“It's fascinating how many parts of the world love halva,” says Rachel Simons. “You see it in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Croatia. There’s a whole world of people in Argentina and Brazil with fondness for halva, because they eat sweets made from peanuts with a similar texture.” Crackly pounded sesame confections are a treat in parts of China, too. And that’s not even accounting for halwa, a whole family of Indian sweets that share a historic lineage with Middle Eastern halva.
Yet for all its universal appeal, finding truly great halva isn’t easy. Even in the world’s halva capitals, mass-produced confections overrun small-batch versions made by hand using traditional methods. Industrial halva is often too dense, too sweet, too prone to weeping sesame oil well on its way to rancidity. So she and her friends, Lisa Menselson and Monica Molenaar, decided to bring their own to market.
The result of their efforts is Seed + Mill, a tahini boutique that combines traditional halva with not-so-traditional flavors. At their New York storefront, classic versions like pistachio or chocolate sit next to salted caramel, apple cinnamon, and black sesame. And eating these fresh, flaky sweets feels like tasting halva for the very first time.
“We wanted to breathe new life into something with this ancient history that no one else had put on the center stage,” Simons says. Written recipes for halva date to the 13th century, with some archeological evidence pointing to halva production millenia before that.
Halva comes in many forms. Some are based on wheat flour and oil; others on a paste of cooked semolina. Many Indian interpretations, called halwa, involve candied fruits or vegetables. The sesame version that most of us synonymize with the term “halva” is a relative newcomer, though its core recipe hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Making halva is a little like making fudge and taffy at the same time. To start, a maker carefully heats sugar syrup to blistering temperatures, then whips it into a meringue-like foam with the aid of egg whites or a plant-based extract called saponaria. Then they wield enormous spatulas to fold in streams of tahini, which sizzle and stretch into candy-like threads. It’s critical to mix this sticky mess evenly without mashing it into a pasty puddle; even miniscule missteps at this stage can snowball into burnt, greasy, or otherwise underwhelming halva.
“The real secret to making good halva is the skill of managing very precise temperature control and hand mixing,” Simons explains. “You have to be delicate or you lose the very unique texture that halvah is known for, it's like folding egg whites into cake batter.” For Seed + Mill’s halva, this delicate touch results in a lighter, fluffier product than typical machine-made versions. You can see the whispy threads in each slice, and pull them apart almost like cotton candy.
At the core of this halva is Seed + Mill’s remarkable tahini, which is ground from Ethiopian sesame seeds renowned for their high oil content and rich flavor. The seeds are roasted at a lower temperature than typical to highlight their sweet, nutty sesameness, and even with powerful halva flavors like rose or cardamom, this innate sesame character shines through.
Halva is traditionally eaten as-is, sometimes as part of a spread of dried fruits and nuts. But with halva this good, we’ve been finding all kinds of uses for it. Crumbled halva is a ready-made topping for ice cream, yogurt, or any saucy dessert. Or try baking chunks of it into a loaf cake topped with a twangy lemon glaze. But if your tastes run savory, sneak some slices of halva onto your next cheese plate. It’s the perfect thing to highlight the nutty notes of an aged cheddar or Gruyere. And a nugget of luscious halva is crazy good with fresh goat cheese.
A halva good time
Photos courtesy Seed + Mill.