Halvah

A few years ago, tahini took its place in the spotlight. People discovered the sesame paste, usually used in hummus, could be used in cookies, cakes, salad dressings, sauces as well as in other places. Soon halvah also had its day, becoming a star ingredient in tart doughs and rugelach. But halvah is a wonderful treat on its own.

During my childhood, I’d only been exposed to halvah sold in bars by the cash register in delis, but when I went to Jerusalem, I was wowed at the market to see towering rounds of halvah at places like Halvah Kingdom, which were topped (and studded or swirled) with various ingredients like dried fruit, nuts, rose petals, cocoa, coffee beans, and chocolate amongst the reported one hundred varieties that they make. The halvah was like nothing I’d ever put in my mouth; you could taste the quality of the sesame seeds used in every crumbly bite. (If you want a taste of outstanding halvah in the U.S., check out Seed & Mill.)

In the past decade or so, foods of the ‘Middle East’ have taken off. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi opened the door to show how dishes from those regions of the world cross borders and cultures, incorporating new ingredients into the dishes, which happens when immigrants move and adapt ingredients available where they are, to their traditional foods. (Italians who immigrated to the U.S. discovered canned tomatoes, which were cheap and plentiful, and nowadays tomatoes figure so heavily into some of their cooking that Italian-American restaurants are often referred to as “red-sauce joints.”)

However the words ‘Middle East’ also tend to compress the various cultures under a single moniker, which is where Reem Kassis steps in with her bold new book The Arabesque Table. I wish I could summarize her words in the introduction of the book, which delves into everything from terminology, to who makes what and from where, and why. The introduction is so well-written, and well-focused, that it’s worth hearing it from her, and reading it on your own.

Over the years people have pleaded with me for a halvah recipe. Frankly, the real deal isn’t easy to make. For one thing, halvah is made with soapwort, which gives it that characteristic chewy/foamy/moist-chalky texture that is so unique and special. Here are some video clips of when I went to a halvah factory to watch it being made and as you can see, the process takes some elbow grease – and skill – to get it to just the right consistency.

So I was anxious to try the halvah recipe in The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World. Like most good food, good halvah begins with good sesame seeds, or in this case, sesame seed paste. If you’re going to make it, a good one is worth tracking down. Soom and Seed & Mill tahinis are excellent, available in the U.S. (La Boite, a great spice merchant in New York sells tahini too, but I’ve not tried it.) Ottolenghi sells Al Arz tahini in the UK (Amazon sells it in America), and in Paris, Yafo sells the tahini that they use in their kitchen. Al Wadi is a popular Lebanese brand that’s available internationally and tahini has become so ubiquitous that even Whole Foods has its own brand. Those are just some suggestions.

When you shell out for premium tahini you want to make sure the recipe will turn out well. And I know Reem, who also wrote the award-winning The Palestinian Table, would only publish something that worked. Even though I bookmarked the recipes for Lamb and Halloumi Pasta Bake, Eggplant Maqluba (baked, molded rice with roasted chicken, almonds, and eggplant), and Sudanese-inspired Mutabal (eggplant dip) with peanut butter, the Halaweh (halvah) was the recipe I was most anxious to start with.

(As an aside, Reem became a friend of mine after I reached out to her regarding a thought-provoking article she’d written [possible paywall] and even though I stood her up on our first meet-up, she has forgiven me and even invited me into her home to make me dinner, which I am hoping to take her up on one day.)

In the meantime, this halvah was a hit and couldn’t be easier. It only has three primary ingredients and the key to this recipe is dried whole milk powder, and the only work you need to do is to knead the few ingredients until they come together in an almost smooth ball, with a few craggy tears here and there. It’s not pie dough, but should sort of feel and look like that when it’s done.

Just a note: I’ll be chatting live with Reem Kassis about her book The Arabesque Table online on April 17th at 2pm ET. It’s free and you read more about it here, and register here.

Halvah

Adapted from The Arabesque Table: Contemporary Recipes from the Arab World by Reem Kassis
You can customize this halvah with various toppings, swapping out the pistachios with roasted peanuts or cashews, rose petals, sesame seeds, chocolate chips or roasted cocoa nibs, coffee beans, sesame or pumpkin seeds, or whatever and wherever your imagination takes you. Reem offers a few other suggestions in the book, such as adding cocoa powder, cardamom and other flavors to the mix.
I've suggested a few very good brands of tahini in the post if looking for recommendations but a trip to a shop that specializes in ingredients for Arabic cooking should yield a few other options.
Traditional halvah is made with soapwort, and with laborious stirring, So although the texture of this halvah is a bit softer than store-bought halvah, but it's still sliceable and very enjoyable.
Course Dessert
Servings 10 servings
  • 1 cup (120g) powdered sugar
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (120g) whole milk powder
  • 3/4 cup (200g) tahini, well-stirred before using
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons (25g) very coarsely chopped pistachios, (see headnote for other suggestions)
  • In a medium bowl, stir together the powdered sugar and milk powder. Add the tahini and vanilla and continue to stir until the mixture starts clumping together. Use your clean hands to knead the mixture until it comes together into a smooth, dough-like round that's not sticky. (As shown in the post.) Reem advised me to avoid adding more tahini unless it absolutely won't come together because adding the more tahini you add the softer it will be. (And you don't want it too soft.) If it feels too wet or sticky, add a bit more powdered milk.
  • Line a 3 cup (700ml) glass or plastic container of any shape with a sheet of plastic wrap that goes inside the mold and up and over the edges. Smooth out any wrinkles as best you can and put the pistachios in an even layer on the bottom. Press the halvah mixture into the mold and smooth the top. Rap the container a few times gently on a folded kitchen towel on the countertop to encourage the mixture to pack snugly in the mold. Cover with the plastic wrap overhang and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Notes

Serving: To serve, unmold the halvah onto a plate or cutting board and serve for dessert with tea, if desired.

Halvah

62 comments

  • Sandra Myers
    April 2, 2021 4:55pm

    NOrmally, something like this to me is just something to buy at the market. However, this recipe is intriguing and I can control the sweetness in it for my husband Mike, who is a diabetic and ordinarily loves Halvah, but looking at sugars etc on regular packaging says, put it down and not to buy. I could and wlll probably make this.

  • Sarahb1313
    April 2, 2021 5:06pm

    This has been my treat for the last year. Luckily Seed and Mill have been shipping and also via Fresh Direct. It is my favorite treat. I have thought about making it, I have been making my chocolate cookies exclusively with tahini and make sure I have a constant supply, Soom is lovely, and the chocolate one is great… especially on matzoh LOL

    thanks for confirming I just don’t need to make my own. I always thought you needed sugar syrup, but either way I think I will focus on my better skills!!

    I appreciate the recipe… who knows, I may get bored one of these days.

  • April 2, 2021 5:13pm

    Great article! I just ordered from Seed & Mill.

  • Barbara Schuppe
    April 2, 2021 5:22pm

    I made a version of this in the 1970’s combining sesame seeds, natural peanut butter and honey in a blender. I rolled it and cut it into coins-delicious..
    It sustained me on a “March for Hunger”
    30 mile hike I did..
    Thanks for reminding me.

  • Laura
    April 2, 2021 5:40pm

    Can this be stored at room temperature or does it need to be refrigerated? Very nice story and so well written!

    • April 2, 2021 5:58pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’d probably store it in the refrigerator when not being served.

  • Louise Yenovkian
    April 2, 2021 5:44pm

    Halvah is a staple in my home. A delicious treat growing up. We called it Nature’s Candy! There are so many varieties available now. I have never made it from scratch but now I am intrigued to do so. Thank you for featuring Halvah!

  • Barbara Rosen
    April 2, 2021 6:19pm

    It is hard to find whole milk powder; will low fat, or nonfat milk powder work?

    • April 2, 2021 6:45pm
      David Lebovitz

      I haven’t tried it with low fat or nonfat but if you give it a go, let us know how it works out.

  • Paula
    April 2, 2021 6:35pm

    This looks absolutely beautiful. Growing up in a poor Communist country, halva was a staple in the diet, especially during Lent. It was probably far from the traditional recipes, being made by the local oil factory with what I thought to be the leftovers from the oil making. The factory was privatised and then demolished long time ago. I chased the taste of that halva throughout my life and never found it again – everything sold in stores, be them big chains or Persian stores, is too sweet and not oily enough :-).

  • Georgina
    April 2, 2021 6:37pm

    Thanks for sharing the recipe! I’m Lebanese and grew up eating halvah, which I think is an acquired taste, but I adore it! Will definitely make my own. Have bought a good one from Sahadis in Brooklyn

  • Martha
    April 2, 2021 7:04pm

    WOW, David, you sure brought me back a far piece to my childhood and the days of yummy halvah and Bonomo’s Turkish taffy. I loved that not too sweet, slightly salty halvah. I just might give your recipe a try. Thanks.

  • Anne Epstein
    April 2, 2021 7:20pm

    David, Powdered sugar has cornstarch as an ingredient. What about using caster sugar (in the U.S., it’s called baker’s sugar) instead?

    • April 2, 2021 9:38pm
      David Lebovitz

      That would be too grainy. You can buy powdered sugar that doesn’t have starch in it or try blitzing granulated sugar in a food processor until it’s a fine powder.

    • Ellen N.
      April 3, 2021 9:16pm

      If you prefer to avoid cornstarch, you can get organic powdered sugar. It’s way more expensive, but it’s cornstarch free.

      Stella Parks is an advocate for organic powdered sugar.

      David, is the cornstarch necessary for the correct texture?

      https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/03/organic-powdered-sugar-versus-conventional-baking-cornstarch-tapioca.html

  • Marie
    April 2, 2021 8:16pm

    This looks amazing! ❤️Halva is addictive! Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  • Phyllis F. Perkins
    April 2, 2021 9:21pm

    I love reading your blog, David, but I am having a problem with the links that you provide for the videos such as the halvah factory. I don’t do Instagram. Is there any way to see it without signing in to an account?

    • April 2, 2021 9:37pm
      David Lebovitz

      I don’t know if Instagram posts and stories are accessible off Instagram or not since I only see them when I’m on Instagram. Some people weren’t able to watch it so I tried a different link in the post so hope that it’s accessible.

  • Christina
    April 2, 2021 9:24pm

    Yeah finally a halvah recipe without having to make sugar syrup and use a stand mixer. I can’t find whole milk powder, do you know if it’s possible to use skim milk powder? Thanks

    • April 2, 2021 9:38pm
      David Lebovitz

      I haven’t tried it with skim milk powder but if you give it a go, let us know how it works out.

  • April 2, 2021 10:43pm

    Love it…will make soon. Thank you David!

  • Barbara White-Thomson
    April 2, 2021 11:41pm

    As always informative and so well written. Many, many years ago Trader Joe’s when it was still owned by Joe Coulombe sold halvah in the deli section. I always bought it and loved it until I saw how many calories it contained!

  • Esther Liberman
    April 3, 2021 12:23am

    Is there any non-dairy ingredient that could be used instead of the milk powder? Thanks!

  • April 3, 2021 1:46am

    David,
    I drove right over to Talbot and Harding in Hudson, NY and bought Seed and Mill Halva. Had to have it! and then I went to Kitty’s down the street because they carry Seed and Mill tahini. I am checking out and see that they have a large selection of natural wine from their store Grapefruit Wine up the street. I go home and look at Seed and Mill recipes and there is the Zoe Francois’ Diva cake recipe. Have watched your IGTV with Zoe and Alice and connected the dots with Seed and Mill. I see a pattern here. Looking forward to making the halvah from the recipe on your blog…I am sure I have that bag of whole milk powder that I saved from 1973 somewhere. If that doesn’t show up I am wondering how to get hold of soapwort..not really. I am wowed by your generosity of spirit in promoting so many people. Thank you.

  • Rusty
    April 3, 2021 3:23am

    My grocery store, Food Maxx, sells a whole dried milk, Nido, made by Nestle. I use a lot of it every day when I make my hot cocoa. Apparently Nido is popular in Latin America for adding to coffee.

  • Amy
    April 3, 2021 4:11am

    I’ve been intrigued by halvah for awhile despite never having grown up with it or tried it. But after reading a few articles I found Seed and Mill. I bought two types – the original and a chocolate version – and found both to be intoxicating treats. I can’t compare with others but would recommend these regardless. Wonderful article, David. Thanks as always.

  • susan
    April 3, 2021 4:43am

    wondering if King Arthur’s dried whole milk might suffice. it’s on their website
    https://shop.kingarthurbaking.com/items/dried-whole-milk-8-oz

  • Anne Epstein
    April 3, 2021 7:07am

    Thanks for your reply, David! I’ve never heard of powdered sugar w/o cornstarch, but now that you mention it, I am sure I can find it! Halvah was a treat that my Grandma introduced me to. I have ALWAYS loved it, and when I visitedf Turkey in 2003, I found it in humongous wheels for sale at outdoor markets. OMG. So good!

  • Anne Epstein
    April 3, 2021 7:13am

    Thanks for your reply/suggestion, David! I never knew that there was such a thing as powdered (confectioner’s) sugar w/o cornstarch. I’m now incentivized to find it!
    My grandma who was from Belarus (ByeloRussia) introduced halvah to me when I was little. And when visiting Turkey in 2001, I sampled halvah cut from HUMONGOUS wheels in the outdoor markets. Divine.

  • Anne Epstein
    April 3, 2021 7:16am

    Barbara Rosen, My local Ralph’s market (part of the Kroger national chain) carries Nestle’s Nido whole milk powder in a 3.5 lb can. I know that’s a lot of powdered whole milk, but I always use it to stabilize whipped cream.

  • Meryl Weis
    April 3, 2021 8:27pm

    I just made this with nonfat Carnation milk powder, and I’m happy to report it tastes AMAZING. The dough was very dry, and I ended up having to add more tahini (maybe a tablespoon more , but I didn’t measure.) I don’t know if this was a function of using non-fat milk or not.

    I do plan on making this again, and maybe I’ll get full-fat milk to do a comparison, but the flavor with the non-fat milk is wonderful and if you have it, try it.

    • April 3, 2021 9:19pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks for reporting back on the non-fat milk powder working fine!

  • Ellen N.
    April 3, 2021 9:10pm

    Hi David,

    Thanks for another fantastic post. You are a gem.

    I haven’t tried Seed + Mill, but I highly recommend Hebel & Co Halva. It is the best I’ve had.

    It is sold in Nancy Silverton’s Mozza to Go. I trust her taste, so when I saw it I bought some. Wow, it’s good.

  • Estelle
    April 3, 2021 11:01pm

    I would love to try this recipe but am allergic to milk. Do you have a suggestion for a substitution?

  • Jan
    April 4, 2021 12:50am

    King Arthur has dried whole milk.

  • Elena
    April 4, 2021 1:08am

    Very much appreciated this recipe.
    Thank you!

  • David
    April 4, 2021 7:39pm

    It’s worth mentioning that it’s pretty easy to make tahini if you have a VitaMix. You just toast the sesame seeds in a frying pan, and then throw them in the blender with a little olive oil.

  • Maya
    April 5, 2021 8:59am

    Wow I will try it with sukrin melis an sugar substitute. Since they are prone to crystallization I haven’t dared try the sugar free syrup route. So will try this. I even have milk powder from making Heaston Blumental’s stock.

  • rose
    April 5, 2021 6:15pm

    PS: unable to use the “reply” buttons under comments – it’s either a site glitch or my laptop is finally ageing out?

    Anyway I’m going to try this recipe but WITH soapwort and as well using coconut milk powder for a dairy-free version – will try to report back with results!

    • April 6, 2021 12:01am
      David Lebovitz

      The reply function is working for me but perhaps your browser needs to be updated or something like that. I didn’t find any recipes for home cooks for making Halvah with soapwort. Where did you find one? I am interested in seeing how it’s done – for home cooks. Thanks!

  • Susan
    April 5, 2021 6:24pm

    Any thoughts on substituting either coconut milk powder or soy milk powder for the whole milk powder? Would love to have some vegan halvah!

  • Maelisa Tether
    April 5, 2021 6:41pm

    Wonderful article thank you David ….. I often make Tahini but had never thought of making halvah . I just usually grind toasted sesame seeds in coffee grinder and add olive oil . I don’t have a vitamix would this tahini work for the halva ?

    • April 5, 2021 11:59pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve never made my own tahini. When I went to two tahini factories they talked a lot about how they source their sesame seeds which affected the flavor of the tahini. I’ve also been washing a lot of dishes lately due to the pandemic so am fine buying tahini. If you do try it in a Vitamix, let us know how it turns out.

  • jenny gelb
    April 6, 2021 12:45am

    Fabulous article and am looking forwarding to trying it.
    I believe you meant Halva King which is in the Jerusalem shuk and has such intriguing flavor combinations

  • Jenny Skoble
    April 6, 2021 1:00am

    Hi David,
    Somehow Ottolenghi seems to have sucked all the air out of the Middle Eastern Food space. While spending time in Sydney, AU, my family discovered a wonderful Israeli/Middle Eastern restaurant called the Kepos Street Kitchen, run by terrific and creative Michael Rantissi. He and his partner, Kristy Frawley, have put out 2 delightful and very user-friendly cookbooks, Hummus & Co., and Falafel for Breakfast. I use them all the time.
    In addition, any mention of Middle Eastern/Jewish cookbooks wouldn’t be complete with Claudia Roden, whose encyclopedic “The Book of Jewish Food” has recipes, photographs and informational tidbits about Jewish communities all over the world.

  • mahri
    April 6, 2021 1:44am

    Can halvah be made with brown sugar? Would brown sugar have the same graininess problem as granulated sugar?

  • marilyninMontreal
    April 7, 2021 2:36pm

    Thank you, Jenny, for mentioning these two cookbooks. I’m off to the bookstore, double-masked, to check them out. Have a beautiful day.

  • Carolyn Z
    April 9, 2021 5:05am

    There was a NY-style bagel shop next to the bakery where I worked. Both wonderful businesses from a past time. There was halvah presented in a cake stand. That was a treat for me. Didn’t take much to satisfy.

  • Tobie
    April 18, 2021 11:42pm

    I will try this! I go to Israel fairly often and there’s a guy right across the way inside the shuk (across from the Halvah guys) who grinds fresh tahini. This tastes like nothing you buy in a jar. So amazingly delicious! He has a large grindstone and one can taste it as soon as it’s ground.

  • Arianna
    April 21, 2021 4:30pm

    Any chance this would work with heavy cream powder? I don’t know if the protein in the milk powder plays a role, which virtually nonexistent in the heavy cream powder.

    • April 21, 2021 7:52pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve never used heavy cream powder (I didn’t know it existed!) so can’t say, but if you do try it, let us know how it works out.

  • May 1, 2021 7:06pm

    David, you did not mention the “organic Sesame Tahini”, from “Living Tree Community Foods” It’s handcrafted in Berkeley, California and it’s extraordinary. The best ever! Located at url
    https://www.livingtreecommunityfoods.com/

  • Christina
    May 1, 2021 9:15pm

    Just wanted to inform everyone that I made 1/2 recipe using what I had at home: icing sugar (the kind with cornstarch inside) and skim milk powder. The finished halvah was a bit crumbly when you cut into it but tasted wonderful. Love it!

    • May 2, 2021 1:15pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks for letting us know the skim (lowfat) milk powder works!

  • Molly A. Georgakis
    May 2, 2021 1:55am

    Any thoughts on how long this will be good if refrigerated?

    • May 2, 2021 1:14pm
      David Lebovitz

      The original recipe didn’t say but I’ve had mine in the refrigerator for a month and it’s still good ~

  • Tanya T
    May 10, 2021 10:30am

    This recipe was so easy I was almost embarassed when an Israeli friend asked for it – it tasted like it was from Halva Kingdom in Machaneh Yehuda! You need good tahini but otherwise I used standard millk powder from the supermarket and standard icing sugar (which in NZ has no cornstarch in it). Next time will experiment with flavours/toppings. Thank you.

  • Tina
    May 16, 2021 8:42pm

    Spot on! Made this for a dinner party last night. Loved the flavor, texture – reminded me of my childhood going to the St Lawrence Market in Montreal and my dad buying a chunk of Halvah to take home, yum! Another of your recipes to add to my collection, Thanks

  • Michelle
    May 29, 2021 4:11am

    I love this recipe, thanks for sharing! I used Nestle Nido milk powder and toasted it golden brown in a dry skillet before combining it with the rest of the ingredients. While not necessary, I think it added a nice nutty flavor and removed any lingering moisture for extra grit. I topped mine with toasted nigella seeds and I have to say it was almost as good as Seed+Mill.

    • May 29, 2021 10:36am
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks for letting us know how toasting the milk powder worked out, and which brand you use. Glad you liked it! (And Seed + Mill is really a great reference!)

  • Arianna
    May 30, 2021 1:09am

    To all those whose health may require a lower carb diet, this recipe works perfectly, with the exact same ratios, using Heavy Cream Powder (I used Hoosier Farms) and a Powdered Low Carb Sweetener (I used Swerve). I pressed portions of the “dough” into 24 cavities of a mini-muffin tin (using paper cups for easy retrieval) and topped each six with either sesame, chopped salted pecans, pistachios, or mini sugar-free chocolate chips for perfectly portioned treats.

A

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