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Homemade Halvah

Sesame halvah with pistachios

A little trickier than it looks–this one is nearly right and tastes good, but it was stiffer and more crumbly than professional halvah once it cooled. Next time!

I first tasted halvah at the age of six while visiting my cousins, who lived in my town but had been to Israel the year before. One afternoon my aunt shaved off a very thin sliver from this mysterious loaf of sandy light-brown stuff and handed to me with the caution, “Only a little piece at a time. It’s very rich.” Which it was, but the feathery impossible texture melted on my tongue and I wanted more.  When I got home from the visit, my father laughed when I asked him what my aunt had meant by “rich”–and explained that it meant “heavy”. That made no sense either–the tiny sliver was light and delicate. Then he said that once when he was twelve he’d eaten an entire pound of halvah in a single sitting and been extremely sorry afterward, because it sat in his stomach like a lead brick for hours…

I mention these things not just because they’re true of eating halvah, but they’re a good indication of the balance you need to achieve if you ever try making it.

Last year at Rosh Hashanah I made stuffed eggplants and onions with tamarind sauce from Poopa Dweck’s Aromas of Aleppo. I’ve enjoyed them enough to make the onions repeatedly over the past year, and I’ve also enjoyed the idea of making a new food for the New Year. Dweck’s book happens to have a halvah recipe, and the pictures look right, and the recipe looks really simple.

Well…the ingredients are incredibly simple–tehina, sugar, water, lemon juice, flavorings like a little vanilla, clove and cinnamon, maybe some pistachios or sliced almonds to mix in. The steps–boil sugar with a bit of water until it reaches 240°F on a candy thermometer. I don’t have one but she adds, helpfully, that it’s until the syrup coats the back of a spoon and is at the soft ball stage–shades of childhood reading through the Joy of Cooking‘s mysterious and dangerous section on candy recipes. Ahem! Boil the syrup and pour it hot over the tehina in the food processor, add the flavorings and blend. Take out the mass of halvah and press it into a pan to cool, then cut into cubes or slices and store at room temperature for a week or the refrigerator for up to 6 months…not that it will last that long.

Simple, right? So simple. I can probably microwave the syrup in about 2 minutes instead of simmering it for 20 on the stove, at least if I stir every 20-30 seconds and keep checking it…with the food processor handy, it’s like a 10-minute recipe if that! Simple.

The trouble with making halvah at home, as I discovered last week, three times, is that it’s not so simple. The first time I tried a proportionate miniature test version, with half a cup of tehina and about 3/8 cup of sugar, all measured and calculated down to the gram. The syrup cooked in a minute in the microwave and things were going really well…except the mixture seized up hard and crumbly the instant I mixed the syrup and tehina with a fork. And it was a bit too sweet and bland. Did something go wrong with the proportions? Did it need more of the oily tehina to make it flexible?

The second time I made it, the syrup was a little looser and the mixture turned a flat oily dark putty color and never really solidified past a thick paste. Nearly the same exact proportions, better taste (less bland, less cloying, more sesame). But I had made a soft sesame version of peanut butter fudge. You could slice it in squares, but it would sag like soft caramel.

So clearly it’s not that simple. I went to the web, thinking, of course someone will know what I’m doing wrong. And maybe someone does, but he or she is clearly not on the web expounding on the finer points of making halvah.

Oh, there are dissertations on halvah, but most of them are talking about the wide variety of desserts around the world that go by the same name–kinds that are based on wheat flour, carrots, sunflower seeds, and other main ingredients to mix with the syrup and pat into a pan.

Most of the (relatively few) tehina-based recipes are identical to Dweck’s, a pound of tehina, two cups of sugar, 1/3 cup of water, a teaspoon of lemon juice, a pinch of clove and cinnamon, maybe a spoonful of vanilla.

But the pictures show (and sometimes the rueful comments do too) that it’s not the ingredients at fault when the texture’s off. It’s the technique, which is usually missing from the recipe.

The videos I found on YouTube specifically for making tehina-based halvah didn’t really help. Iraqi halvah workers boiling syrup in an old–well, it kind of looks like a very worn-out steel bowl set over a trash can fire in an abandoned stairwell, and they’re stirring away with a wooden paddle before pouring in the tehina, which turns into curds that they then paddle and knead until they’re happy with it, but you can’t really see what it is that makes the difference.

Then there’s the Syrian halvah factory demonstration posted by Middle Eastern chef and cookbook author Anissa Helou–much cleaner, with an official halvah-kneading machine that Willy Wonka might have been proud of, pummeling the tehina/syrup mixture with what looks like a mechanical boxing glove on a stick, until it looks like hummus that’s decided to give up the fight and solidify. Helou, incidentally, confesses that she’s had no real luck making halvah at home and is leaving it to the professionals, who have the advantage of saponaria (soapwort) root extract and other exotic texturizing secrets.

Then I found the strangely encouraging information that the kind of loaf halvah I’m used to from my childhood and the kosher delis (and now in Pasadena, the Armenian markets) is actually a Russian and Balkan region specialty as much as a Middle Eastern one–I always wondered why it was so familiar to my family, when most of them (other than these cousins) had never actually been to Israel and were for the most part Zionist at a distance. Though everyone likes the food…

Strangely, though, the videos I can find with Russian captions turn out the same flat brownish oily fudge that I came up with on my second try. As does the video by an Israeli food expert. Huh.

I thumb quickly through three or four Jewish cookbooks–the Turkish one by Viviane Alchech Miner, From My Grandmother’s Kitchen (Triad Publishing Co., Gainesville, FL, 1984),  has a version using beaten egg whites folded into the tehina first to stiffen and lighten it before the hot syrup is poured over it in a thin stream while beating, and that makes some sense–it reminds me of the never-tried  instructions for Divinity Fudge from the Joy of Cooking. Plus I think I remember that Joyva brand halvah includes egg whites. Achva, an Israeli brand, uses saponaria root extract like the Syrian factory version. The point for using either egg whites or saponaria root extract is to create a foam structure that the syrup cools around–maybe it helps keep things fluffy until the sugar syrup in the mixture cools enough to become semicrystalline.

So egg whites–maybe, maybe–but it seems like it might not be necessary. I go back to Aromas of Aleppo and see the texture I want in the picture–no egg whites needed, but why isn’t it working, and do I really need to make a full recipe with a full pound of tehina and two cups of sugar and 1/3 cup of water to get it to work right?

Copeland Marks has the answer, or perhaps an answer, that might be right. In his book Sephardic Cooking: 600 Recipes Created in Exotic Sephardic Kitchens from Morocco to India (Donald I. Fine, Inc., New York, 1992), he gives very nearly the same recipe as Dweck, only starting with a pound of raw sesame seeds (that you grind into tehina), but he adds one small detail. The syrup is ready, he says, when you can draw a “thin, candied hair by touching the syrup with a fork”–in other words, coating the back of a spoon may not be specific enough, or else he’s cooking it to a later stage.

So I tried that–same flavorings as in Aromas, but with a thicker, slightly longer-cooked syrup (about 30 seconds longer than the previous try). Poured it VERY carefully over the tehina, lemon juice, vanilla, clove and cinnamon in the food processor bowl while it was still very hot, put on the lid and a saucer over the funnel tube, stood back, winced and started blending.

After 15-20 seconds the motor sounded strained, so I stopped and looked–oily limp brown stuff alert. A few more seconds–started to rise in the bowl and lumps of a lighter tan color seemed to form near the top, like solidified tan foam. A few more seconds–it rose even further up the sides of the bowl and suddenly the whole mass stiffened into windswept rock formations of fragile, hard-shelled meringue-like stuff around the blade.

I was in deep trouble. Would it come out? I detached the bowl with the blade still in it and prayed a little. Then I pushed and the stuff crumbled into the container I was going to use. I broke it up with a fork as much as possible–it was still pretty hot. Added toasted pistachios and a pinch of salt that I hadn’t wanted to chance in the mixer, just in case it broke the emulsion or something. Stirred the hot crumbs around and pressed down carefully with the back of a spoon. The oil started to come out just enough to fuse the mass back together. Not floppy, not too stiff either–this one looked light in color and had some hope of achieving that right shaveably feathery texture once it cooled and I could put it in the fridge. A little corner I nicked off tasted right. Not too bland, not too sweet, just about classic. Woo-hoo! I took the picture for this post in triumph…

Once it cooled though, it was crumbly and a bit too hard, and it didn’t slice neatly–just a little too hard, though, not completely seized up like my first try. A little dryer than professional halvah as well. Overbeaten, perhaps? Maybe I should have stopped at the oily limp fudge stage and pressed it into the pan while it was still flexible. Maybe it would have cooled to the right consistency even though it looked so wrong while still hot?

The only way to tell is to try again, perhaps this time taking a third of the tehina/syrup mass out of the food processor at each stage of blending and let it cool–maybe there’s an optimal stage? There must be.

But in the meantime–that’s a lot of halvah.

If you have a vat of tehina and want to try it at home, here’s the recipe and my notes so far.

Homemade Sesame Halvah (work in progress)

Adapted from Poopa Dweck’s Aromas of Aleppo, Copeland Marks’ Sephardic Cooking: 600 Recipes… and several other nearly identical versions around the web

  • 1 lb. tehina, well stirred (or just stick it in the food processor and pulse to blend)
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1/3 c. water
  • 1 t. lemon juice
  • 1 t. vanilla
  • 1 clove, ground in a spice grinder or a good pinch of powdered cloves
  • 1/8 t. cinnamon
  • handful or so of lightly toasted pistachios, as fresh as you can get them
  • pinch of salt, optional (my addition because of the pistachios)

1. Put the tehina and everything but the sugar, water and pistachios in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times just to blend.

2. Toast the pistachios very lightly. Line a cooling pan with parchment paper and scatter the crushed pistachios on top OR leave the pistachios whole to mix into the halvah after it’s formed (this is trickier to get right, see pic above)

3. Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar is dissolved and simmer over medium-low heat 10-20 minutes until the syrup reaches 240°F on a candy thermometer and/or coats the back of a spoon pretty thickly (or, as per Copeland Marks, you can pull a thread up from the surface with a fork). Microwave instructions–put the sugar and water in a microwaveable ceramic bowl you can safely heat for more than 30 seconds. Heat 30 seconds, stop and stir, nuke another 30 seconds, stir, etc. for about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, when syrup should be bubbling and you can do the thread test.

3. Pour the hot syrup carefully onto the tehina in the food processor bowl. Replace lid and cover the funnel spout with a saucer or something in case the hot liquid spurts up when you start blending. Blend until the machine slows (15-20 seconds) and pulse a few times more. How much more? I don’t know, but less than where it solidifies completely, which is what I did and is too much. So maybe 2-3 quick pulses, till it just rises in the bowl a bit but is still pliable.

4. Turn out the mass into the pan with the parchment paper and/or chopped pistachios. Press the mass of halvah into the pan carefully with the back of a soupspoon or the like–it’s hot at this point and oily too, no doubt. Let cool a few minutes and slice into bite-size cubes with a sharp knife, then let cool all the way and refrigerate.

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