Sesame halvah

April 28, 2006 at 9:19 am (B_minus (2 stars, okay), Derek's faves, Dessert, My brain, Other, Other, Quick weeknight recipe)

Halvah is one of my favorite desserts. When I was a kid my uncle used to bring us Joyva halvah whenever he came to visit and I was in heaven. Later I discovered chocolate covered halvah and realized that I had just thought I was in heaven before. However, halvah is a problem for me since I can easily eat 1/2 a pack or more at a sitting and it has exactly 4.5 gazillion calories. In any case I’ve always wanted to try to make it myself but never got around to it.

On my allergy-free month I’m not eating peanut butter, and so hit the tahini jar. I always forget how much I like tahini. It just sits in my fridge untouched except for sesame noodles and a sauce for kale, but it’s so good even plain. The tahini I get from the co-op starts to separate after it’s been sitting in the fridge for a while, and the non-oily thick paste on the bottom of the jar tastes pretty darn close to halvah, actually. So I added a bit of honey and it was even closer to what I remembered. I was actually amazed at how little honey it needs. Add too much and the great tahini flavor starts to fade away. So I love my tahini paste with honey and a little cinnamon, but I couldn’t serve this to friends. What would I do, give them a spoon and a tiny bowl and tell them to dig in?

So I needed to firm it up a bit so I could serve actual pieces of “halvah,” or in this case halvah balls. This is a guess at what I did. Many recipes I looked at called for white flour as a thickener, but that’s off limits due to the wheat, so I substituted teff flour instead.

Halvah Balls

3 Tbs. sesame seeds
1 Tbs. teff flour
4 Tbs. tahini
4 tsp. honey
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

In a small skillet toast 3 Tbs. sesame seeds until starting to get light brown and aromatic. Add 1 Tbs. teff flour and toast gently until that becomes aromatic. Remove from heat and transfer to a mortar. (I’m not sure if this would work in a coffee grinder. The texture might end up more oily. It might also be possible to just use tahini and teff flour, but I ran out of tahini so went for the seeds.)

Grind the seeds and flour in the mortar until they are a fluffy but coarse texture. Transfer them to a small bowl and add 4 Tbs. raw tahini, 4 tsp. honey, and 1/4 tsp cinnamon. (maybe cardamom would be good instead?) Mix well, then form the batter into 8 small balls. You can roll them in sesame seeds or black sesame seeds if you want to make them more decorative. Eat right away or refrigerate and serve later. From personal experience I can attest that they’re still good cold, but probably they’re best at room temperature.

They have about 75 calories each.

On a second try I used a different brand of tahini, roasted the sesame seeds to a darker color, and forgot the cinnamon. They were still good but tasted less like halvah and more like sesame balls.

On a third try I used unhulled sesame seeds, which are much more nutritious than the hulled perfectly white ones. They tasted basically the same to me. Derek at first didn’t like this recipe at all, particularly the texture which he said was too soft. He took one bite and that was enough for him. But the next morning he wouldn’t stop eating them, said they were firmer and delicious. He liked them better room temperature than right out of the fridge.

When making these in Chicago I used yet another brand of tahini, and it was much, much thinner than the previous ones I’d tried. I had to keep adding flour, and more flour, but no matter how much I added they seemed just too thin. The flavor was excellent though.

These aren’t really a great thing to serve at a party, for three reasons. First, many people don’t like tahini at all. Second, they’re very sticky. Third, even when rolled in sesame seeds for presentation, as Derek so pleasantly put it, they nonetheless bear a close resemblance to “tahini turds”.

My friend Shakti said she made them with cocoa and they turned out great, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Some interesting discussion on halvah

A supposedly joyva-like halvah recipe

Rating: B

Derek: A-

This halvah recipe is from the 25th Anniversary version of the Tassajara Bread Book.

  • 2 cups unhulled sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbs. unroasted sesame oil (optional)
  • 1/4 cup or more honey or sugar
  • 2 Tbs. butter or margarine or tahini
  • Spices: (optional, to taste):
    • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
    • 1/4 tsp. cloves
    • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
    • 1/4 tsp. cardamom or coriander or nutmeg or mace

Makes 6-8 healthy but moderate servings.

Roast the seeds until they are crunchy–in a frying pan over moderate flame or on a baking sheet in the oven. Stir often enough that they roast evenly. Grind the seeds finely, but not so finely that you end up with sesame butter. Add the sweetening and the butter and sesame oil. Taste it. The basic recipe is not very sweet, so you may well wish to add more sweetener and some vanilla. If you want the halvah to have some spiciness, take your pick of the spices and season to taste. Shape into balls and roll in toasted sesame seeds, or press onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate before slicing.

My Notes:

I tried grinding the seeds in my blender–didn’t work well at all. Then I tried my mortar and pestle. Although I can do a few Tbs. pretty easily, this quantity was way too much work to grind by hand. I ended up doing batches in my coffee grinder, which of the three ways I tried definitely worked the best. In the end the seeds were quite a powdery consistency–pretty dry not sticky like tahini. The honey and tahini I added made it thicker and stickier though. I also added a Tbs. of sesame oil off the top of the tahini that had separated. That also helped moisten the mixture. I added all the spices, and cardamom for the last option. I pressed the mixture it into a small square glass container.

The texture was not flaky like Joyva halvah, but was definitely sliceable and held together pretty well. The flavor was very roasted–maybe I roasted the seeds a tad too long. I couldn’t really taste the spices, but in general I thought the recipe was pretty good. It was much more sesame seed tasting than tahini tasting like the last attempt. These amounts makes a ton though. I’d consider a serving to be at most a Tbs. or two, so I’d cut this recipe in half next time, unless I’m serving a huge crowd.

Rating: B+

Derek says “delicious.” He liked it better than my previous attempts, because it was slightly drier and more like traditional flaky halvah. He thought the sweetness level was perfect.

Derek: A-

Update:  July 2009

I talked to a guy in Israel who makes and sells halvah, and he says he just uses tahini and honey, but he cooks it.  He told me the ratio of halvah to honey he uses, but I can’t find it.  In any case, I got the feeling he was leaving something out–some secret that he wasn’t willing to divulge.  His halvah was better than mine, but not really all that great.


  1. Katrina said,

    I ground sesame seeds in my spice grinder and used that instead of flour. It came out a bit soft, but I think it just needed more “flour”. I’ll try again soon and let you know if I come up with a good recipe.

  2. Lorna said,

    I bought a 5# bag of organic white sesame seeds through our food-buying co-op. While I was putting it into smaller jars for freezing I got a craving for halvah. I looked at several recipes online and decided to try this one because I didn’t want to cook it and I liked the ingredients in the recipe. I didn’t toast the seeds. I omitted the sesame oil. I used a food processor first to thoroughly grind the seeds, then added the honey, spices, vanilla and melted butter through the chute. I ran the processor until all the ingredients formed a big mass. I pressed it into an 8×8 glass baking dish, cut it with a sharp knife, and my husband and I devoured several pieces. Totally delicious!

    Then I made a second batch, adding previously ground nori and wakame (seaweed). This tasted decidedly different and equally scrumptious!

    This recipe can be played with – I’m considering wasabi powder for my next batch!

    Thank you!

  3. Esther Nelson said,

    What I would like to do is find out ways to USE halvah, not to make it. What do people do, sit and eat it with a spoon or what? Someone gave me some and it was too sweet and too rich, so I tried putting it on toast, but it tore the toast. I thinned it with Sesame oil and that helped make it spread.

    Then I tried devising more recipes. I used it to thicken a sauce instead of using flour for a family member who is gluten intolerant. What I didn’t know is that it contains wheat. But the sauce was delicious and the gluten OK folks used it. I melted lots of butter, some grated mozzarella, and added half-and-half, so it was like Alfredo sauce, except that after it was warm, I added two heaping spoonfuls of halvah and let it melt and thicken the sauce. Then I corrected the salt and added some white pepper. It was great on spinach tortellini. Just enough nutty sweetness to give it a special flavor and everyone wanted to know what that was — nutmeg? fruit juice? Agave syrup? No, no and no. When I told them the “secret” they loved the idea.

    • captious said,

      Yes, actually, I just sit and eat it–usually without the spoon! It is rich and sweet, but that’s what I want from my desserts. But thanks for your ideas of how to use halvah in non-standard ways.

      By the way, I don’t think halvah typically contains wheat or other gluten-containing ingredients. Maybe the one you were given had wheat in it, but most traditional halvah does not.

  4. Esther Nelson said,

    Hey, Captious, the halvah I have does not have wheat in it, only sesame, sugar, citric acid and vanilla. It is made in Lebanon, the brand is Al Wadi, and they spell it “halawa.” I guess each region has its own version. I love it and that’s why I wanted to find out if there were other ways to use it.

    I’m going to try adding it to vanilla icing to put on top of cupcakes. Maybe even put some halvah into the cake batter itself.

    Americans are known for using “foreign” ingredients in ways the natives never thought of. When sushi became popular in the U.S. and some Californians began putting avocado in sushi rolls, the Japanese were sort of shocked, but the idea made its way back to Japan and now they import avocados to make “Karifornia roll” because they can’t grow avocado trees there.

    Mexican food here in Texas has evolved in ways the Aztecs never would have imagined, even to square tortillas (which roll much better and evenly) to make crab-filled enchiladas covered with sour cream and sprinkled with basil. Yummy. The Aztecs didn’t use cream or cheese, since they didn’t raise cattle or any other dairy animal, and basil was unknown.

    But of course not all foreign influences are good. The Europeans and Asians took to tobacco, a New World product, and now they smoke a lot more than folks in the Western Hemisphere.

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