This cake started off in life with a recipe for “sfouf”, a semolina-based cake from Lebanon that’s usually flavoured with almonds and turmeric, and often drenched in a sugar or honey syrup before serving.
While I adore the nutty flavour and crumbly texture of semolina cakes, I tend to be leery of any dessert that’s soaked in syrup (I even prefer my baklava in the drier Lebanese style, as opposed to the floating-in-syrup Greek style). With that in mind, I decided to give the traditional recipe a bit of a makeover by cutting out the syrup and adding a scattering of sour cherries to balance out the buttery sweetness of the cake.
If you can, plan to serve this cake while it’s still fresh from the oven. Served warm, it’s a study in contrasts – crunchy edges, dense soft cake, tangy cherries and slightly bitter almost-burnt almonds. A polite host would reserve the corner pieces for her guests of honour, since they’re the most delicious part… but if you’re greedy like me, you probably won’t be able to resist keeping a corner for yourself. :)
I’ve found that the edges tend to soften up once the cake has cooled off, but the leftovers still make a great snack when served up with a big mug of sweet tea. They also make a great breakfast, for that matter, instead of a muffin or quickbread.
If you can’t find durum semolina where you shop, you can substitute with fine-ground cornmeal instead. The resulting cake will be slightly crumblier in texture, but delicious nonetheless.
Sour Cherry and Almond Semolina Cake
2 cups fine durum semolina
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter, melted
2 cups milk
2 tsp lemon zest
1 1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sour cherries in light syrup, drained
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350F and lightly butter a 9×13″ baking pan.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
In a smaller bowl, stir together milk, melted butter, lemon zest and extracts. Add to the flour mixture, and stir until batter is smooth and lump-free (don’t worry if the batter looks very runny at first – it thickens up significantly after a minute or two).
Pour half of the batter into the prepared baking pan. Arrange the cherries evenly onto the batter, avoiding placing any right against the edges of the pan, then spoon the remaining batter onto the cherries and smooth top with a spatula. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over top.
Bake in preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, or until cake is golden-brown (if the almonds still look raw at this stage, fire up the broiler and toast them for 3-5 minutes).
Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before cutting up and serving. Serve plain or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.