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. To make the sfouf vegan, simply replace the milk with water.

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

Servings: 30 2- to 3-inch pieces
Recipe by: Maureen Abood

You can adjust the flavorings some if you need to; i.e., leave out the anise if that’s not a crowd-pleaser there. Sfouf will keep for a good week in an airtight container. Find excellent tahini here and the very best pine nuts you can buy here, at Maureen Abood Market.

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Ingredients

  • 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
  • 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

Instructions

  1. 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.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, salt, turmeric, and aniseed. 

  3. In a large measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk the milk, sugar, and vanilla until the sugar dissolves (it won’t entirely), then add the oil and whisk vigorously until combined.

  4. Whisk the liquid mixture into the dry mixture until everything is well-combined.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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20 Responses to "Lebanese Sfouf Cake"
  1. Susan Berger says:

    I don’t see ‘milk’ listed in the ingredients–Am I missing it? How much milk?

  2. Helen Corey says:

    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.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      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!!

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks Maureen!

  4. Susan Berger says:

    Thanks much, Maureen!

  5. Chris says:

    If I don’t want to use dairy what kind of milk substitution would work well in this recipe?

  6. Rose says:

    Hi Maureen—I’m making this today. I assume you add the vanilla to the liquid ingredients? Can’t wait to try this.

  7. Helen Corey says:

    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.

  8. Susan says:

    Can this be frozen?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      The cake should freeze fine if very well wrapped–I have not tried it to say for sure though!

  9. Lara says:

    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

  10. Stella says:

    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?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      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!

  11. Christy says:

    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..

    • Maureen Abood says:

      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.

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