an airtight container for 4-5 days (if your family lets it last that long ;))

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