Helbeh (aka Fenugreek Cake)

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This is not a food blog. This is NOT a food blog. I have nothing against food blogs or bloggers at all, but there are a lot of them out there all doing a much more food-loving job of things better than I ever could or would.

However, I feel oddly inspired to post about Ottolenghi & Tamimi’s fenugreek cake (p. 290 of their Jerusalem cookbook) because it was unusual. And amazing.

I love cooking and baking, though if you ask my neglected children, they’ll claim I do nothing on the kitchen front. Not exactly correct: I have phases when I do very little… but I then have phases when I become a true domestic goddess and spend hours reading recipe books, making lists, shopping and preparing food. We are currently in one such phase.

My spending a great deal of time in the Westbourne Grove area of London has prompted a great deal of interest recently in Ottolenghi’s business as restaurateur (the Ledbury Road cafe is but a stone’s throw from Debut Contemporary ) and as travelogue guide (I trailed and dragged the entire family around all of his highlighted Jerusalem food outlets this time last year and very good they were too).

Then much to my delight, my mother-in-law kindly gave me a copy of the recipe book a couple of weeks ago, so I needed little encouragement to explore some new foodie experiences during these weeks-with-no-deadlines.

I liked the look of the cake. See my effort above. A satisfying latticed design with sticky syrupy raw almonds and a reassuringly bumpy-but-level nicely browned surface. I also liked the disclaimer at the start of the recipe: two out of seven chefs hated it. The other five loved it. I was intrigued by the sound of a recipe you either love or hate.

But it took grit determination and the empty hours of a week-with-no-deadlines to actually produce the final piece. To begin with, I lacked over half the ingredients. My flirtation in recent years with low-carb had denuded my cupboard of basics such as semolina. I don’t think I’d ever stocked fenugreek, ever. And I recalled chucking out old bottles of rosewater and orange blossom water many moons ago.

A special trip was called for to the Continental Supermarket on the Roundhay Road. “Continental” as in “Asian” rather than “Europe”. What should have been a quick trip took four times as long as expected thanks to my unfamiliarity with the shop layout, and the enticing distraction of every other product on the shelves.

Back home, the production process was straightforward but intriguingly different. A semolina-based mix ended up as a yeasted dough; an unusual basis for an otherwise normal-looking cake. Boiling fenugreek seeds almost led to me abandoning the project; boiled fenugreek seeds smell and taste foul. And pouring a gallon of syrup onto the warm oven-fresh product called for the patience of a saint if the entire countertop was not to be glazed by this carbohydrate Vesuvius.

Finally, after all that effort, the instructions demanded it be left to mature for a day before eating.

Time expired an hour ago.

It was worth it all. Very different; and very delicious.

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