Israeli food is all the rage these days. Falafel and hummus are mainstays and can be found everywhere from vegetarian restaurants to places like Subway and Starbucks. Shakshuka is not just an onomatopoeia for the sound a maraca makes; it’s becoming a new brunch staple. And then there’s halvah. This sweet, rich sesame candy is only the latest to cross over to the U.S.A. While halvah is amazing on its own as a decadent snack or full-flavored dessert, with a distinctive nutty, honeyed flavor, it has a lot more versatility than you might think.
Halvah is a dessert made with a sugar syrup and tahini paste. It has a crumbly texture, but the individual pieces are sumptuous and thick, like fudge, with a bit of a drier mouthfeel. As for its ingredients, sugar syrup is sugar and water that has been reduced and thickened. Once it’s boiling and has reached a certain temperature, it’s combined with tahini, a paste made from ground-up sesame seeds. It’s like a sesame seed peanut butter and can actually be a great substitute for those with nut allergies.
If you’re interested in making halvah, the New York Times has a great recipe that’s ridiculously easy ,as long as you have a good mixer and candy thermometer (I like this one). Just buy a high-quality tahini and you’ll be in business. What’s high-quality tahini? It has only one ingredient: sesame seeds.
If you’re not interested in playing with fire (or boiling sugar water), don’t fret. A Middle Eastern grocery store is sure to have some of the nutty, sugary treat. And if you don’t happen to have a specialty grocery store around, Amazon has you covered. These Joyva Marble Halvah bars are more candy bar than the real thing, but the flavor is on point.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re lucky enough to live in New York City, the Seed + Mill halvah sweet shop has a vast variety of halvah in every flavor under the sun, including chocolate, pistachio, rose, lemon, and ginger.
The sheer scope of those flavors, from traditional Middle Eastern seasonings to those sure to please more modern, adventurous palates, shows that halvah is a food that knows no bounds. It’s not just a candy, but an ingredient you can use to enhance even the most basic American desserts by adding a touch of Mediterranean flair. But where should you start? Here are a few ideas:
Top Your Ice Cream Sundae
Halvah’s texture is sandy but firm and melts in your mouth slowly, like packed brown sugar. What’s this texture in direct opposition to? Something creamy and soft that melts immediately as a matter of course. Something like ice cream.
Because the texture of halvah is so different from that of ice cream, it makes the perfect ice cream topper. It’s crumbly where ice cream is smooth and thick, firm and crisp where the ice cream gives easily, and halvah has a stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth quality that rivals ice cream, so its lush, sugary taste won’t get lost even among other powerful flavors. And its flavor, as evidenced by Seed + Mill’s success with so many different varieties, can pair with practically any ice cream, from straight vanilla to strawberry. Halvah will work with something as sweet as caramel, or something with a hint of salt. And it will definitely hold its own in this epic Brownie Ice Cream Parfait with Raspberries.
If you don’t have a lot of time, but still want to be fancy (don’t we all?), here’s a tip: Grab some ice cream sandwiches at the grocery store, crush up halvah into crumbs, dip the sandwich into the halvah crumbs, coating the exposed ice cream, and refreeze on a platter. Come dessert time, you’ll have a divine, unique treat that looks like a million bucks (Literally! Halvah in small pieces looks like little gold flakes.).
Halvah in Brownies
Halvah and chocolate is a classic combination; the very popular “marble” flavor is traditional halvah swirled with fudge. And what’s a more classic American chocolate dessert than a brownie? The two feel like a natural fit.
Yotam Ottolenghi, one of the founders of the new Israeli culinary craze, has an out-of-this-world brownie recipe featuring swirls of tahini in the batter and halvah pieces throughout. His recipe has measurements in grams, but don’t be intimidated. It’s easy to convert grams to cups thanks to this calculator. Alternatively, you can grab a kitchen scale (here’s mine) and measure out your ingredients like a professional.
Halvah Chip Cookies
Since Ottolenghi has used halvah in his brownies in the same way one might use chocolate chips in cookies, why not just use halvah like chocolate chips in cookies?
Halvah’s flavor profile is similar to peanut butter chips and toffee. Tahini is a great nut butter substitute and its highly sugary nature and firm texture brings to mind the classic English candy. So why not halve the chocolate chips called for in this classic Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe and use some halvah to round it out instead?
Or, if you have the time and inclination, make your own ice cream sandwich cookies, using some halvah in the cookie and around the outside of the filling too.
Halvah Pie Crust
Halvah has a sandy, crumbly texture. Some people might think that’s a negative, but if you’re one of those people, don’t! It can be a positive. Halvah’s sandy and crumbly nature makes it the perfect basis for a treacly, gluten-free pie crust.
Follow this recipe for Graham Cracker Pie Crust, substituting halvah for the crackers and letting it bake a couple minutes less than called for, until it’s just set.
When it cools, you have the perfect shell for any cream pie. How about this Raspberry and Chocolate one?
Halvah for Breakfast
Halvah isn’t just for dessert, it can be for breakfast too. Despite its name literally being taken from its sweetness, there’s a bit of savory in there thanks to the tahini. And like I keep saying, tahini is a relative of nut butter, like peanut butter. And what goes better with peanut butter than jelly? Nothing (except maybe chocolate).
While you could crumble halvah in the middle of some toast with jelly—and that does sound delicious— it might be a good idea to balance out the candy with something healthy. So instead of jelly, grab the basis for jelly: fresh fruit. And while you’re at it, get some yogurt—breakfast’s ice cream.
Now that you have your ingredients, put them together and make a deconstructed TB&J (that’s tahini butter & jelly) yogurt bowl. Some fresh berries and yogurt topped with halvah is a trendy breakfast treat. The yogurt and berries are for nutrition and the halvah is like the world’s best granola.
And if you want to go the extra mile and add a few more nutrients, make your own granola. Just add some halvah at the same time you add the cranberries. Believe me, you won’t be able to get enough.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.