Thursday, April 4, 2013

Helbeh (or Fenugreek Cake)

If I was forced to describe myself using one word, I think I would choose introvert. In the book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert confesses that, despite her wanderlust, she does not make the best traveler. She describes how her appearance makes her stick out and that her face is a "transparent transmitter" of every thought. This is me, except not when I visit other countries. This is me in new situations. When I get flustered and nervous, it shows. I blush, my eyes looks scared, my voice shakes. Then I try to hide all of it by laughing. 

So, I was at this little Middle Eastern market and restaurant near my house the other day (I've mentioned it before). I like to go in there to peruse their grocery section. There are so many different spices, exotic syrups, colorful candies to take in. I was there to buy some rose and orange blossom waters, and as I was walking back to the register I saw a container in the spice aisle that caught my eye. It was a simple, unassuming clear plastic tub with no label except a price tag for $2.49. It was filled with at least a cup and a half of these little golden brown seeds that looked just like fenugreek. I put it to my nose; it smelled like fenugreek. I even gave the container a little shake (I tend to shake everything I pick up, Colin always laughs at me at the grocery store); it sounded like fenugreek. In my head I thought, You should just ask somebody. Anybody else in the world would just ask somebody what it is.

I've had fenugreek on my radar lately because I saw a recipe for Helbeh, a cake flavored with fenugreek, in the cookbook, Jerusalem. The recipe is adjacent to a beautiful picture, but it comes with a disclaimer: apparently not everyone likes the flavor of fenugreek in desserts. You see, it's a characteristic ingredient in curry and some people have a hard time losing that association. Helbeh, apparently, is not for everyone. If this really was a big container of fenugreek for $2.49 I wanted to get it and make some Helbeh to see if I liked it. Plus, I use fenugreek in my curry powder.

So I walked up to the front and handed the container to the kid behind the register.

"Do you know what this is? Is this fenugreek?" I asked.

He gave me a sheepish grin and shrugged. Just then a short, but very muscular cook in his late forties jumped, literally jumped, out from behind his grill and said in his thick accent, "No, this is helba. Hel-ba. What do you want that for? Sweet or not sweet?"

Now, most normal people would use this as a great opportunity to learn. They would probably say something like "Oh, well I'm looking for fenugreek. I like to use it in curry powder but I also recently found a recipe for a cake that is flavored with fenugreek that I wanted to try. So I guess I want it for both sweet and savory dishes. Is this fenugreek? If not, do you have any? What is this? What do you use this for? (... etc., etc., etc)"

Nope, not me, I froze. And to his question, I stupidly replied, "Uh... I don't know."

Then he looked at me and shouted, "This is very good for the blood. You make a tea with it. But if you do not know what you want it for then this is not for you. You put it back and get something else. This is very good. But it is not for you!" (Bear in mind that he was very nice. He was trying to help me out but I was not giving him anything to work with).

At that point, my face was bright red and I was nervously giggling my head off. The kid behind the counter gave me an apologetic smile, sold me the waters and the mystery seeds, and I hurried out as fast as I could, completely embarrassed by myself.

After I got home I did some research online and found that helba is Arabic for fenugreek. So maybe... helba is for me!

It appears that the Middle Eastern cook does know his helba. Fenugreek has been found in studies to significantly reduce blood-glucose,  LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels in people with diabetes without impacting HDL cholesterol levels making it very good for the blood. Fenugreek also increases milk production in breastfeeding women.

Now, confident I had purchased the right spice, I was eager to move forward and make some Helbeh. A word of warning: As this cake bakes it gives off the most enticing smell, however, the recipe requires that it sit overnight soaking in syrup. This wait is hard.

The helbeh was delicious! It was moist and sweet with a hint of rose and the exotic, nutty flavor of the fenugreek. This cake is dense though so if you make it try to plan on sharing it!

Helbeh from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
serves 10 to 12

3 cups fine semolina
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup pine nuts, blitzed into large crumbs
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup sunflower oil
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus more for greasing the pan
1 1/2 teaspoons fenugreek seeds (or helba)
2 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons fast-rising, active yeast
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons whole almonds, blanched and peeled

1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
6 1/2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons rose water
1 1/2 tablespoons orange blossom water

Mix the semolina, flour, and pine nuts in a large bowl. Stir in the oils and butter until well combined and then set aside.

Bring the fenugreek seeds and the water to boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 25 minutes or until the seeds are plump and tender. Strain out the fenugreek, reserving the cooking water. Add the fenugreek to the semolina mixture. Add the yeast, baking powder, and salt.

Measure out 3/4 cup of the hot fenugreek water (add more water to equal 3/4 cup if necessary). Slowly stir the liquid into the semolina mixture. Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until completely smooth.

Grease a 9 1/2 inch cake pan with butter and line the bottom and sides with parchment paper. Place the dough in the pan and press it down until it covers the bottom and is level and smooth. Using a knife, score the surface of the cake with series of lines at 45-degree angles, forming a diamond pattern. Place 1 almond at the center of each diamond. Cover with a clean, moist towel and allow to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. About 20 minutes before the dough is finished rising, preheat the oven to 425F.

Bake the cake on a lower oven rack for 20 minutes. Lower the heat to 400F and bake for another 20 minutes or it is golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

While the cake is baking prepare the syrup. Mix the sugar and water together in a small saucepan with a wooden spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil and then add the lemon juice. Gently simmer for 4 minutes and then remove from heat. Allow the mixture to cool a bit then add the rose and orange blossom waters.

When the cake is finished baking, remove it from the oven and immediately drizzle it with all of the syrup. Let the cake cool completely in the pan. Cover well with aluminum foil or plastic wrap. Serve the next day.


  1. I love that story! That is too funny.

    "...this is not for you. You put it back and get something else."

  2. It was pretty hilarious. I'm glad I didn't put it back!