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Semolina Pistachio Layer Cake

Servings: 8-10

"This no-bake treat is like a coffee cake," says Bsisu. "It's a nice snack throughout the night, or for the early morning suhur." The "cake" consists of two layers of a sweet pistachio-semolina mixture, separated by a creamy rose- and orange-scented filling and topped with fried nuts. "Be sure to use course semolina, not the finely ground pasta flour," says Bsisu. Rose and orange-blossom waters, essential for the flowery filling, are available in Middle Eastern markets and some grocery stores. "Do not use the extracts sold in health food stores," warns Bsisu. "They're too concentrated.

This no-bake dessert features alternating layers of savory pistachio-studded semolina and a cooked cream called kashta, set into a springform cake pan and chilled in the refrigerator overnight. If you are feeding a crowd, double the recipe and forgo the cake shape for a looser presentation: Spread all the semolina mixture on a large platter, spoon the kashta over it, and garnish with the nuts and powdered sugar; then spoon it into dessert bowls.

There is no English translation for kashta, pronounced "ahshta," but it is often described as the Arab equivalent of clotted cream. This fragrant cake filling is also delicious as a breakfast treat, drizzled with honey or swabbed on a piece of toast.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 cups coarse semolina
1 gallon whole milk
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons rose water
2 tablespoons orange-blossom water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pine nuts and/or peeled almonds (See Tips below)
1/2 cup powdered sugar

Mix the melted butter and semolina in a medium bowl, and set aside at room temperature for at least 6 hours or as long as overnight.

Pour the milk into a large pot and bring it to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. When the milk rises to the top of the pot, stir in the lemon juice and remove the pot from the heat. Set it aside to cool until the milk separates, 10 to 15 minutes.

Pour the milk through a fine-mesh strainer into a bowl, stirring to release the whey. Discard the whey. Transfer the curds in the strainer to a large bowl. Stir in 2 tablespoons rose water and the orange-blossom water with a wooden spoon. The kashta should look like small-curd cottage cheese. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. (Kashta will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.)

Combine the sugar, pistachios, and remaining 1 tablespoon rose water in a food processor and pulse until the mixture has the consistency of coarse sand. Add the pistachio mixture to the flour mixture, and using your hands, mix them together, breaking up the lumps until the mixture feels like damp sand.

Line a 9-inch springform cake pan with wax paper, using two pieces crossing at right angles and allowing lengths of paper to hang over the sides of the pan. Spoon half of the semolina mixture into the pan and smooth it out to the edges with the back of the spoon. Follow with all of the kashta, spreading it over the semolina in an even layer. Spoon the remaining semolina mixture on top and spread it out in an even layer. Fold the overhanging wax paper over the top, and press to smooth the semolina. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Pour the olive oil into a skillet that is large enough to accommodate the nuts in a single layer. Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the nuts, reduce the heat to low, and stir actively until they begin to darken slightly, about 1 minute (see Tips, below). Remove the pan from the heat, and use a slotted spoon to transfer the nuts to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. (Alternatively, dump the nuts into a medium-mesh sieve set over a container to catch the cooking oil.) Let them cool completely. (Fried nuts can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 3 months.)

One hour before serving, remove the cake from the refrigerator, invert it onto a serving plate, and release it from the pan. Sprinkle the powdered sugar on top: Hold a fine-mesh sieve over the cake, pour the powdered sugar into it, and gently tap the rim to release the sugar. Garnish with the nuts, and serve in wedges.

• To peel almonds, put them in a small saucepan with enough cold water to cover, bring to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Pour the almonds, with the water, into a bowl and set aside. When the nuts are cool enough to handle, peel them by squeezing one at a time between your thumb and forefinger — the skin will come off right away. Put the peeled almonds on a paper towel to dry. (Alternatively, you can blanch the almonds in a microwave oven by spreading the nuts in a single layer on a microwave-safe dish and heating them on high power in 30-second intervals, checking after each interval to ensure that the nuts do not cook. When the skins feel loose, pinch the nuts as described to remove the peel.)

• The trick to getting uniformly golden nuts is to stir them constantly as they fry — and to remove them from the heat just before they turn the color you want them to be; they continue to cook in the oil even when they're off the heat, and they can burn very easily.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Reprinted with permission from The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu
William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers ©2005

Source: The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu