Food & Wine

Homemade halawa makes a sweet holiday gift


Courtesy of Blanche Shaheen
Halawa, a sweet sesame seed paste confection, makes a tasty holiday gift.

When my mother was a young girl living in Bethlehem, chocolates and other candies were a luxury. So she ate halawa, a sweet also known as halva, a sesame seed paste confection that almost has the consistency of chocolate fudge.

Halawa means “sweet” in Arabic, and this confection is not only sweet, but also packed with calcium, magnesium, fiber and antioxidants. Halawa is ubiquitous all over the Middle East, from Syria to Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon.

The first halawa recipe was recorded in Arabic in the 13th century. The sweet then made quite the trip around the Middle East and landed in India, where they shortened the name to “halva” and flavored it with regional ingredients such as dates and coconut. While store-bought halawa often comes with pistachios, there are also chocolate and even sugar-free varieties. Buying halawa can be challenging in the U.S. because sesame gets bitter or even rancid after a while, so finding the freshest halawa is important. Store-bought varieties can also be a bit hard and too sugary.

Although you can buy halawa in any Middle Eastern market, you can easily make your own – and the fun part is that you can customize the flavors.

I’m sharing three recipes below that can combine to make a holiday gift plate, or provide ideas for your own favorite flavors and dietary preferences.

These easy, one-bowl recipes yield a softer halawa, sweetened with organic maple syrup. Maple syrup is a great replacement for sugar because it’s a less-processed sweetener rich in antioxidants and minerals such as zinc, manganese, potassium, iron and calcium. The traditional recipe uses milk powder, while the vegan version calls for almond flour instead. My recipes feature three flavor variations: traditional pistachio with a hint of rose water, vegan chocolate hazelnut and pumpkin spice with pepitas (because everyone can use some extra pumpkin spice in their lives this time of year).

Blanche Shaheen is a food blogger and journalist who lives in Los Altos. For a video tutorial on how to make halawa and a host of other recipes, visit youtube.com/BlancheTV. For more of her recipes with a Middle Eastern twist, visit feastinthemiddleeast.com. She is scheduled to teach a Middle Eastern cooking class at Draeger’s Market in Menlo Park March 13.

Pumpkin Spice Halawa

• 1 cup tahini paste

• 1 cup milk powder

• 1/2 cup maple syrup

• 1/3 cup pumpkin butter

• Dash salt

• 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

• 1/4 cup pepitas

In bowl, add milk powder. Add tahini, maple syrup, salt, pumpkin butter and pumpkin pie spice, and mix until consistency of thick clay. Pat mixture down in 8-inch serving dish, or airtight container if storing for later. Press pepitas into halawa before storing or serving.

Pistachio Halawa

• 1 cup sesame tahini

• 1 cup milk powder (or 1 cup almond flour for vegan version)

• 1/2 cup maple syrup

• Dash salt

• Several drops rose flower water (optional)

• 1/4 cup pistachios, shelled and roasted

Add milk powder to bowl. Add tahini, maple syrup, salt and rose water, and mix until consistency of thick clay. Pat mixture down in 8-inch serving dish or airtight container if storing for later. Press pistachios into halawa before storing or serving.

Chocolate hazelnut

For a chocolate hazelnut version, use almond flour and replace rose flower water and pistachios with 1/4 cup chocolate hazelnut butter and 1/4 cup chocolate chips.

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