Basbousa Bel Ashta (Semolina Cake With Ashta Cream Filling)

This version of basbousa is filled with a rich clotted cream and drenched in a rose-scented syrup.

Overhead view of Basbousa Bel Ashta
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Why It Works

  • Adding cream cheese stabilizes the cooked cream so it can stand up to the heat of the oven and remain fluffy without disappearing into the batter as the basbousa bakes. 
  • Orange zest helps to cut through the sweetness of the cake and complements the filling. 
  • Infusing simple syrup with cinnamon and cardamom adds a spiced note to the dessert. 
  • Refrigerating the cake overnight gives the basbousa time to fully absorb the simple syrup, for a more moist final crumb.

Nothing transports me to Egypt like a slice of basbousa bel ashta savored with my morning coffee. Based on the classic Egyptian semolina cake called basbousa, this "bel ashta'' variation adds a rich cream filling and a rose-scented syrup. The confection is drenched in the syrup while it’s still hot and then often sold as bite-sized, diamond-shaped bars in bakeries throughout Egypt. 

Legend has it that this rich cream-filled version was first made at Koueider, one of Egypt’s oldest pastry shops established in the 1930s. To this day, Koueidar's recipe for basbousa bel ashta remains a tightly guarded secret. Eager to share a childhood favorite with my Egyptian diasporan family, I created my own. My memories of the dessert guided me through the process, and after much trial and error, I arrived at this version, which reproduces the original faithfully. 

In Arabic, ashta literally means "clotted cream," the thick sheet of protein that rises to the surface of heated unpasteurized milk. The real challenge in developing this dessert was to find a formula for ashta that would stand the heat of the oven and remain fluffy without disappearing into the dense semolina batter while the cake bakes—something that happened to me repeatedly in my early attempts.

My solution is to mix heavy cream with cream cheese to create a creamy layer with enough structure to hold its own without bleeding into the cake as they bake together. That may not be what the bakers at Koueidar do in Egypt, but it works. To balance the sweetness of the syrup-drenched dessert, I add orange zest to the semolina batter and orange rind to the simple syrup, which cuts through the sugar with a subtle bitterness and acidity while complementing the richness of the filling. I'm also careful not to over-sweeten the ashta; there's enough sweetness coming from the syrup to avoid every element of the cake being similarly saccharine.  

Semolina, the main ingredient, is available online and in Middle eastern stores. It's important to use coarse semolina in this recipe, which provides the proper texture for the cake's crumb; anything too fine and you'll end up with a very different result.

The final cake is an impressive sight, with a shiny, glazed surface and defined layers of soft semolina cake and thick, creamy ashta. With some chopped pistachios on top to add crunch and a complex flavor that's in turns floral, herbal, and citrusy, it's a winner on all fronts.

Recipe Facts

Prep: 20 mins
Cook: 60 mins
Cooling and Chilling Time: 5 hrs 30 mins
Total: 6 hrs 50 mins
Serves: 8 to 10 servings

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For the Ashta (Cream Filling): 

  • 1 cup (237ml) whole milk

  • 1 cup (237ml) heavy cream

  • 2 tablespoons (16g) cornstarch

  • 2 tablespoons (16g) all-purpose flour

  • 1 tablespoon (15g) granulated sugar

  • 2 mastic resins, crushed (about 1/2 teaspoon), see note 

  • 1/4 cup cream cheese (2 ounces; 55g)

  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) rose water 

For the Simple Syrup:

  • 1 cup (237ml) water

  • 1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

  • One 1 1/2–inch strip navel orange rind

  • 3 cardamom pods, bruised

  • One 3-inch cinnamon stick

  • 2 whole cloves

  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) orange blossom water

For the Basbousa Bel Ashta: 

  • Unsalted butter, softened, for preparing the pan

  • All-purpose flour, for preparing the pan 

  • 1 cup coarse semolina (5.5 ounces; 156g)

  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar (3.5 ounces; 100g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume 

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 cup plain whole milk yogurt (8.3 ounces; 235g)

  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature (6 ounces; 170g)

  • 1 tablespoon orange zest (from 2 medium oranges), finely grated

  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract

  • 3/4 cup (177ml) canola or other neutral oil 

  • 2 cups Ashta (16.2 ounces; 460g), from recipe above 

  • 120 ml simple syrup

  • 1/4 cup chopped raw, unsalted pistachios, to garnish (1.2 ounces; 35g)

  • Orange zest curls, to garnish


  1. For the Ashta (Cream Filling): In a medium saucepan, whisk together milk, cream, and cornstarch over low heat until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Whisk in flour until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute. Add sugar and whisk until dissolved.

  2. Whisk in crushed mastic and cream cheese until mastic is melted and mixture is smooth. Increase heat to medium and, stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil. Boil until mixture reaches a thick, custard-like consistency, about 2 minutes. Stir in rose water and remove from the heat.

    Adding rose water to custard mixture

    Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

  3. Transfer ashta to a bowl, place plastic wrap directly on the surface (this prevents a skin from forming), and set aside to cool completely, about 1 hour.

  4. For the Simple Syrup : In a medium saucepan, combine water and sugar, set over low heat, and cook, stirring often, until sugar is fully dissolved, about 5 minutes.

  5. Stir in orange rind, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. Increase heat to medium and bring the syrup to a simmer. Simmer, undisturbed, until it thickens slightly, 3 to 5 minutes. (The syrup should be thicker than water, but not as viscous as honey.)

  6. Stir in orange blossom water and remove from the heat immediately. Cover and set aside to keep warm.

  7. For the Basbousa Bel Ashta: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan, tapping out any excess flour.

  8. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the semolina, granulated sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the yogurt, eggs, orange zest, vanilla extract, and canola oil, and whisk until batter is completely smooth.

  9. Fill the pan with 2 cups (473ml) batter. Bake until the top is set and dry to the touch, and the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the mold, 10-15 minutes. Remove basbousa from the oven.

  10. Using an offset spatula, carefully spread ashta in an even layer on top of the basbousa, then carefully pour the remaining 1 1/2 cups (355ml) basbousa batter on top. Bake until the cake is golden brown, springy yet dry to the touch, and begins to pull away from the sides of the mold, 30-40 minutes.

    Three image collage of adding cream mixture and spreading it with an offset spatula then adding another layer of batter

    Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

  11. Remove basbousa from oven and place on a wire rack. Immediately pour the warm simple syrup on top, working slowly to ensure the cake evenly soaks. Allow basbousa to cool completely, about 90 minutes, then cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours but preferably overnight before serving.

    Pouring syrup over cake

    Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

  12. To serve, unmold the basbousa and transfer it to a serving dish. Brush the surface of the basbousa with a thin layer of simple syrup. Garnish with chopped pistachios and orange zest curls. Serve cold with extra simple syrup on the side.

Special Equipment

Whisk, 9-inch springform mold, offset spatula


Mastic or mastica is a natural extract of the mastic tree that grows in Greece. You can order it online or buy it from Middle Eastern stores. 

The best way to crush mastic is to crush frozen mastic, mixed with a pinch of sugar, using a mortar and pestle; in this recipe you can also put it in a zipper-lock bag and crush it with a heavy rolling pin or skillet (it will dissolve easily into the hot milk mixture even if not finely crushed). Mastic’s flavor is strong and can make your dish bitter if used in excessive quantities. 

If you make the simple syrup ahead of time, warm it up before you pour it over the hot basbousa. The simple syrup should be just warm to touch.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The ashta can be made 1-2 days in advance and stored in the fridge. 

The simple syrup can be made 2-5 days ahead of time, and kept at room temperature in a clean glass jar.

Stored in an airtight container, the basbousa will keep for 2-4 days in the fridge.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
558 Calories
41g Fat
41g Carbs
8g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 8 to 10
Amount per serving
Calories 558
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 41g 53%
Saturated Fat 15g 76%
Cholesterol 129mg 43%
Sodium 275mg 12%
Total Carbohydrate 41g 15%
Dietary Fiber 1g 5%
Total Sugars 25g
Protein 8g
Vitamin C 2mg 12%
Calcium 160mg 12%
Iron 1mg 8%
Potassium 207mg 4%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)