Basbousa Bel Ashta Recipe
Why It Works
- Adding cream cheese stabilizes the cooked cream so it can stand up to the heat of the oven and remain fluffy without disappearing into the batter as the basbousa bakes.
- Orange zest helps to cut through the sweetness of the cake and complements the filling.
- Infusing simple syrup with cinnamon and cardamom adds a spiced note to the dessert.
- Refrigerating the cake overnight gives the basbousa time to fully absorb the simple syrup, for a more moist final crumb.
Nothing transports me to Egypt like a slice of basbousa bel ashta savored with my morning coffee. Based on the classic Egyptian semolina cake called basbousa, this “bel ashta” variation adds a rich cream filling and a rose-scented syrup. The confection is drenched in the syrup while it’s still hot and then often sold as bite-sized, diamond-shaped bars in bakeries throughout Egypt.
Legend has it that this rich cream-filled version was first made at Koueider, one of Egypt’s oldest pastry shops established in the 1930s. To this day, Koueidar’s recipe for basbousa bel ashta remains a tightly guarded secret. Eager to share a childhood favorite with my Egyptian diasporan family, I created my own. My memories of the dessert guided me through the process, and after much trial and error, I arrived at this version, which reproduces the original faithfully.
In Arabic, ashta literally means “clotted cream,” the thick sheet of protein that rises to the surface of heated unpasteurized milk. The real challenge in developing this dessert was to find a formula for ashta that would stand the heat of the oven and remain fluffy without disappearing into the dense semolina batter while the cake bakes—something that happened to me repeatedly in my early attempts.
My solution is to mix heavy cream with cream cheese to create a creamy layer with enough structure to hold its own without bleeding into the cake as they bake together. That may not be what the bakers at Koueidar do in Egypt, but it works. To balance the sweetness of the syrup-drenched dessert, I add orange zest to the semolina batter and orange rind to the simple syrup, which cuts through the sugar with a subtle bitterness and acidity while complementing the richness of the filling. I’m also careful not to over-sweeten the ashta; there’s enough sweetness coming from the syrup to avoid every element of the cake being similarly saccharine.
Semolina, the main ingredient, is available online and in Middle eastern stores. It’s important to use coarse semolina in this recipe, which provides the proper texture for the cake’s crumb; anything too fine and you’ll end up with a very different result.
The final cake is an impressive sight, with a shiny, glazed surface and defined layers of soft semolina cake and thick, creamy ashta. With some chopped pistachios on top to add crunch and a complex flavor that’s in turns floral, herbal, and citrusy, it’s a winner on all fronts.