Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Great Halvah Epiphany

Michael Lumish

This is Halvah
When I was a little boy growing up in Kingston, New York, and Trumbull, Connecticut, halvah was a mystery.

I did not understand the stuff. I did not like it. It made no sense to me. And I could not even begin to fathom my father's joy in this weird sticky semi-sweet sesame concoction whatever-it-is.

But he grew up in Brooklyn, back when there were still actual Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn beyond Crown Heights.

My mom, Rita, was from the Bronx.

They both grew up with halvah.

I was raised in the shadow of New York City in the 1970s and my father not only worked in the Empire State Building -- crunching numbers in the textile industry -- but actually came through Ellis Island in the arms of my grandmother, Sarah, in the 1920s. This was before they dragged him to Kwajalein and Anawetok and the Marshall Islands as a skinny corporal with a rifle over his shoulder. And every time that my father brought halvah home, and actually enjoyed it, I was mystified. But now I may understand why.

I was eating halvah wrong and, perhaps, if you hate the stuff, you are, too. It is an acquired taste because sesame candy is unusual to the Western palate, but what many of us fail to understand is that you should not eat halvah like its a Hershey bar. See, that is the thing. This is not like American candy. Good halvah is crystalline. It is not like a friggin' Mars bar or a Snickers.

It is very sweet and very rich and very delicious. But it requires nibbles, not chomps.

A Facebook friend of mine, Rachel Adler, gave me her husband David Hamby's recipe and it is delicious.

The only thing that I would change is the addition of pistachios and a little stirred honey.

 David's Halvah

One 12 ounce jar tahini.

2 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

lemon zest

Scraped contents of one vanilla bean or some pure vanilla extract.

Put sugar and water into a saucepan. Stir until it reaches 250. If you don't have a thermometer then let boil and wait 2 full minutes.

It must get hot enough or it won't work.

In the meantime have ready another bowl with tahini and vanilla and lemon. Mix it with mixer. When syrup in saucepan is ready, drizzle syrup from saucepan directly into bowl with mixer on low to medium.

This is key: do it little by little, but within 30 seconds or it will start to set. Use a spatula to put into 9 by 9 or rectangular glass baking pan that is very lightly buttered (just a very light film and you can use pam but wipe some off ).

Let set for 3 to 4 hours. You can put in fridge to make faster.
There was a time that I cooked for a living. I wore the toque and the checked pants and reduced veal stock to demi-glace in preparation for the sauté station in the evenings at the old Black Goose Grill in Darien, Connecticut.

But halvah definitely never came onto the menu.

It is a shame because it is really just crystalline sesame and honey.

I also added chopped pistachios because the flavor profiles work and I like a bit of crunch and it is traditional.

For me, personally, it is a nibble from the past and it reminds me of my dad.


  1. My dad too was a corporal during WWII. My mother too was from the Bronx. But I have always loved Halvah. Yum. Wish I had some right now! And it is or was on the dessert menu at the Russian Tea Room in New York.

    1. Holy cow. Your old man fought in WWII? I was born in '63, so they had me late. I was the last of four.

      But, yeah, they dragged my father out of Saint John's College in NY and shipped him East.

      And your mom was from the Bronx?

      No wonder we get along so well, Jeff, you're practically family.

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  4. How can anyone not like halva? Here in London plenty of places sell gourmet Caviar ... I mean Halva , rose flavoured etc. chocolate and vanilla halva is more popular than pistachio

    1. Hi RedFerrari.

      What can I tell you? It is an acquired taste.

      When I was a kid we all enjoyed Hershey bars. That's milk chocolate, but not even very good milk chocolate. It is mediocre American milk chocolate. But it seemed natural to all of our palates.

      Sesame candy has a much different flavor profile and one that is almost entirely unusual to the American palate.

      In truth, I am just trying to get my taste buds to figure out what my dad's taste buds knew.

  5. My wife got a gift, a “log” of halva with caramel. It lasted ages, had to be eaten in small decadent bites. Only quibble was it’s not weight watchers friendly, lol.

    1. I still haven't gotten my wife to appreciate the stuff. I fear it is a lost cause... but I don't think that she is quite the Intrepid Culinary Explorer that I am! :O)

  6. What about Challah? With poppy seeds or sesame seeds.

    My mother used to make gefilte fish from scratch. The fish she minced and all the other stuff topped off with carrot. Has that happened since 1960?

    Chicken soup and matzo balls you could die for. She cooked the chicken frames overnight. You can't cut short the time she said

    She was famous for her salmon patties. Two Australian families unknown to each other met by chance in I think Yugoslavia. They fell into a conversation and someone happened to mention the Gold Coast in Queensland. Another making small talk said she knew a lady there who makes the best salmon patties ever. Not Shirley...? exclaimed the others!

    True story.

    1. Oh, don't even talk to me about gefilte fish.

      Holy Mother of God!


  7. Potato latkes.

    Kosher garlic wurst on matzo with a touch of English mustard. Curried egg sandwiches.

    1. Latkes I can get with. I've made them dozens of times, I think. But this other food, geoffff, is outside of my experience. Curried egg sandwiches? I don't recall them ever serving that up in the Trumbull High School cafeteria. But, hey, I will try anything once!

    2. Although, now that I think on it, you're simply talking about an egg salad sandwich with a little curry powder in the mix. That could work... kinda... maybe!

  8. Russian Eggs made with mayonnaise and topped with a touch caviar. Not the Beluga stuff no one afford. The domestic "caviar" which is expensive enough.

    Duck Orange.

    All manner of cakes.

    Whole baked fish with the eyes removed and replaced with sliced carrot.

  9. Ahhh....a halvah recipe that makes sense. Most I have tried turn out a gooey product not at all like a good Halvah should be. I love Halvah...and I do eat Big Chunks of it as though it were a Mars Bar....but sparingly. It is very interesting how very different Halvah is from country to country and how the end results turn out such different textures. I'm hoping that this recipe gives me that wonderful flakey texture that is in my opinion The Best Halvah Experience. We shall see. Thank you kindly for this recipe.

    1. I am only learning. I sit at the feet of others.

  10. I tried this recipe. It turned into a brick! I was expecting the flaky texture. Any idea what I did wrong?