Lebanese Sfouf Cake
Lebanese sfouf cake is a very simple, oil-based yellow cake, given its technicolor with turmeric–sfouf is beloved by the Lebanese, to enjoy with coffee or tea (not, at least according this dessert-eater, for dessert…). Sfouf cake includes a short list of ingredients and is egg-free.
The most typical, classic of Lebanese cakes seem to include semolina flour. There is the plain sfouf semolina cake, and namoura semolina cake that is drenched in fragrant syrup, and a molasses semolina cake (Lebanese carob molasses), also drenched in syrup.
A devoted following (maybe all of Lebanon and all those who’ve emigrated?) loves and bakes the sfouf cake or gets their fix from any and every Lebanese bakery. I gather this based not on my own personal experience, but on everything I’ve ever seen or read about sfouf. This very simple, oil-based yellow cake, given its technicolor with turmeric, includes a short list of ingredients and is leavened not with eggs but just a touch of baking powder. The pan is always coated with tahini rather than oil or butter.
I’ve read every sfouf recipe I could get my hands on, and auditioned a slew of them. The variations seem to primarily be in how thick the cake and how moist the end result. Some call sfouf “almond cake” but that would only refer to using almonds as a garnish rather than pine nuts. The word “sfouf” itself means “rows” (right? You Arabic speakers, please correct me if not!!), as in rows of pine nuts across the top of the cake.
Whatever that thing is in me . . . that makes me the way that I am . . . that thing in me really wanted to reinvent the simple sfouf, the way we gilded a coconutty syrup-soaked namoura cake with sugared roses or toasted the nuts first in baklawa. So naturally the questions arise: How about sfouf cupcakes? Sfouf Bundt? Add lemon zest and yogurt? A pretty pink glaze?
But not matter how exuberant the ideas, I realized in all of my sfouf baking that the inventive path is nothing short of an injustice to your sfouf. This cake is meant to be plain and simple, like the daily bread of a white blouse and jeans. And in like fashion, meant to take just a minute to whip up. Meant to slice cleanly and with ease.
The extent of a sfouf cake flourish is broiling the top to dark golden to offset the yellow crumb within, and cutting pieces in the classic diamond, or lozenge, shape.
I put sfouf in the same camp as biscotti, in that it belongs next to a cup of coffee or tea in the afternoon, or for breakfast. I don’t liken the sfouf to dessert, let’s be clear. Never could sfouf fulfill that closure of sweet goodness I’m after every night. No, I don’t every night indulge, but when I do, I hunt down chocolates or ice cream or frosted cake or a great cookie baked by my sister or . . . you get the picture. Dessert is not sfouf.
Lebanese sfouf cake is “snack cake,” which is not really a demotion. I’d rather have coffee with a side of sfouf snack than a lonely cup of coffee any day. I bet you will too.
Lebanese Sfouf Cake
- 2 teaspoons tahini
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup semolina flour (fine)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon freshly ground aniseed
- 1 cup whole milk plain yogurt, or laban
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1/2 cup neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
- 1 to 2 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the middle position. Coat the bottom of a 9-inch square (or round) cake pan with the tahini.
- In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, salt, turmeric, and aniseed.
- In a large measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, sugar, and vanilla until the sugar dissolves (it won’t entirely), then add the oil and whisk vigorously until combined.
- Whisk the liquid mixture into the dry mixture until everything is well-combined.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and smooth out the top. To end up with a nut in the center of lozenge/diamond-shaped pieces of cake, place the nuts about 2 inches apart in rows, but set the nut pointing toward the corners of the pan (diagonally). It also helps to score the top of the batter in diamonds so you can see where to place the nuts in the center of each diamond. To do this, make five scores straight across and seven scores diagonally, the same way we cut baklawa. Or, scatter the nuts evenly over the top of the batter.
- Bake the cake for 20-25 minutes, or until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Then, turn on the broiler and carefully brown the top of the cake, keeping a close eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Cut into diamonds and serve.
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I'm so glad you're here! You'll find among these pages the fresh and classic Lebanese recipes we can't get enough of! My mission is to share my tried + true recipes -- and to help our Lebanese food-loving community keep these culinary traditions alive and on the table. What recipes are you looking for? Let me know!
I don’t see ‘milk’ listed in the ingredients–Am I missing it? How much milk?
Great catch Susan, thank you–all fixed!
This is off topic. We love your nougat with pistachios & dried cherries recipe. The first time I made it, the mixture tripled in size during beating—just as your recipe says. Ever since I never achieve the tripling in size part. I’ve made nougat many times because we love it with Turkish coffee & your recipe is so good. It freezes well also. Any ideas?? Thanks.
Hi Helen–I love that recipe too! I wonder about the temperature of your honey syrup mixture; if that’s too hot it could prevent the egg whites from whipping properly. I too have experienced the odd occasion when the whites didn’t triple and I attributed it to a faulty thermometer. Now you’ve got me wanting some homemade nougat!!
Thanks much, Maureen!
If I don’t want to use dairy what kind of milk substitution would work well in this recipe?
Hi! You can substitute the milk with water, or try to substitute with coconut milk, or almond milk.
Hi Maureen—I’m making this today. I assume you add the vanilla to the liquid ingredients? Can’t wait to try this.
Thank you Rose! Yes, mix vanilla with milk and sugar!
My Iraqi husband says sfouf ( pronounce suh-foof) means lined up rows of something like school children—or pine nuts. Suhf is singular and is used to ask what year are you in school. Arabic is such a beautiful, colorful language with a precise way of describing things. My husband often interprets songs of love and the words describing the object loved are many.
I love all of that, thank you Helen!
Can this be frozen?
The cake should freeze fine if very well wrapped–I have not tried it to say for sure though!
Thanks a lot for this recipe ! I will give it a try tomorrow first thing in the morning ! I love to bake before the sun is up , after the sun is down and anywhere in between…
Sfouf is excellent with milk and black coffee 🙂 thank you maureen
Wonderful Lara! A beautiful time to bake, agreed.
Thank you for the recipe! I made this for my Lebanese husband and he was not a fan of the anise and felt the cake was too dense. That did not, however, keep him from enjoying several pieces! He said it “tastes like home.” I’ll keep working on the recipe to better match whatever sfouf my husband enjoyed at home, but I would like recommendations on how to make it fluffier. Usually it has to do with the eggs… any suggestions?
Thank you–there are certainly many variations on sfouf! You can absolutely try adding eggs to make a fluffy cake; egg whites might be the ticket, beaten and then folded into the batter after the flour is added. This may require other adjustments to ingredients; experiment and see what works!
Hi! I tried making this and the result was not quite what I expected. I baked it for 50 min before I gave up and removed it from the oven. The center pieces were doughy and uncooked and the ones on the edges were crunchy and dry. I followed the recipe to the letter so I’m not quite sure what happened there..
Well I’m so sorry to hear that! Ovens can vary and calibration of temperature can get off kilter, so that may well be the issue since the cake baked so unevenly.
I always wanted to make this, but never did and probably never will. Why? Because I have no idea where to get the semolina flour.
Jeff, you can find semolina flour online and in many grocery stores–look for Bob’s Red Mill brand.
Hi! The recipe still says ‘yogurt,’ so I’m a bit confused if it requires yogurt or milk? I made the recipe with yogurt as you indicated, but the batter was way too thick, so I had to add milk in the end.
In Lebanon, do they use real turmeric or yellow food coloring? I tried following your recipe to the exact T, but the turmeric is overpowering (perhaps it’s the ones sold here in the U.S.??) and it tastes nothing like the lovely sfouf of Lebanon.
Please help! And thank you for your blog 🙂
Hi Sarah! Thank you for your questions. In my experience, sfouf recipes are quite varied. Mine is more of a dense cake with a thick batter, and others are lighter, falling-apart moist and soft. You can use the yogurt for tenderness or milk instead. I know that often the Lebanese will use an orange food coloring for knafeh, but I have not seen it used in sfouf. You can of course cut back on the turmeric to whatever degree you like without upsetting the “chemistry” of the cake!
My family recipe is similar to yours.
2 lbs 4oz plain flour
2 glasses sugar
1 3/4 glasses oil
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tbsp dried yeast melted in 1/2 cup warm water with 1/2 tsp sugar
ground fennel and aniseed
1 glass water
Crumble oil and butter into the flour, mix in sugar and turmeric.
Dilute yeast in warm water and sugar until frothy, add to mixture.
Bind with water and add the spices.
Form into a dough and leave in a warm place to rest for 30 minutes.
Oil a large baking tray, cover with a layer of the mixture. Cut into diamond shapes and add a whole blanched almond (skin removed) in the middle of each diamond shape.
Bake in a moderate oven at gas mark 5 (190 C / 375 F) for about 30 minutes or until almost brown, but not too dry. Cool then store. It’s much better on the second day.
How great to get your recipe, John, thank you!
How great to get your recipe John, thank you!
has anyone tried this recipe with a sweetener , like nevella or canderel?
for diabetics. My father is diabetic and cannot have sugar. I have tried similar recipe with a sweetener it becomes very dense and doesn’t rise
Good question Caroline, not something I have tested, but maybe others have.