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Start Rosh Hashanah on a sweet note with tishpishti, an orange-scented semolina cake

Syrup-soaked semolina cakes are common throughout Sephardi, Middle Eastern and North African Jewish cuisine. They are typically served on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they are a staple of the Shabbat table.  (Laura Chase de Formigny/For The Washington Post)
Syrup-soaked semolina cakes are common throughout Sephardi, Middle Eastern and North African Jewish cuisine. They are typically served on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and they are a staple of the Shabbat table. (Laura Chase de Formigny/For The Washington Post)
By Leah Koenig Special to the Washington Post

When it comes to Rosh Hashanah desserts, apple cake or honey cake might sound most familiar to Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central European) Jews celebrating the Jewish New Year. But the Jewish diaspora is as wide as its global recipe box, which boasts other sweet delights, such as this fine and worthy option: a syrup-soaked semolina cake known as tishpishti.

Tishpishti originated in Turkey and is popular across Sephardi, Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities. The name is a nonsense word stemming from Turkish and translating roughly as “quickly done.”

According to Gil Marks’ “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” tishpishti is “a traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert served to start the new year on a sweet note.” In other words, the symbolism of tishpishti is similar to apple or honey cake, except the popular semolina cake is generously bathed in fragrant syrup. The combination of semolina and syrup gives tishpishti the delightful nubbiness of cornbread and the thick, spoonable texture of polenta.

The ingredient list for syrupy semolina cakes varies significantly depending on where it is being baked. The name also changes accordingly and is regionally called basbousa, revani, safra, hareesa or namoura. Some cakes contain finely ground semolina only, while others also include all-purpose flour, nut flour or dried coconut. Some households bake an all nut flour version of the cake, particularly around Passover when wheat-based semolina is verboten.

Tishpishti also is served at other festive occasions throughout the year. Some families mark the end of Yom Kippur’s fast with a piece of cake. Others serve it on Purim or as a treat for Shabbat.

My favorite recipes for tishpishti are those enriched with butter and yogurt, which impart a richness and subtle tang to offset the syrup’s unabashed sweetness. But versions of the cake served in observant Jewish homes are typically lightened with beaten egg whites or moistened with orange juice and oil to keep the batter dairy-free (and therefore suitable for dessert after a kosher meal containing meat).

The top of the cake is often decorated with whole or chopped pistachios or almonds or a sprinkle of dried coconut. And the syrup, made with either sugar, honey or a mixture of both, is rarely left plain. Instead, it comes lavishly perfumed with rose water, orange blossom water, cinnamon or citrus zest.

“The syrup used in my family is flavored with lemon or orange peel and orange juice,” said Rabbi Ute Steyer, who grew up in Athens, Greece, and now lives in Stockholm, Sweden. “It really adds to the flavor, but my family is a bit obsessive about adding lemon and orange to everything!”

When it comes to semolina cakes, just about anything goes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules, the most important of which is to pour the room-temperature syrup slowly and steadily over the warm cake, letting it absorb without flooding the top. (Pour-over coffee aficionados will be familiar with the light touch required by the syrup-drizzling hand.) Another rule is to let the cake fully cool before slicing – again, for maximum syrup absorption.

When the cake is ready to serve, it can be sliced into small squares or diamonds and served with more syrup for drizzling and a glass of fresh mint tea alongside. A dusting of confectioner’s sugar or a billowy cloud of freshly whipped cream gilds the lily, while a dollop of yogurt transforms any leftovers (which keep for several days, thanks to the syrup) into an enviable breakfast.

“There’s a serious machloket (dispute) over which parts are the best, the middle sections or the corners with a bit of crust,” Steyer said. “I still can’t decide, so I take two pieces just to make sure!”

Tishpishti (Citrus Semolina Cake)

For the syrup

1 cup water

1 cup granulated sugar

¼ cup fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)

For the cake

1 cup full-fat plain yogurt (may substitute unsweetened coconut yogurt)

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled (may substitute vegan butter)

⅓ cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

2 cups fine semolina

⅓ cup finely shredded unsweetened dried coconut

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Confectioners’ sugar, for serving

Finely chopped toasted pistachios, for serving

Make the syrup: In a small saucepan, combine the water and sugar and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the syrup thickens slightly, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange juice and orange blossom water, if using. Let cool completely.

The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Make the cake: Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Cut two long rectangles of parchment paper and line a 9-inch round cake pan with it, criss-crossing in the middle, ensuring there is generous overhang on all four sides.

In a large bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar, butter, orange juice and zest until well combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the semolina, coconut, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and gently fold together until fully incorporated. Transfer the batter to the parchment-lined pan, smooth the top over with an offset spatula and let the batter stand for about 5 minutes to let the semolina absorb some of the liquid.

Place the cake pan in the oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until set and lightly golden around the edges (a toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean).

Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool for a few minutes. Using a fork or a skewer, poke holes across the surface of the cake. While the cake is still hot, slowly drizzle 1 cup syrup evenly over the top. Let stand for about 5 minutes, then drizzle another ½ cup syrup. (Reserve the remaining syrup for serving.)

Let the cake cool to room temperature, then grasp the parchment overhang and gently lift the cake out of the pan and transfer it to a serving plate.

When ready to serve, lightly dust with the confectioners’ sugar, sprinkle with the pistachios and cut into squares or diamonds.

Yield: 8 servings (makes one 9-inch cake)

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