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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 Continue reading

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