So What is Couscous (and Why Would You Want to Make Cake Out of It)?

I hope everyone of the Christian persuasion had a terrific Easter weekend (and all others did the same but, you know, without the Easter bit). Speaking for the Pastry household, the E.B. was good to us, and spread plenty of colored eggs and candy around. Little Joan got healthy in the bargain, which was the biggest blessing of the lot. My Flavors of the Holy Land Easter cake concept I expanded into an entire Flavors of the Holy Land meal, complete with little goat cheese and walnut pies (I had filo leftover from the baklava), a Turkish spice-rubbed leg of lamb, olive oil-braised fennel and home made pita bread. The olive oil couscous cake made the perfect capper. But where was I now?

Oh yes, couscous. Couscous is widely thought to be a kind of grain. In fact it’s more like a pasta, a dried North African “noodle”. The confusion enters in because couscous is so very small, it can look like a pile of whole or cracked grain.

Making couscous starts by moistening a wide, shallow pan of whole grain flour (usually some kind of wheat like semolina, but it can be barley, millet, even acorn flour) with salt water, then either lightly stirring or rubbing the mixture between the palms until it forms little dough balls a few millimeters across. Once the couscous is sieved it’s dried and then either eaten (steamed usually, typically in a couscoussiere directly over the stew it’s going to be served with — now that’s good eatin’) or stored for later use.

It’s not quite a pasta, since pasta is kneaded so as to activate gluten (which holds it together). Couscous is simply moistened and dried flour. What’s the point of that? you may ask. In fact it’s a fiendishly clever preservation technique by which the life of fresh-milled grain is radically extended over what it might otherwise be. And that was a handy thing in Morocco/Algeria back in the 11th century.

As I’ve written before (notably in posts like Flour: Is It Evil?) flour milling and bolting (i.e. the removal of bran and germ) is itself a preservation method. By separating out the oily, spoilage-prone germ from the starchy endosperm a flour that would ordinarily go rancid in a few months can be preserved almost indefinitely. This is part of the logic behind dried pasta which, because it’s classically made from bolted flour, will keep for decades if need be. But what if you’re a North African peasant living in the 11th century? You’re so poor you have no fancy sieve with which to bolt the whole grain flour you just made, but you want to preserve your harvest until the next growing season. What to do?

You might try something exceptionally clever like wetting the whole grain flour and rubbing it between your hands – a process which causes the finer pieces of milled endosperm (starch) to collect around the big oily pieces of germ, thus insulating them from the air, and preventing the oil from rancidifying. Genius! Thus processed into couscous, whole grain flour could be kept almost indefinitely, ready to be turned into a savory side dish (or even a cake) for up to several years.

Which brings me to the second part of my headline/question: why make a cake out of it? For that I have no answer, save to say it adds a very interesting texture to a sweet cake. This isn’t necessarily true of the interior (or “crumb”) of the cake which being very moist turns even the grainier bits of couscous very soft. Yet it is true of the bits that end up on the crust, where, denied much moisture and blasted with heat, they form a delightfully crunchy and rustic-tasting counterpoint to the cake’s angel-light crumb. I know, I ate it last night. More on that soon.

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