Halvah Good Time in the Kitchen With the World’s Favorite Sesame Treat
Open your palate for a new experience of sweetness with these recipes that creatively use halvah — a globally loved sesame confection
Though black sesame has become a hot ice cream and confection flavor in boutique food shops, it’s worth checking out another O.G. of sesame-based sweets: halvah. It can be made of many things, but at its root is the Arabic word for “sweet.” But halvah isn’t about the giddy high notes of neon-colored candy, that intense rush of sugar that obliterates everything else in the mouth. The most common halvah in the U.S. starts with a base of ground white sesame seeds, so any dulcet peak is tempered by an earthy lushness that lingers on the tongue.
What began in 7th-century Arabia as a paste of dates mashed with milk has expanded to become a favorite today across the Middle East, as well as in Central Asia, India, North Africa, the Balkans, and other parts of Europe. Some cuisines make it with local flours, ghee, and fruits or syrups for sweetness, and serve it spiced or plain. In Nepal and parts of India, carrots can form the base. Certain Indian wedding ceremonies serve a warm, fluffy semolina version to guests, and Persian Jews eat it during Purim.
While Greek and Turkish halvah is usually grain-free and contains egg and nuts, the recipes below call for the most common type sold in America: a simple sesame version sweetened by honey or sugar, with the consistency of a dense fudge and a flavor somewhat similar to a sweet peanut or seed butter. There is much to explore in cooking and baking with this sweet and storied treat.
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Halvah tips and tricks
If you are new to halvah, welcome! All you need to know is below.
Where can I buy halvah?
Depending on where you live, halvah can sometimes be found in the kosher or Middle Eastern section of a local grocery store. Otherwise, halvah can generally be found in smaller Persian, Israeli, Middle Eastern, and occasionally Indian markets (all of which boast a wonderland of other delicious discoveries as well). You can also purchase it online at most of the big one-stop shopping sites.
What should I look for when buying halvah?
Halvah is sold in slabs, packed in smaller containers, sometimes as a delicate shredded floss, and also in single serving bars as a snack. Joyva is generally the easiest brand to find, but there are many good choices out there. For cooking and baking, purchase a slab or container. Most recipes call for plain, vanilla, or chocolate-marbled halvah, but halvah can also contain nuts, coconut, seeds, rosewater, citrus zest — be sure the package you pick up is the kind you intend to buy!
How do I store halvah?
Halvah is naturally shelf-stable and will last several months well-sealed in a cool cupboard. You can extend that life even further by storing it in the fridge.
Make your own? Yes you can
DIY halvah is easier than you might think — and infinitely customizable
You can buy premade halvah to use as an ingredient, but you can also make your own. Tahini provides a gentle nuttiness, and honey ensures a purity of flavor (and a low glycemic index). Toasted pistachios or almonds provides a crunchy contrast; best of all, it should last up to six months in the fridge — if you can control yourself that long!
Take a break from your Nutella obsession and make your own halvah spread in this quick and easy recipe. Tahini, honey, and a pinch of salt are all that’s needed, though when you DIY it you’re also free to customize. Cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, pistachios, coconut, or cocoa powder — the choice is yours.
C is for cookie
And these halvah-inflected treats do not disappoint
These fabulous cookies are worthy of the best bakery in town, but they’ll come from your kitchen instead. Burnt butter, bitter notes from dark chocolate, and the gentle nuttiness of the soft vanilla halvah come together for a truly decadent treat that’s worth the effort. Best of all, you can freeze balls of dough for a warm, from-scratch cookie à la minute.
Traditional oatmeal cookies find new life when they’re subtly spiced with cardamom and sesame seeds, and are not toothachingly sweet. Tahini and crumbled halvah are excellent companions for rolled oats, and raise the flavor profile to evoke tales of love from half a world away.
This recipe calls for Medjool dates, which are the Bentleys of the date world, but if you cannot find them, other varieties will do. They’re used both in the batter and as chunks alongside the halvah in these cookies for fruit-focused notes of butterscotch alongside halvah’s nutty richness.
Chocolate & halvah
As Rumi, the great Persian poet, wrote, “Love is the water of life.” But a close second is the combination of halvah and chocolate. If love had a flavor, this might be it.
These homemade doughnuts are traditionally a Hanukkah treat, but can be yours any day of the year if you have enough kitchen moxie. Each fluffy, homemade yeasted doughnut is piped full of a nutty halvah cream for a sweet retreat from the standard gloppy red filling, then dipped in melted semi-sweet chocolate and sprinkled with craggy bits of halvah.
America’s most beloved dessert is a snap to prepare in this no-bake cheesecake. It has only seven ingredients and you’ll never turn the oven on; with a filling dotted with chopped chocolate marbled halvah it’ll taste like you spent hours baking.
This chunky ice cream is a genuine contender against the best pints in the frozen aisle — or your neighborhood hipster scoop shop. Coffee ice cream made with your favorite beans is layered with roughly chopped halvah and bits of bittersweet chocolate, for a revelation in each bite.
This special snack gives the classic Chex cereal sweet treat a sophisticated twist: Instead of peanut butter, tahini is swirled into melted chocolate chips before coating the cereal. After a toss with confectioners’ sugar, the confection is mixed with diced halvah for a true taste of puppy love.
A loaf of bread and thou
Embrace the sweeter side of bread baking; with these loaves, a meal of bread and water just might be enough
You don’t have to be a Seinfeld fan to understand the powerful pull of a chocolate babka. With this recipe you’ll take this fragrant braided bread wonder to the next level by making a nutty filling with hazelnut and cocoa-infused Nutella and crumbled sesame halvah. Any bubbe (grandma) would be proud.
Sometimes you can have it all. A classic sweet, eggy braided challah bread gets the royal treatment when it is filled with finely chopped halvah along with a lush, homemade filling using tahini, honey, fragrant vanilla, and cinnamon. Whether you’re celebrating the Sabbath or not, this elegant loaf will draw you closer to the divine.
French flavors are just a start when it comes to the crown jewels of baking
It’ll be no problem for everyone to “Open sesame!” for these sweet treats. Two sesame puddings come together in one spiced tart shell to make a dramatic black and white dessert: Regular tahini and white chocolate pudding is swirled with a chocolate and black sesame variation, then topped with flaky sea salt and crumbled halvah for a double sesame surprise.
Patisserie gets the sesame treatment in this impressive — yet fairly simple to prepare — showstopper of a dessert. Purchased phyllo dough is brushed with oil and sugar, baked, and then layered with a halvah and date syrup (or honey) cream for a quick and elegant dessert. Each crisp stack is topped with crumbled halvah and fresh raspberries.
Elegant French macarons get the gift of halvah in the filling for a light and ethereal experience of sweetness. Feel free to use a coffee grinder to blitz the sugar and ground almonds to ensure you achieve a fine powder so the cookies don’t end up gritty.
This Lebanese-inspired slab tart is a visual feast that tastes equally as lush in the mouth. A lemon-halvah cream sits atop a quickly made pistachio paste — the toasty nuttiness is amplified by a crust that includes almond flour. Lemon zest and the pink and green of chopped pistachios pop atop this edible geometric feat.
Step through the wardrobe into a lush new world when you make this flourless chocolate cake perfumed with orange and rose, bejeweled with ruby red pomegranate seeds, and studded with chopped bits of chocolate halvah.
Take a sip
Halvah is such a versatile ingredient that it shines in any preparation — you can even drink it! Its nutty notes bring a fresh perspective to coffee and even a milkshake.
Inspired by a recipe in a Russian food magazine, this cool and creamy treat veers closer to a luscious nutty coffeehouse drink thanks to a whirl in the blender of iced coffee, sesame halvah, and vanilla ice cream. Make it a grown-up treat with the addition of a shot of bourbon if you like.
All the best elements of popcorn come together in this milkshake, an American cousin to champurrado, the sweet corn-thickened drink from Mexico. Freshly popped corn is sprinkled with salt, boiled in half-and-half (trust us), chilled, and blended until fluffy. Halvah and cinnamon top each decadent small glass. Add a little rum for a grown-up pop.
5 minutes or less
These desserts showcase halvah without heating up the kitchen and can be on the table just a few moments after the craving strikes.
This quick and easily assembled dessert is a thrilling variation on the standard parfait. Plain Greek yogurt becomes fragrant with vanilla and a touch of rose water, then is spooned into a tall glass and layered with spoonfuls of berry compote (or black currant or cherry jam), then topped with chopped pistachio and delicate filigrees of halvah.
Every now and then, the easy road is the right path to take. Claim full credit for the oohs and ahhs at the table when you serve this simple dessert. Elevate your favorite vanilla ice cream with lush Middle Eastern notes when you sprinkle it with sesame candies broken into small pieces, crumble halvah on top, and drizzle it all with honey. Suddenly the everyday is new again.
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