September 11th, and Basbousa in Brooklyn

So, pretty much everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. It was a Big Bad sort of day. And I'm no exception, but my memory also involves cake.

Here's what I remember about that day.

I had just started my junior year at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I was studying Illustration. 

And this year was a Big year. I had moved out of the campus dorms to my first "real" apartment--in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at the intersection of Norman and Jewel, where three rooms in a third story walkup were shared by four people. I paid, I think, $425 a month.

The previous two years, I had worked at the Pratt Art Supply store in the basement of the main building on campus. This year, to raise extra funds for my rent and tuition, in addition to this job (and being a full-time student), I also worked six nights a week at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue called Bedouin Tent. It's still there, you should go. 

Side effect of working two jobs, being a full-time student, and being on the G train line: I was always tired, and often running late. And on September 11, 2001, when I was supposed to be at Pratt Art Supply by 9, I found myself scurrying through the Pratt gates toward work when I simply had to pause, look up at the sky, and think to myself: "this is an exceptionally beautiful day."

I remember, several minutes later, walking into work and hearing the news that the first tower had been hit. The reporter was just freaking out. We listened to the news for a while, but after the second plane hit, all of the employees pretty much left the store and ran up the six flights to the roof of the building. We stared at the buildings smoking. We saw the first tower disintegrate in a puff of smoke and glittery glass. I remember saying "Oh, my, god." Some of my fellow students were not as delicate.

We watched the second tower go down too, and then we all kind of looked at each other, like "what now?". Nobody know. Me? I went back to work. I remember my boss was mad that we had all gone up to the roof.

Not many people came in to buy art supplies, but some people did. But school closed, I think, or at least I left after my shift was done. I walked from Pratt along Bedford Avenue, all the way back to Greenpoint. There was a place just as you entered Williamsburg called Diner. I think it's still there. They had a sign on the door that said "CLOSED" and there was smoke coming from under the door. It smelled strongly of cannabis.

Along Williamsburg, you can see the Manhattan skyline--it was coated with smoke. I remember I stopped at a bodega and bought a candy bar, Hershey's Cookies N Cream.

When I got home, my roommates and I wordlessly watched the news all day. And then at 4pm, I did what I did six days a week--I headed to work.

I forget if I took the subway or walked, but I remember that Atlantic Avenue--a Middle Eastern neighborhood--was a very somber place to be on that day. At my workplace, I held not only the status of the only female on staff, but also the only American. The rest of the employees were dudes, from Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. They always had to stop work and pray during the dinner rush, I remember.

On that day, they were all scared. They thought that they would have to leave America. They were scared of mobs. They were scared people would think they did it.

And yet, we got our work done. It was actually a pretty busy night. But somehow there was no stress about getting people their food on time, it had a good flow and people tipped well, if not extravagantly.

But something that started to happen, very early on in the shift and that lasted until we ran out, was that we gave out free dessert to everyone. We didn't really discuss it--we just started doing it. Customers, people who just walked in needing the bathroom, even an office worker type guy covered in dust who walked in and asked "Can I use your phone?". It wasn't working, but we let him try. And we gave him cake. We gave everyone cake. Baklava, but mostly basbousa--because it was easier to cut into bite-sized pieces, and not as sticky.

I'm not sure how many pieces of basbousa we gave out. It felt like hundreds, but it could have been just twenty. But what I do remember is that this small, sweet gesture, was received with such gratitude by every single person to whom it was offered. Whether or not they liked it or even ate it didn't matter--it was an exchange of sweetness, and a small, cautiously optimistic wordless agreement that life could still be sweet.

Here's a recipe for basbousa and sweet thoughts for everyone.

Basbousa (as seen on Serious Eats)

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup plain yogurt (or 1 cup of whole milk)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs
  • Blanched sliced almonds for garnish
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 generous squeeze of lemon juice (or, 1 teaspoon lemon juice)


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the semolina and baking soda. Set to the side.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar; once fluffy, add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated.
  4. Spoon the batter into the greased baking pan, smoothing the top with a spatula.
  5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden around the edges.
  6. While baking, prepare the honey glaze. Heat sugar, water, and honey over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar is fully dissolved.
  7. Let the mixture simmer for about five minutes; once it has reduced to a maple syrup sort of thickness, add the lemon juice and stir just until incorporated.
  8. Once the basbousa has come out of the oven, pour the glaze directly on to the still-hot cake, being sure to cover it uniformly. The glaze will sink into the cake, but the top should be slightly sticky. Top with the almonds. Let cool for at least 30 minutes; slice into squares or diamonds before serving.