Halvah evokes sweet, pleasant memories of childhood. My family used to go on day trips over the weekends, which often included a stop at one of the halvah makers in Abu Gosh, an Arabic village on the mountain slopes of Jerusalem. We drove down to the village center, where a few humble bakeries were selling baklava, Knafeh, sesame candy, and halvah, all freshly made in the backroom of the shop. I remember large trays filled with all these sweet goods lined on counters and shelves, and a strong smell of sesame in the air, being slowly roasted, before being ground into tahini paste - halva's based ingredient.
When I started to sell my tahini creations at the farmers market in the Boston area, many locals had a nostalgic reaction to our sesame butter and tahini cookies. They shared with me that they grew up eating halvah. A little research and I came across Nathan Radutsky's story, who immigrated from Ukraine to the US in 1907 bringing with him his family recipe for halvah, which he would soon sell from pushcarts on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In the late 1920s, he built a factory in Brooklyn, where he produced a variety of flavors and shapes of the old-world sesame-based treat. In the 1950s, his Independent Halvah & Candies company was renamed Joyva.
Across the globe, and hundreds of years earlier, the first written recipe for halvah appeared in an Arabic cookbook from the early 13th century. The name halvah is derived from the Arabic word Hilo (chi-lou), which means sweet. The famed treat quickly crossed borders and many cultures have adapted it and developed their version.
Top photo: Al Yasmin Halvah, Abu Gosh, Israel, 2022
Let's get into the kitchen!
The process of making halvah resembles candy making. Sugar is heated until it starts to crystalize, then quickly blended with tahini. The result is a soft confection, that becomes crumbly when you slice it and then melts in your mouth.
2 cups (480 gr) tahini
2.5 cups (500 gr) cane sugar
1 cup (240 ml) water
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup of nuts (pistachio. walnuts, almonds...) unsalted
Line a loaf pan with parchment paper.
Lightly toast the nuts or seeds in a dry skillet. Remove and set aside.
Pour the tahini into a mixer bowl, and set it into the electric mixer with a guitar attachment.
In a saucepan combine sugar, vanilla, and water, stirring occasionally on medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and let the mixture simmer into a thick syrup until your thermometer reads 250℉. If you do not use a thermometer – drop about 1/2 teaspoon of syrup into a small bowl filled with cold water. If it forms a clear ball, the syrup is ready.
Turn on the electric mixer, and QUICKLY pour the syrup into the bowl with the tahini. Mix just until combined, then add in the nuts, and QUICKLY mix to spread the nuts evenly. You must work fast as the mixture is hardened very quickly.
QUICKLY transfer the mixture into the lined pan and press down to get rid of any air bubbles.
Cover with parchment paper and set aside to harden at room temperature.
Release from the pan, slice into small squares, and serve. Store covered at room temperature.
To remove the hard syrup from the saucepan fill it with water and place it on medium heat, place the spoon and the thermometer inside. Heat until all syrup leftovers melt, then wash with soap and water.