You said this was a couscous cake but there’s flour in it! What gives? Well yes that’s right, there is finely milled (and bolted) flour in this cake recipe. But then I should point out that most of the other couscous “cake” recipes you see out there aren’t really cakes in the way that we think of cakes. They’re actually breads or skillet breads, which is why they’re made in loaf pans or, you know, skillets.
What’s the difference? Gluten, basically. A couscous cake made with straight couscous has little if any activated gluten in it (which is not to say it’s “gluten-free”, it isn’t, at least if its made with wheat couscous). Remember yesterday’s post about couscous being made up of little granules of whole grain flour. Those granules aren’t kneaded dough. They’re just little conglomerations of flour particles. Without any kneading (or much moisture) gluten networks can’t form, which means you’ve got no “net” to trap and hold the steam bubbles that the cake gives off as it bakes. Any steam that is created during baking escapes through the cracks between the couscous granules.
The result is a very dense and crumbly item, which more closely resembles corn bread or a multi-grain loaf than it does a cake. Since I was looking for something a little more uptown for the Easter table, I decided to go for broke with this high-falutin’ version, one that Algerian peasants living in the 11th century could never even have dreamt of. What can I say…such are the luxuries of modernity. Sorry fellas!
One other interesting aspect of couscous that this sheds light on is the fact that even though it’s technically a “noodle”, couscous doesn’t rely on gluten (which pretty much all other noodles and pastas need to hold themselves together). Thus you can make couscous out of even the poorest quality wheat, or a grain with no gluten whatsoever. Again, pretty handy if you happen to be dirt poor and living in North Africa in the 11th century.