Although halvah is a general term used around the world for a dessert with a flour or nut butter base, most of us know it as a sesame confection found throughout the Middle East, particularly Israel. It is perhaps one of the most nutritious sweets we can make—it is rich in protein, polyunsaturated fats, calcium, iron, magnesium, and plant sterols. But just as importantly, it is delicious and will satisfy any sweet tooth.
Halvah (also known as halva, halwa, halavah, and helva) can be flavored with chocolate, coffee, vanilla, rosewater, or orange oil, just to name a few of the possibilities. You can add pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, or black sesame seeds to add crunch and flavor. In other words, it is a sweet that is flexible and open to interpretation. If you travel to Israel and visit the Mechane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, you will see tables piled high with several different varieties of halvah, some studded with nuts, some flavored with extracts, and some even tinged with color. But no matter what it looks like it will always be a sweet treat.
And, lucky for us, this sweet treat is easy to make at home—no need to travel across the globe. This version is quite simple, but make sure you use good quality honey and tahini (sesame seed paste) as these ingredients make the recipe.
- Heat the honey in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until it reaches 240 F or the “soft ball” stage. (The soft ball stage is when syrup is dropped into cold water and forms a soft, flexible ball.)
- Allow the honey to cool slightly and add the vanilla and nuts.
- Gently fold in the tahini and stir until the mixture is well blended.
- Lightly oil a 6-cup mold, loaf, or cake pan. Pour the mixture into the pan and cool completely. Wrap the halvah well and refrigerate it for 24 to 36 hours so the halvah’s characteristic crystallized texture can fully develop.
- Cut the halvah while it’s cold, but serve at room temperature. The halvah will keep in the refrigerator for months.
Tips and Variations
Making halvah takes a bit of skill and one important tool: a candy thermometer. If you don't have any experience in candy-making, then it is crucial that you use the thermometer to make sure you have reached (and not surpassed) the soft-ball stage. It can be a challenge to achieve the flaky texture found in Israeli halvah, so if your version ends up having more of a fudge- or caramel-like consistency, don't fret—it will still have that delicious, signature taste.
The fact that the nuts are toasted contributes to the rich taste of this treat. To toast the pistachios, place in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in a 350 F oven until golden brown, about 7 minutes or so. Check often to make sure the nuts don't burn.
Although this recipe is excellent as is, feel free to add other flavorings such as coconut or coffee, as well as dried fruits, seeds, or a different type of nut—because this recipe is somewhat of a blank slate, the possibilities are nearly endless. And once you make the halvah, you can do more than eat it simply on its own. Consider crumbling it and sprinkling over ice cream, or using as a topping for freshly baked brownies.
Halvah Around the World
The word "halvah" is derived from the Arabic word for "sweet," and although the versions differ greatly depending from which part of the world it comes, the one constant is that it is sweet.
Indian halvah, for example, is creamy and more like a pudding and often used as a topping for ice cream. The Greek rendition of halvah is made with semolina wheat and the mixture is poured into a mold. In America, you can find a halvah like this recipe sold commercially—in 1907 the brand Joyva brought this ancient sweet to the U.S. and has been producing it here ever since.
|Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)|
|Total Fat||56 g|
|Saturated Fat||8 g|
|Unsaturated Fat||23 g|
|Dietary Fiber||11 g|