Helba (Semolina + Fenugreek Cake) and a Bethlehem Cooking Class

After three years of living in Israel, my husband and I are moving back to New York in just a few days. Everyone thought we were crazy to move here, giving up our comfortable lives to venture off to a place we’d never even visited. But I knew it was the chance of a lifetime, and while there have certainly been challenges overall it’s been an amazing experience. The final item on my bucket list of things to do here was to visit the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem and attend a cooking class through an amazing organization called Noor Women Empowerment Group. I finally had the opportunity last weekend, and it was one of the most worthwhile, inspiring experiences in my time here.

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Banksy graffiti near the refugee camp; Islam and Ahmad’s daughter

Established in 1950, Aida is one of three refugee camps in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (yes, as in “Oh little town of Bethlehem”) and is home to some 5,000 Palestinian refugees living in a space smaller than one square kilometer. Noor began in 2010 as a support group for mothers of disabled children in the camp. They soon began offering traditional Palestinian cooking classes as a way to raise money to help offset the costs of caring for a disabled or handicapped child.

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Islam (right) and her sister-in-law Rania (left); Mohammad’s wheelchair

We went to the home of Islam and her husband Ahmad, who were the most hospitable, kind hosts one could ask for. They have six children (two boys and four girls) and one of their sons, Mohammad, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. The money raised from the cooking classes helps them to send him to a special school, and also to arrange the occasional outing for him and other handicapped children in the community.

Mujadara - Bethlehem Cooking Class

Mujadara – rice and lentils with caramelized onions

After sitting and chatting over coffee in their living room, we got cooking. We started by chopping onions for mujadara, one of my favorite dishes. Although I’ve made mujadara – rice and lentil pilaf with caramelized onions – their rendition was absolute perfection. The rice is soaked in warm water for 30 minutes while the lentils simmer on the stove in plenty of water. Then the lentils and rice are drained and mixed together and the lentil water is added back in. It all cooks until tender, and is topped with caramelized onions and fresh herbs.

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Slicing the flatbread into quarters for the musakhan rolls

But I was most excited for the musakhan. When I’ve eaten musakhan before (most notably in Nazareth), it’s been a whole spatchcocked chicken roasted atop flatbread and caramelized onions with plenty of sumac. This version featured the same ingredients, but prepared in a slightly different manner. Onions are sliced and sauteed with sumac and spices, then bite-sized pieces of chicken are added and cooked. This mixture is then rolled in very thin flatbread (to look almost like an egg roll) and quickly baked. Oh man. I could eat this all day every day!

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Making the lemon-tahini dressing; Preparing musakhan rolls

We also made two salads – one with shredded cabbage and a lemon-tahini dressing, and a chopped tomato and cucumber salad. In addition, Islam had homemade yogurt to go with everything. It was amazing.

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Straining lentils for mujadara; Rania pouring simple syrup over the helba

For the finale, although we were stuffed to the brim, Islam presented us with a gorgeous cake called helba. It’s a semolina yeast cake with a very unexpected ingredient: fenugreek. The cake is served warm with cool simple syrup, or cold with hot simple syrup. It was the perfect ending to the meal, with perfectly balanced flavors and not overly sweet.

Bethlehem Cooking Class

Our lovely hosts: Rania, Islam, her daughter and husband Ahmad

4.0 from 4 reviews

Helba (Semolina + Fenugreek Cake)
 
Prep Time

Cook Time

Total Time

 

“This sweet is a yeasted cake with a very special flavor, thanks to the fenugreek seeds. We like to serve small squares of the cake with a strong black coffee at the end of a big meal.”
Author:
Recipe Type: Dessert
Cuisine: Palestinian
Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients
For the Cake:
  • ½ kg fine semolina
  • 40g fenugreek seeds
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 50g unsweetened coconut flakes
  • ½ teaspoon dry yeast
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
For the Syrup:
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
To Serve:
  • Nigella or sesame seeds (optional)

Directions
  1. Boil the fenugreek seeds in water for 5 minutes. Let cool and strain, reserving the liquid.
  2. Mix the semolina, coconut flakes, sugar, yeast, and boiled fenugreek seeds together. Add the olive oil and mix well.
  3. Add some of the fenugreek cooking liquid and mix well with your hands. Continue to add liquid, a little bit at a time, until the dough is smooth but still very thick (you may not use all of the liquid).
  4. Let it rise for 1 hour in a warm place.
  5. Pre-heat the oven at medium heat.
  6. Use a little vegetable oil to grease a baking tray (big enough to fit the dough in a quite thin layer) and spread the dough evenly with your hands. Using a small knife score the dough to form diamonds.
  7. Bake until the cake is golden on top. While the cake bakes make the syrup.
For the Syrup:
  1. Mix the sugar with the water and boil for 5 minutes, until the sugar is fully dissolved. Cool.
To Serve:
  1. When the cake is done, pour the cold syrup over the hot cake. Sprinkle with nigella or sesame seeds, if using, and allow to cool slightly before serving.

Notes
Parve, Vegan, Vegetarian

The recipe can easily be doubled.

16 Comments

  1. What a fantastic experience Katherine! Musakhan sounds amazing! :-) Moving back to NY must be exciting!!! Have a safe trip! <3

  2. Wonderful post and the recipes are amazing! Glad you got to attend an authentic cooking class with nice hosts. Safe travel to NYC.

  3. How fascinating! Maybe one day I’ll be able to go there too :-/ We’ll miss you!

  4. What a great experience! So glad you were able to do this before leaving Israel. Thank you for sharing your visit! Hope you have a safe and non-eventful move back to New York!

  5. Great post! The class sounds like an excellent experience. Heck, your entire life for the last three years has been an excellent experience! I’m sure you’re excited to be coming back to NYC – welcome home!

  6. What an amazing experience – I bet it is bittersweet having this time come to an end. Mujadara is one of my all-time favorite dishes!

  7. It all looks so good. What an exciting experience to spend three years in Israel. Looking forward to the new adventures on your blog in NY.. Safe Trip..

  8. What a great and touching experience;wish I could do that too:)And a great post about it!
    It was great meeting you again yesterday before you leave;hope to see you again some day:) You will be missed:)

  9. Katherine, I loved reading this post – what an amazing experience! It’s remarkable the enterprising way that people manage to create goodness and beauty in the world in the midst of harrowing challenges and hardships. What a wonderful way for these women to educate others about their rich food culture while helping their families to persevere. Thanks for sharing the story, the fabulous photos and delicious recipe!

  10. One says you can never leave Israel, it always stays with you. But a big welcome home to you Katherine!

  11. What an amazing community and experience, and such exciting news about your move! We’ll be in NY in September, looks like we may finally meet ;D Best of luck with the next stage of your adventures. xx

  12. Great post Katherine. The recipe shared by you is indeed unique. I have never seen fenugreek being used in a dessert! I can’t wait to try it.

  13. Amazing and Inspiring. Keep up the good work!

  14. The post is great but the RECIPE IS TERRIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Something is terribly OFF with it! The seeds were disgustingly bitter (def 5 mins didnt do the job. For the amount of ingredients 1 cup of olive oil became waaaaaaaaaaay too much it was floating in an olive oil pool… just plain horrible.. very disappointed! Enjoy the article but the recipe YUCK! My mother in law makes this and i tried to surprise my husband by doing it and this was a total waste of time and ingredients. Will ask my mother in law instead!

    • Hi Sandra – thanks so much for your feedback. I’m so sorry that the recipe didn’t work! When they made it it was absolutely delicious, but maybe the recipe is off…I will check in and see if they have any suggestions.

      • Hi again Sandra – I checked in with the NOOR to see if they had any feedback. After checking they said “It’s a bit weird it didn’t go well as the measurements and the ingredients are the same Islam uses! She said she can only thing of the yeast not having done its job, maybe because she didn’t let it rest for an hour or the place where it rested was not warm enough. Indeed, it needs time to rest as this is what is going to make the dough go up and be able to take all the liquids (oil and water) successfully.

        About the seeds, I’m not sure if she refers to the fenugreek seeds or the sesame seeds you can sprinkle on the top of the cake, but at least the ones here are not bitter…”

        So perhaps it is a matter of different ingredients, temperatures, etc.? Again so sorry it didn’t work out.

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