Cuisines of the world offer unique desserts beyond flaky and creamy Western pastries and cakes. One of the most common is halva (also known as halvah or halwah), a variety of sweet and dense treats found in the Middle East, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and all the way east to India. Each region has its own signature version with local ingredients and flavors.
A sesame-based version of halva is the most familiar in the U.S. It arrived in the early 20th century along with a wave of Jewish immigrants.
Jewish halvah is very simple to make—the main ingredients are tahini (ground sesame butter) and sugar or honey. The sweetener is cooked to the soft-ball stage, or to 240 degrees Fahrenheit, to hold the confection together. Then, the tahini and sweetener are stirred together and cooled. Depending on the ratio of sugar to sesame, the halva can be soft and fudge-like or slightly dry and crumbly.
The confection is sometimes encrusted with pistachios for more color and flavor; other variations add spices or dried fruits. In the Middle East, orange-blossom water and rosewater are also used to add depth of flavor.
In Greece and Iran, the base for halva is semolina or various kinds of flour. The flour is cooked together with olive oil or butter until it thickens and browns into a roux. Then, flavorings and water are added, and the mixture is cooked while beating and stirring it frequently until it reaches a consistency similar to polenta. The mixture can be pressed into molds or shaped by hand, and halva retains the shape once cooled.
Other traditional flavorings and garnishes include rosewater, pistachios and the same range of nuts or dried fruits found in sesame-based halva.
Sesame halva is made throughout hot regions where the flowering sesame plant grows, but the confection's popularity extends into colder areas, too. In more northerly parts of Eastern Europe, sunflowers are more common, and therefore used for halva instead of sesame.
The fundamental technique for making it is the same. First, sunflower seeds must be ground to a thick paste like peanut butter; then hot sugar syrup is stirred in.
A very different form of halva is made in India. While semolina halva starts as a sweet pudding that sets firmly, Indian halwah remains pudding-like. Halwah is made from a sweet vegetable, most commonly carrots, shredded and cooked in a thick base of sugar, cardamoms and boiled milk or cream. The flavors of cardamom and concentrated milk are signature notes in Indian desserts; and the carrots lend a bright, cheerful color and a surprisingly fruity flavor. Halwah can also be made with other sweet vegetables like squash or sweet potato.