If you have nothing to talk about one day, ask your local culinary experts what halvah is and where it originated. You might be surprised at the answers.
The Larousse Gastronomique, for example, states that "halvah or halva" is "an Eastern sweetmeat based on roasted sesame seeds, which are ground into a smooth paste (tahini), then mixed with boiled sugar." But lots of people would disagree.
According to Joyva, the company that is synonymous with halvah in the United States: "The year was 1905. The place was a small town in Russia called Kiev. The man was Nathan Radutzky, a simple 22-year-old entrepreneur with a recipe and an idea. What he held was a recipe for one of the oldest-known confections in the world. It was eaten by kings and Titans, and princes and sultans. It also tasted really, really good. That recipe was halvah."
The idea was to produce it in the United States. Halvah has been called the "Food of the Gods." An ancient Turkish confection dating back 3,000 years was about to be refined, reinterpreted and reinstated as the food of choice among the eastern European immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Halvah, which means "sweet meat" in Turkish, was going to get a modern twist.
In 1907, the first batch of halvah was produced on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where you can still buy it today. The Joyva Corporation, in its 99th year of operation, is still a family-run business headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Some would disagree about the origins, as well as the recipe. The word halvah (alternatively halwa, halva, halava, helva, halawa, elwa, etc.), originally derived from the Arabic root alw ("sweet"), is used to describe many distinct types of confections across the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and the Balkans. Halva based on semolina is popular in India, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Another common type, based on tahini (sesame paste), is more popular in the eastern Mediterranean and Balkan regions, in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Greece, Cyprus, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Macedonia, Albania, Northern Cyprus, Syria, Central Asia, the Caucasus region and Turkey.
Halvah may also be made from a variety of other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils and vegetables, like carrots, pumpkins, yams and squashes.
Jewish-type halvah is a rich paste of ground sesame seeds and honey formed into a loaf or sold in 3.5 oz. bars. That's the kind I remember buying as a child for a nickel in Plittman's deli in Minneapolis.
In the United States, halvah is usually sold prepackaged, but in Israeli markets like Jerusalem's Machane Yehudah, slices are cut and sold by weight.
The varieties seem endless -- halvah can contain dried fruit and spices like cinnamon, pistachio nuts, orange juice, vanilla and can even be chocolate-covered.
It really doesn't matter where it originated, or what the "original" halvah was made out of. Eat it plain or use as a rich ingredient in many delectable delights.
Achva, Israel's largest producer of halvah, shared the first recipe.
'Achva' Petit Fours
Slice halvah into 1-inch slices; cut each slice into 4 quarters. Dip each quarter into melted chocolate.
Remove immediately. Place on a cooling rack over a tray.
Press a walnut or an almond atop each, or sprinkle with crushed pistachio nuts.
When the chocolate dries, arrange slices on serving platter.
3 eggs 1/3 cup sugar
1 cup whipping cream
2 tsps. vanilla extract
2 bars (7 oz. each) halvah
Separate the eggs and whisk whites until stiff. Add sugar, a spoonful at a time, and whisk in.
Beat yolks slightly. Add to the mixture with vanilla, carefully mixing through.
Beat whipping cream in separate bowl; fold into egg mixture.
Crumble halvah and fold into egg/cream mixture.
Pour into loaf pan lined with parchment paper and freeze.
Before serving, turn out onto serving plate and drizzle with melted chocolate (optional).
Chocolate Halvah Delight
This "cake" doesn't require baking; it's also not low-calorie!
1 package (8 oz.) simple, rectangular pareve cookies (vanilla- or chocolate-flavored)
2 sticks unsalted margarine, at room temperature, broken
31/2 oz. halvah bar, crumbled
7 Tbsps. sugar
5 Tbsps. water
2 Tbsps. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. honey
5 oz. pareve chocolate chips
Place one layer of cookies (about 1/3 of package) in a 3x7x11-inch plastic container (or in any square pan).
Combine remaining ingredients in a medium saucepan over very low heat, stirring continually until melted and thick. Watch carefully that the mixture does not become scorched!
Spread 1/3 of the chocolate-halvah mixture over prepared cookies. Top with another third of the cookies and another layer of chocolate-halvah. Repeat with the remaining layer.
Cover and put into refrigerator to harden. Remove from the fridge and cut into squares.
Courtesy of the Israel Foreign Affairs Web site, this dish was invented by Israeli chefs Tsachi and Linda Buchester.
1 cup whipping cream
6 Tbsps. sugar
6 egg yolks
2 Tbsps. Amaretto liqueur
5 oz. halvah, broken into small pieces
Whip the sweet cream in a bowl until it forms stiff peaks.
In a small saucepan, mix the sugar with 6 tablespoons of water and boil for 5 minutes.
Remove from heat. Let cool.
Place the sugar-water mixture in the top of a double boiler, over hot but not boiling water, and add egg yolks and Amaretto.
Mix with a hand mixer without stopping until mixture is thick in texture and lighter in color and begins to form a foam on the surface.
Remove from the heat, transfer to a bowl and add the halvah.
Mix on high for 15 minutes, then fold in the whipped cream, mixing gently with a spatula until mixture is even throughout.
Transfer mixture to a loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap or parchment paper. Place in the freezer for 6 to 8 hours.
Serve in thick slices.
Rivka Tal is a food writer based in Jerusalem.