The cuisines of the world offer a wide range of desserts outside the familiar canon of flaky and creamy Western pastries. One of the most common is halva or halwah, a name given to a variety of sweet and dense treats. They're found in a broad swath of countries spanning the Middle East, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and all the way east to India. Each region has its own signature version of the treat, incorporating local ingredients and flavorings.
A sesame-based version of halva is the most familiar in the U.S., arriving in the early 20th century along with a wave of Jewish immigrants. This form of halvah is very simple to make, consisting primarily of tahini -- ground sesame butter -- and sugar or honey. The sweetener must be cooked to the soft-ball stage, or 240 degrees Fahrenheit, to hold the confection together. Then, the two are simply stirred together and cooled. Depending on the proportions of sugar to sesame, the end result can be soft and fudge-like or slightly dry and crumbly. One common variation studs the confection with pistachios for their color and flavor; others add spices or dried fruits. In the Middle East, orange-blossom water and rose water are also common flavorings.
Beat the Durum
In Greece and Iran, as well as other countries through the region, the base used for halva is not sesame but various kinds of flour or semolina. In a step familiar to Western cooks, the flour must be cooked together with olive oil or butter until it thickens and browns to make a "roux." Once it reaches this stage, the cook adds flavorings and water, and cooks the whole mass -- beating and stirring it frequently -- until it reaches a polenta-like consistency. Then it can be pressed into molds or hand-shaped, and will retain its shape once cooled. Other traditional flavorings and garnishes include rose water, pistachios, and the same range of nuts or dried fruits found in sesame-based halva.
Sweet and Flower
Sesame-based halva is made throughout the mostly hot regions where the flowering sesame plant grows, but halva's popularity extends into colder areas. In more northerly portions of Eastern Europe, where sesame gives way to sunflowers as the oilseed of choice, local versions of halva -- not unreasonably -- switch to sunflowers as well. The fundamental technique remains the same. First, the sunflower seeds must be ground to a thick paste resembling peanut butter; then you stir in hot sugar syrup to create the familiar halva texture.
Sweet Your Vegetables
A very different form of halva is made on the Indian subcontinent. Semolina halva could be thought of as a sweet pudding that sets firmly, while Indian halwah remains pudding-like. It's 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 a signature note in Indian dessert-making; and the carrots lend the dessert a bright, cheerful color as well as a surprisingly fruity flavor. You can also make this halva with other sweet vegetables, such as squash or sweet potato.