(This article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
“One of my most favorite creations,” says Lena Sareini, Executive Pastry Chef at Detroit’s Selden Standard, describing her halva chocolate bars – layers of pistachio cake, chocolate feuilletine and halva, coated in milk chocolate. Sareini, just named one of Food & Wine’s ‘10 Best New Chefs 2020’, is among several star pastry chefs who are incorporating halva, the ancient sesame-based Middle Eastern confection, into their desserts.
Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra Bakery in Cambridge, MA, a finalist for this year’s Outstanding Baker at the James Beard Awards, crumbles halva in caramel sauce, and fills chocolate “Maureos” with baked halva; Ghaya Oliviera’s halva-crowned Grapefruit Givre is the signature standout at Boulud Sud; while halva chocolate chip cookies and brownies have appeared on the menus of three celebrated Israeli/Mediterranean-cenric chefs: Yotam Ottolenghi in London, Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia, and Alon Shaya in New Orleans.
My own enthusiasm for halva, dormant since childhood tastes of the flaky, sandy-textured treat sliced from slabs on deli counters, surfaced this winter, initially at a demonstration in the Saveur kitchens by legendary chocolatier Alice Medrich, who prepared a featherweight orange chiffon cake topped with strawberries and shaved halva, then soon after at Valrhona’s charity holiday bake sale where co-sponsor The Feedfeed’s Jake Cohen baked chocolate halva tahini cups.
Famed food writer/editor Ruth Reichl also had a recent halva revelation. After sampling flavors like chocolate-orange and pistachio at artisan producer Seed + Mill, Reichl wrote in the May issue of Town and Country about “the way the candy’s dry flakiness slowly melted into a honeyish syrup and then magically evaporated.” She pointed out qualities like being naturally vegan, which makes it popular with plant-forward chefs, and its richness in minerals from the high-quality Ethiopian sesame seeds used for tahini paste, that is combined with sugar to make halva. Reichl also explored the confection’s Arabic roots, noting that the first recorded recipe dates back to the 13th century cookbook Kitab Al-Tabikh.
The Kitab mentions many types of halva, differentiating between a semolina based slightly gelatinous variety that is still popular in India and South Asia ( and sometimes spelled ‘halwa’), and the sesame version (sometimes spelled ‘halvah’) that spread from the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, and was brought by immigrants to the United States. In 1907, Nathan Radutzky, originally from Kiev, founded Joyva, the venerable family owned Brooklyn company where tons of sesame seeds are transformed into vats of halva; and, since the 1940’s, families like the Lebanese Sahadi’s and Armenian-Turkish Kalustyan’s have also been supplying New Yorkers with the traditional vanilla and chocolate swirl sweets.
Now several enthusiastic craft halva entrepreneurs are tinkering with formulas, sourcing top quality tahini, and producing a lighter, fluffier product in an enticing array of flavors.
Seed + Mill, with a boutique at Manhattan’s Chelsea Market and a thriving mail order business,
offers almost two dozen selections such as cardamom, cinnamon, date walnut, sweet pecan, and rose oil. The company was launched by three New York women, one with ties to Israel, a country so devoted to halva that Halva Kingdom in Jerusalem sells over 100 varieties.
In Philadelphia, another trio, the Zitelman sisters, also with an Israeli connection, founded Soom Foods, specializing in fine tahini and related products, including Chocolate Sweet Tahini Halva Spread. Soom ships its tahini across the country, and is a favorite of Los Angeles-based Hebel & Co., owned by husband and wife team Katie Gurvin and Scott Hebel. The couple spent years developing a hand-made halva they characterize as “nutty, flaky, creamy, cottony, crispy.”
Roxana Juliapat, baker and co-owner of Friends & Family Restaurant in Los Angeles, “a big fan of Hebel’s,” grates their vanilla halva and adds it to butter and egg enriched cream for her halva croissant, along with “tons of sesame seeds to evoke halva’s source of origin.” Angelino award-winning cookbook author Amelia Saltsman bakes a “halva, almond, and chocolate variation of Cozonac, a simple Romanian yeast cake,” but prefers “raw” halva for her decadent ice cream Sundae, to preserve the integrity of the confection’s spun sugar structure. “Good halva,” she suggests, “(higher than 50 % tahini), has a wonderful earthiness, and tiny bitter under-note. I like to maintain that complexity by keeping the other sugars low, playing up the bitterness with contrasting ingredients such as 70 percent or more chocolate or silan (date syrup) and other contrasting colors, and textures.”
Those chameleon qualities generate a cornucopia of halva inspirations, many with a frozen focus. Grapefruit Givre, the spectacular sorbet, rose loukum, halva, citrus dessert in a grapefruit shell, a Ghaya Oliviera classic, has never left the menu at Boulud Sud. For the halva shake Amanda Cohen serves at Lekka Burger, the casual offshoot of her acclaimed vegetarian Dirt Candy restaurant, Cohen explains, “We buy our vanilla halva from Kalustyan’s. It is broken into chunks and then blended into our vanilla oatmeal shake. We finish off the shake with a few sprinkles of halva on top. It’s delicious!”
At Oleana in Cambridge, co-owned by Chef Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick, Pastry Chef Sophie Gees’ Tahini Toffee Sundae features trilece (similar to tres leches), chocolate olive oil, halva, sesame, and an Arlette. In their Sofra bakery, and sister restaurant Sarma, halva surfaces in myriad Kilpatrick recipes. One of the mainstays is caramel sauce, made with butter, cream, salt, and crumbled halva that is added to caramelized sugar, and whisked until the halva dissolves. Refrigerated, the sauce keeps for up to four weeks. It is the basis for sesame caramel cream cheese icing on the bakery’s renowned carrot cake, naps frozen yogurt, is mixed into hot chocolate and lattes, and poured onto profiteroles filled with tahini brown butter custard.
Kilpatrick also uses grated halva with powdered sugar, butter, and cinnamon for streusel to top cheese Danish, and caramel pumpkin pie. Her “Maureos,” chocolate cookie sandwiches, are filled with baked halva, prepared similar to hummus in a food processor, then baked and reprocessed. For a cocoa Kouign Aman, the baked halva, crème fraîche, and cocoa powder are piped into the center of the pastry, or marbled into a cheesecake batter.
Whipping up their own halva and serving it “as is” is another option for chefs. Award-winning Portland, Oregon chef Vitaly Paley, a halva aficionado since childhood, makes both orange and chocolate and pistachio flavors for his elegant Russian tea menu at the Heathman Hotel. And at garlanded Zahav in Philadelpia, a piece of halva is presented to guests along with the check.