Lemon + olive oil + polenta cake with rosemary syrup.

I’m obsessed with Arabic semolina cake, variously known as harissanamoura,
basbousa or revani throughout Lebanon/Turkey/Egypt.

This cake isn’t it (for starters, semolina = wheatmeal; polenta = cornmeal)
but as soon as I realised how it was going to turn out
— dense, al dente, and oozing fragrant, sticky sugar syrup —
I knew we were going to be good friends.

{ Based on a recipe by Antony Worrall Thompson }

Gather:
175 g polenta
60 g flour¹
1 + 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Zest of two lemons
Juice of 1 lemon (around 2 tbsp)

2 eggs + 2 egg whites
400 g caster or white sugar (separated into two 200 g portions)
5 tbsp plain Greek yoghurt
5 tbsp good olive oil² (+ a touch more for greasing the tin)

200 mls water
2 sprigs fresh rosemary (+ a couple more to garnish)

Plain Greek yoghurt and black- or blueberries, to serve (optional)

Then:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF/180ºC and place a baking sheet on a rack/shelf in the middle.³
  2. Use a few drops of olive oil to grease a standard-size springform cake tin. Set aside.
  3. Measure the polenta, flour, baking powder and salt into a medium-sized bowl, and mix with a fork until evenly combined. Set aside.
  4.  Grate the lemon zest into a small dish and squeeze the lemon juice into another. Set aside.
  5. Put the eggs, egg whites and 200 g of sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer (or a large bowl with hand beaters) and mix on medium speed until the sugar has dissolved and the eggs have started to go pale (around 4 minutes).
  6. Slow down your mixer(s) and add the yoghurt, olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice.
  7. When the wet ingredients are fully incorporated, slowly add in the polenta/flour mixture until just combined — don’t overmix.
  8. Pour the batter into the greased cake tin — it should be quite runny.
  9. Pop the cake tin in the oven on top of the pre-heated baking sheet, and bake for around 40 minutes, or until a bamboo skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.⁴
  10. While the cake is baking, put two sprigs of rosemary, the rest of the sugar and 200 mls of water in a small saucepan and bring it to the boil, stirring once or twice.
  11. Turn down the heat and leave it to simmer for 10 minutes.
  12. Remove from the heat, scoop out and discard the rosemary sprigs, and leave the syrup to cool while the cake finishes.
  13. When the cake is done, take it out of the oven — baking sheet and all — and let it cool for about 5 minutes before removing the sides of the tin.
  14. Leave the cake to cool for another 15 minutes with the sides off, before inverting it onto a plate and removing the base of the tin.
  15. Use your bamboo skewer to poke small holes all over the cake, then pour over the semi-cooled rosemary sugar syrup, going all the way to the edges so there are no dry areas and not too much pooling in the middle. (I only used about 3/4 of the syrup, but go with your gut!)
  16. Garnish with the remaining rosemary springs, which you’ll remove before serving the cake in small slices with plain yoghurt and fresh berries. (Mint tea would also do very nicely.)

Notes:
¹ I used bread flour because it was lying around, but plain/all-purpose would be fine. And if you use gluten-free flour, the whole cake will be gluten-free!
² Usually an extra-light flavour is better for baking, but in this case you want to taste the EVOO, so go for something really lush if you can.
³ This will help cook the cake from underneath, and catch any leaks from your springform tin, god forbid.
⁴ Don’t be afraid to test multiple spots. This is one time when holes are good — you’ll be adding more before drenching the cake in syrup.

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