Middle Eastern Traditional Cakes

The Middle East covers a wide spectrum of countries and cultures but in the space we have here we just want to give you a general feel for the baking of the region and, hopefully, it’ll encourage you to explore the different traditions in greater depth. (Claudia Roden is the name to look for on the Middle Eastern cookery bookshelves.)

Traditional Middle Eastern cakes are very often served more like a dessert accompanied with a big dollop of natural yoghurt or crème fraiche. These traditional cakes are often soaked in syrup and are best enjoyed in small portions with a cup of strong Arabic or Turkish coffee.


The ingredients in this recipe are measured by volume not weight. A cup is the equivalent of 8 fl oz. Most standard mugs hold half a pint (10 fl oz)

  • 2 cups (450g 1lb) fine semolina
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ cup (110g 4oz) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (225g 8oz) icing sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup water
  • about 20 blanched split almonds
  • 2 cups (450g 1lb) caster sugar
  • 1 cup (240ml 8floz) water
  • 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 180°C, gas mark 4. Grease a rectangular cake tin, about 8” x 12”.

Sieve together the semolina, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Set aside.

Melt the butter and then beat in the icing sugar until creamy. Beat in the eggs. Mix in ½ cup of water. Stir the sifted semolina in and beat until you have a smooth batter. Pour into the prepared cake tin. Score diagonal lines across the top of the cake creating diamond shapes. Place an almond in each diamond. Bake for about 40 minutes or until the cake is firm and golden.

Meanwhile place the caster sugar in a small saucepan with 1 cup of water. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved then add the juice of the lemon and bring to the boil. Boil for about 10 minutes or until syrupy.

When the cake is removed from the oven, gently spoon the syrup over it. You may not need all the syrup: stop spooning when the cake has absorbed all it can. Allow to cool in the tin before turning out and serving sliced into diamonds.

Fruit Cake

  • 225g (8oz) dates
  • 75g (3oz) dried figs
  • 225g (8oz) sultanas
  • 110g (4oz) pistachio nuts
  • 110g (4oz) hazelnuts
  • 1 lemon
  • 110g (4oz) plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa
  • 275g (10oz) caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 50g (2oz) mixed peel
  • 50g (2oz) glace cherries

Preheat the oven to 150°C, gas mark 2. Grease and base-line a loaf tin.

Roughly chop the dates and figs and place in a large bowl with the sultanas, chopped nuts and the finely grated zest of the lemon. Mix together. Sieve over the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa. Stir in half the caster sugar. Lightly beat the eggs and the vanilla essence. Add to the dry mixture and stir well to combine. Pour into the pan and bake for about 1 hour until well-risen and golden. A skewer inserted into the middle should come out clean. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Meanwhile put ½ pint of water into a small saucepan and add the remaining sugar. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil for about 10 minutes or until you have a thick syrup.

When you have removed the cake from the tin, cover the top with the mixed peel and cherries. Drizzle the syrup over.

  • Instead of the peel and cherries, use a mixture of other glace fruits for a more festive look.

Orange Cake

This is adapted from a Claudia Roden recipe.

  • 2 large or 3 medium-sized oranges
  • 6 eggs
  • 250g (9oz) ground almonds
  • 250g (9oz) caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

Wash the oranges well. (Try and get organic oranges if you can.) Place them in a large saucepan and just cover with water. Slowly bring to the boil and then simmer, covered, for about 2 hours. Add more water if necessary.

Let the oranges cool enough for you to be able to handle them and then cut into quarters. Remove the pips before whizzing the oranges, including the peel, in a processor or blender for a few seconds..

Preheat the oven to 190°C, gas mark 5. Grease and base-line a 10” tin.

Separate the eggs. Whisk the yolks with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the pulped orange, almonds and baking powder.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Fold into the cake mixture. Pour into the tin and bake for about 1 hour or until well-risen and golden. If the cake starts to brown too much, cover with greaseproof paper or foil.

Allow to cool and sprinkle with icing sugar before serving.

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