Nammoura or Semolina Sticky Pudding

Tunis has a certain kind of magic. Despite rapidly changing political and urban landscapes the city remains timeless and lives to the slow and modulating pace of the seasons; in summer the bougainvilleas break out into vibrant displays of colour; in winter the mood is diffused and cool  like the light; when spring is in the air, it is time to sit out and feel the whiffs of orange blossoms.

Awash with flowers, the Marché Central in Tunis, was  filled yesterday with dizzying aromas. Sellers covered the uneven floor with a sea of blossoms. Clients stopped, looked,  haggled and left, their bags packed to the brim with blooms. At home they will distil them into essences to keep in the store cupboard and use with food and confectionary.  

For centuries, aromatic flowers have been essential to Middle Eastern cuisine;  the Caliphs’ cooks in the  kitchens of 9th century Baghdad, often finished savoury dishes with a final dash of rose water – a mark of sophistication- and to titillate the senses.

I find it difficult to imagine life without the essence of orange blossom and was taken aback when an English friend who bit in one of my home-made cookies, described it as if ‘biting soap’! I realised then that this was probably acquired taste and it certainly was not for the faint hearted. I tried to no avail, explaining that orange blossom essence added a velvety aroma to cakes and confectioneries;  that it carried away the stark bitterness of coffee and raised an otherwise banal milk pudding like muhallabieh – to ethereal heights.  In savoury dishes, it highlighted the taste of spices and neutralised the pungency of meats. I do not think that I managed to convince her.  I also noted that however much I loved its aroma, distilled essence of flowers should only be used sparingly to add just that subtle fragrance and flavour.

The recipe which follows is nammoura a sticky semolina cake cooked with orange blossom and rose water.

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Nammoura or Semolina sticky pudding

Soaked in syrup this cake belongs to the Baklawaassortments.  Delicious with Turkish coffee its sweetness balances the bitter taste of coffee.

400 g medium semolina
150 g caster sugar
125 g ground almonds
75 g shredded coconut
1 large tablespoon plain yogurt
125g butter, melted
200 ml milk
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
1 tablespoon rosewater

For the syrup:

335 g caster sugar
200 ml water
Juice of one lemon
A dash each of rosewater and orange blossom water

Makes approximately 24 squares
  1. Melt the butter on low heat.
  2. Pre-heat the oven to 160°C. 
  3. Mix the liquefied butter with the cold milk. Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add milk, butter, orange flower water and rosewater. Mix well. Leave to rest for at least one hour, stirring the mixture from time to time. During this time the ingredients will combine well and the paste will thicken.
  4. While the paste is resting, make the syrup. 
  5. Mix sugar and water and stir well to melt the sugar. Bring to a boil. Once it begins to bubble, add the juice of one lemon. 
  6. Keep boiling for approximately 10 minutes or until the sugar thickens. 
  7. Finally add a dash each of rosewater and orange blossom water. Leave to cool.
  8. Butter a rectangular baking dish and brush it with tahini.  
  9. Add one tablespoon of plain yogurt to the semolina paste. Mix to combine. 
  10. Pour the mixture into the buttered dish, and smooth the surface with the back of spoon. 
  11. With a sharp knife draw lines on the paste to form small lozenges or squares. 
  12. Place one whole almond in the centre of each of these squares.
  13. Bake the semolina cake for 1 hour and 10 minutes in the pre-heated oven.  The cake is ready when both the surface and the bottom of the cake are brown.  
  14. Take the cake out of the oven and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. Pour over the cooled syrup. 
  15. Leave to cool completely before cutting. Do not attempt at cutting it while it is still warm as it will crumble. Even better to wait overnight before cutting.  

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