The Semolina Cake from Jerusalem’s Neighborhood Ovens
Recipe Roots: Jerusalem > Gedera, Israel
Shared by Rivka Hazan
When Rivka Hazan was growing up in Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s, Shabbat cooking required a special trip to a neighboring Persian baker. During the week, his wood-fire oven roared as he baked pitas. On Fridays, though, nearby cooks like Rivka’s mother, Ester Fernandez, would prepare hamin or cholent, the Sabbath stew, that they would drop off with the baker. He would slip them into the oven and let them cook overnight in the residual heat.
The family also relied on the large oven around the holidays, particularly Purim, to bake cakes like the sticky-sweet and fragrant tishpishti cake recipe Rivka shared with us and bite-sized treats like date-filled ma’amul, baklava, and sweet ring cookies that were given out in packages to friends called mishloach manot. The cookies were carried to the baker and transferred to his baking sheets for their trip into the oven. When they were done, the baker would take a few of each as payment, leaving him with a sweet haul around the holidays.
But Esther's tishpishti, or tespishpishtill as the family calls it — filled with jam made from figs, dates, or plums, drizzled with a sweet syrup, and sprinkled with sesame seeds — was different. The cake, which comes from Turkey and whose name translates to “quick cake,” was too sticky to move from one tray to another. So, Rivka and her siblings marched it over to the baker in one of Esther’s baking pans. Knowing that taking a slice would ruin the cake, the baker left the tray in tact.
With family roots in Toledo, Spain and Aleppo, Syria, along with many generations in Jerusalem, Rivka isn’t certain when or how this Turkish cake entered the family, but it has been made for as long as she can remember. She learned to make it by watching — not baking. Growing up, she and her siblings weren’t allowed to help in the kitchen, but by 11 or 12, she knew her mother’s recipes including this one just from observing.
Today, the neighborhood ovens of her childhood in Jerusalem have long been closed, but the recipe for the family’s cake has endured. Among her three children, 9 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren, the cake is known as savta’s, or grandma's cake. At 89-years-old, she still bakes it for family birthdays, holidays, and special occasions — now, in the convenience of her home oven.
The recipe has also crossed the Atlantic. To help safeguard it, her grandson Itamar Ring, recently made the cake with his daughter in New York, writing it down, sharing it with us, and perhaps, even, sparking a new tradition.
Savta Rivka's Tishpishti Cake
Makes: ~25 pieces
Time: 1 hour + 1 hour cooling time + 1 hour and 15 minutes baking time
1 ¼ cups water
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about ½ a lemon)
2 teaspoons rose water
1 ¾ cups vegetable or canola oil
2 cups water
2 ½ cups semolina flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons rose water
6-8 tablespoons of fig, date, plum, or any dark jam
2 tablespoons of water
2 cups walnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon rose water
¼ cup sesame seeds, for sprinkling
1. Make the syrup: place the water and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, about 10 minutes or until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let the syrup cool. Stir in the lemon juice and rose water. Set aside.
2. Make the dough: Combine the all-purpose flour and baking powder in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Place the oil and water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the rose water. Then, add the semolina flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until evenly combined. Transfer the dough to a large bowl and gradually add the the all-purpose flour ¼ cup at a time, mixing to fully combine before adding the next batch of flour. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for about an hour or until cooled to room temperature.
3. While the dough rests, prepare the filling: Place the jam and water in a small bowl and mix to loosen. Place the walnuts, cinnamon, and rose water in a medium bowl and mix to combine evenly. Set aside.
4. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
5. To assemble: divide the dough into two equal parts. On a large sheet of parchment paper, shape the dough into a thick, flat rectangle. Roll the dough out to slightly larger than 9x13” and a ½ inch thick. Measure and cut it to fit in the bottom of a 9x13” inch metal or glass baking pan. Carefully flip the dough into the bottom of the pan and peel back the parchment paper. Adjust the dough if necessary so that it lines the entire bottom of the pan. Evenly spread the diluted jam over the dough. Sprinkle the jam with the nut mixture. Roll out the second half of dough on parchment paper and flip onto the top of the filling. (The dough is forgiving, if it breaks, don’t stress, just patch it up as best you can).
6. Sprinkle the top of the cake generously with sesame seeds.
7. Cut the cake into 1”x 2” squares or diamonds (Savta Rivka’s preferred way) being sure to cut all the way through to the bottom of the pan.
8. Bake at 350°F for 45 minutes. Lower the heat to 325°F and bake for 30 more minutes. Turn off the oven and leave the oven door ajar with the cake inside for 15 more minutes.
9. Remove the cake from the oven and pour the syrup evenly over the entire cake being sure to pour into the cracks. Let the cake sit until it is completely cooled and all of the syrup has been absorbed.
10. Place each individual piece in a cupcake liner. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a month.