For the uninitiated, halva always starts with the question: what is it? Sesame confection or Middle Eastern fudge are common descriptors, but they all fall short of encompassing the world of styles and origins of this enigmatic sweet made with boiled sugar. Not to mention the experience: melt-in-your-mouth, sweet-meets-savoury, textural-yet-smooth and utterly addictive.
For the well-versed, halva begins with childhood, when it’s eaten by the spoonful from the cupboard or smeared onto warm bread as a snack – like Nutella.
From there, it wove its sweet spell through the Mediterranean, Central Asia and the Subcontinent, where ingredients were swapped in and out, new ones added and the name adapted to the local tongue. In parts of the Middle East, spelling ranges from halvah to halawa and halwa, while Indian halva was adapted with local semolina and ghee.
For this story, the focus here is halva made with tahini, the seductive ground paste of sesame seeds.
And for the best, start with top quality ingredients. At chic New York halva boutique in Chelsea Market, Seed + Mill, sesame seeds are sourced from Ethiopia, then transported to Israel for custom roasting and ground into tahini paste. “Ethiopian seeds are known to be very sweet and have a higher ratio of oil to fibre. This creates a smoother, creamier texture and sweeter flavour tahini,” says co-founder Rachel Simons. “The source really differentiates the end result.”
The brand, now stocked in Whole Foods, is also vegan and touts a ‘clean label’: no egg whites, hydrogenated palm oil, preservatives and stabilisers that can be found in mass-produced varieties. Ironically, halva evolved as a shelf-stable product in ancient times pre-refrigeration. “Sesame oil has a very long life compared to other oils, which go rancid,” explains Simons. “Tahini is actually one of the world’s first condiments.”
I discovered Seed + Mill while researching my book, The Desserts of New York. Beautifully adorned wheels of halva in a kaleidoscope of flavours stole my eye. I’d never seen halva like it. “Most people ask, ‘Is this cheesecake? Or, ‘Is this pâté?’,” says Simons. “The funniest thing I’ve heard is soap!”
The owners spend a lot of time on customer education, particularly on ideas for how to eat halva. Just scroll Seed + Mill's curated Instagram feed for halva toasties, halva granola, halva sticky buns and even halva rocky road (Simons is Aussie). “Instead of sitting on the couch with ice-cream, we say eat a bowl of halva or add it to a cheese board.” Simons enjoys it in a plant-based hot chocolate with oat or almond milk. “The halva adds an oily, creamy bite and nutty complexity.”
For Ilias Katsapouikidis, founder of Ilias the Greek, and producer of artisan halva here in Australia, the dessert's simple looks belie the skill required to make it. He describes the process: glucose and water combine to make sugar syrup, then rapid boiling of this produces caramel (the beginnings of all sugar confections). Next, it’s whipped until it becomes a white, meringue-like consistency, then tahini is folded through and the fun begins.
“Each fold creates a new strand and compounds it – first two, then four, then eight and so on. After 10 minutes, there are thousands,” he says. Much like the folds in a flaky croissant, these produce the shattering quality and light-as-air texture that's key to good halva.
“Instead of sitting on the couch with ice-cream, we say eat a bowl of halva or add it to a cheese board.”
“It’s a magical thing to witness,” says Katsapouikidis. “It can also fail in a nanosecond. Humidity, timing and instinct all play a part.” The ratio of tahini to sweetener is another determiner. “Most are borderline 50/50, which is too sweet and dry. Ours is 70 per cent tahini and it’s unctuous, creamy and silky on the palate,” he says.
The halva aficionado favours his brand's classic vanilla halva rippled with Valrhona cacao and roasted almonds, but the signature flavour is hands down, the macadamia version, which comes in a 50kg ‘festival size’. “I wanted to do one with an Australian nut and the roasted macadamia brings a buttery caramel flavour,” says Katsapouikidis. “Around the world, everyone says they’ve never tried one with macadamia before!”
My first halva experience was an orange cake paired with yoghurt dotted with halva, the sweet jewels melting ever so into the cream like a Middle Eastern hokey pokey. I was hooked.
“I wanted to do one with an Australian nut … Around the world, everyone says they’ve never tried one with macadamia before!”
Then, there were the perfectly gooey halva brownies at Kepos Street Kitchen in Sydney’s Waterloo.
According to chef and owner Michael Rantissi, the idea came from combining Middle Eastern flavours with something Australians were familiar with.
“It’s the only item in our cake display that has been there since day one,” he says of the legions of fans it has engendered. “If it’s not there, we have angry customers.”
This doesn’t stop Rantissi experimenting. At his second restaurant Kepos & Co, he has a halva mousse with chocolate ganache, sablé and crystallised rose petals on the current dessert menu and he had a recent special of an exotic crumble that replaced fruit for halva.
On a return trip to Israel where Rantissi grew up, he stopped in at The Halva Kingdom at Machane Yehuda Markets in Jerusalem. “As a child, the only flavours were plain, almond and chocolate. Now you can find rosewater, coffee, chilli, coconut and peanut butter and at least 100 more!"
Yotam Ottolenghi is also known for game-changing halva brownies made with tahini to replace some of the butter. But my Ottolenghi halva pick is his millionaire’s shortbread with a tahini caramel and halva crumble layer.
What will you dream up with halva?
In this column, Dessert Date, I scour bakeries, patisseries and dessert joints from around the world for the hottest sweet trends, up-and-coming ingredients and game-changing pastry techniques.
These chewy halva-like cookies are truly the business. A taste of these will transport you to Turkey or Morocco or somewhere in the incredible Middle East. Make a double batch. You’ll thank me.
These delicious little morsels are reminiscent of halva, but without the sugar.
“One of the things I love most is getting home from the supermarket and opening up and smelling a package of fresh yeast. It’s a bit odd, I know, but I love it. What is even better is the smell of the house after baking with yeast and this bread does the job beautifully. You can swap the halva spread, halva and chocolate filling with melted butter, cinnamon and sugar; nutella and ground almonds; or poppy seeds.” Deanna