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Harissa Shamia

Harissa Shamia, a semolina based dessert famous in the city of Aleppo.

June 24, 2023 at 10:45 am

We all know the Middle East loves their desserts, and many of them are semolina based. I am always so amazed at how many ways we’ve managed to use semolina and how grinding it to different degrees gives you such a variety of textures and dishes.

I have made several variations of semolina cakes, known as harissa, basbousa, or namoura. These names are used by different Arab countries and they each add their own touch and version of the semolina cake doused in sugary syrup. We’ve had it with coconut, stuffed with cream and even used condensed milk instead of syrup. Each of these cakes have their own flavour but what they have in common is the use of semolina and how delicious they are, of course!

Today I am making the Syrian version, most famously made in the city of Aleppo. What sets this one apart is its crunchy pistachio topping, and as soon as I saw the pistachios, I knew I had to make it. I absolutely adore pistachios. This harissa not only has a different texture to other versions because of the different topping, but also because of the way it is mixed and the variation in ingredients.

The syrup is your standard sugar syrup used in most Middle Eastern desserts. The most important rule is mixing the sugar until it is dissolved before it comes to the boil to avoid crystallisation. You also want to make sure your syrup is room temperature before pouring it over the hot cake so that it is absorbed properly. I usually like to make big batches of syrup and store them in the fridge. It is always so useful having it on hand.

Semolina-based cakes usually involve adding the ingredients to a bowl and mixing with a wooden spoon or spatula, but in this version, the semolina is rubbed with the butter to make sure each grain is coated. This leaves you with a denser, silkier texture than other versions of the cake. The water is then added gradually. The mixture is then treated as dough, as it is left to rest for a few hours before baking. You definitely feel the difference using this method.

Then, pour it into a baking dish brushed with tahini paste. This gives the sugary cake some balance and stops it from being too sweet. Press the pistachios into the batter and bake until you have a lovely slightly golden crust. Soaking the pistachios in water is what keeps them from burning while the harissa bakes.

The secret to getting the syrup absorbed into the dense cake is to cut it 5 minutes after it is removed from the oven and then adding the syrup. This way the syrup seeps deep into the cake. The hardest part is waiting for the cake to cool completely and for the syrup to be completely absorbed before digging in. The amount of syrup depends on personal taste, I generally like mine on the lighter side, so I use a little over half of the syrup. Don’t worry if there is a layer of syrup still on the top as soon as you pour it over, it will be absorbed as the cake cools. Serve this with a cup of steaming hot tea and enjoy this delectable dessert.


3 cups semolina (coarse)

½ cup sugar syrup

¼ cup melted butter

2 tbsp powdered milk

½ cup sugar

¾ tsp baking powder

1 cup warm water

1 tbsp tahini paste

1 ¼ cup pistachios, chopped and soaked in hot water for 20 minutes


2 cups sugar

1 ½ cups water

1 tbsp lemon juice


  1. To make the syrup, add the sugar and water to a pot and stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Then, bring to the boil on medium high heat. Once it starts boiling, reduce the heat to medium low and leave to simmer for about 7 minutes. Add the lemon juice and leave to simmer for one minute and then turn off the heat. Set aside to cool. Store any extra syrup in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 6 weeks.
  2. To make the harissa, mix the semolina, sugar, baking powder and powdered milk.
  3. Add the butter and syrup and rub with hands until well combined.
  4. Add the water gradually and continue to rub until you get a combined batter.
  5. Pour the mixture into a baking dish brushed with tahini paste, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest for 3-6 hours.
  6. Press the pistachios onto the batter to form an even layer.
  7. Bake at 180 C, or 165 C in a fan-assisted oven for about 20 minutes or until cooked through.
  8. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes.
  9. Cut into desired shapes and pour half to three-quarters of the syrup – about 4 ladles-full of syrup – evenly over the harissa. Leave to cool completely, then enjoy!

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