Halva is one of those age-old treats most people can’t resist once they discover it. While not unique to Israel, it’s home to a particular version of halva that’s extremely popular there as both a dessert and frequent snack. It’s considered “a taste of Israel” for which Galya Sarner has a great affinity.
Dating back to ancient times – its geographic origins are subject to debate, some insist it began in Turkey, others say India or Byzantine – halva today comes in hundreds of variations with different ingredients according to where it’s made. Its name is derived from the Arabic word for “sweet.” One of the most common desserts in the world, halva is consumed in many countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Jewish Diaspora.
In Israel, halva is usually dairy-free and tahini-based in contrast to places where it contains wheat flour or semolina. Israeli halva is made with tahini (ground sesame paste), root extracts of the Saponaria plant and mixed with sugar syrup. As such, it’s a vegan confection. Flaky, crumbly in texture, Israeli halva comes in a range of flavors, the most common of which are vanilla and chocolate. Pistachio nuts are often added.
“One of my sweetest memories from my childhood is waking up in the morning and having on my breakfast plate my mother’s own healthy variation of halva,” says Galya. “She used a mix of silan (date honey) and tahini. It was like an upgrade of halva. To this day, my father often says his lifelong and frequent consumption of halva accounts for his happy nature.”
In Israel, halva is ubiquitous, reflecting people’s predilection for it. Vendors can be found in virtually every food market while stores sell vast quantities of halva in large slabs or packaged as individual blocks or snack bars. The fact that it’s neither meat nor dairy makes it popular with those who keep kosher.
Israel’s leading purveyor is Halva Kingdom, founded in Jerusalem 70 years ago. Its famous recipe is from Morocco. According to its website, its halva – of which it offers 60 types – is handmade with traditional methods from organic sesame seeds imported from Ethiopia.
Although halva has long been available in North America, it’s now enjoying a bit of a renaissance, thanks in part to expatriate Israeli entrepreneurs. Last year, Seed and Mills Co. opened in New York, selling Israeli-style halva which is different from the commercial Joyva halva sold for decades in the United States. They followed on the footsteps of Brooklyn Sesame which opened a few years earlier, with halva handmade by a former Israeli. A few restaurants in New York joined in, offering halva for dessert.
For her part, Galya makes a halva dish she calls My Eiffel Tower. It’s a strawberry halva mousse that combines ingredients from the three cities she’s lived in – Jerusalem, Paris and Toronto. Here’s her recipe:
My Eiffel Tower Strawberry halva mousse with Kadaif noodles, pistachios and pine nuts
2 cups (500ml) coconut cream (or heavy cream)
3/4 cup (210g) tahini
250 g strawberries
250 g strawberries, extra, sliced
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1/3 cup (65g) pomegranate seeds
5 tbsp of organic maple syrup
1/4 cup of crushed pistachios and pine nuts
350g Kadaif box (finely shredded filo dough)
Cup of crushed halva
1/2 cup of crushed pistachios and pine nuts
4 tbsp Silan (date honey)
Melt the coconut oil and pour over the Kadaif noodles.
Preheat the oven to 370 degrees. Bake for 10- 15 minutes.
Pour coconut cream into a medium metal bowl; place in the freezer for 30 minutes or until chilled.
Blend or process strawberries with 1 tablespoon of organic maple syrup until smooth.
Whisk coconut cream, tahini and remaining maple syrup until thickened slightly, and then swirl through the strawberry mixture.
Divide mixture among the serving glasses; cover, refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm.
Serve topped with sliced strawberries, pistachios, pine nuts, sesame and pomegranate seeds.
Garnish with the kadaif noodles and silan.
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