A dense, sweet confection, familiar to the Middle East, North Africa and the Jewish world, Halva, usually sweetened by sugar or honey, is typically made with tahini or semolina.
Israeli halva is made with tahini, ground sesame paste and mixed with sugar syrup, heated to 149 - 154 C /300 - 310 F, also known as the hard crack stage. Once mixed, flavours such as chocolate, vanilla and pistachio nuts are added. This type of halva is more crumblier in texture and almost always 'parve' as the only other ingredient added are the rootextracts of the Saponaria plant, making halva also a vegan dessert.
Halva made with semolina or a grain flour is typically found in Asia, where honey, vegetable oil and nuts or dried fruits are added to the semolina. It has a slightly gelatinous texture, rather similar to polenta.
Halwa is a popular vegetable based dessert in India and Pakistan, where root vegetables such as yam, beetroot or more commonly carrots, are mixed with mung beans instead of semolina and ghee to bind it all together, to produce a more moist but flaky confection.
Halva can be eaten on it's own as healthy snack or sweetmeat after a meal with a cup of coffee. It can also be used in cakes as in Ottolenghi's recipe for halva and walnut cake, and is also delicious when made into ice cream.
All over Israel you find market stalls and shops selling vast quantities of halva in large domes sold by the kilo or in shops packaged as individual blocks or snack bars of the different flavours. This is usually bought for relatives and friends as 'the taste of Israel'.
Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe for halva & walnut cake
85g unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing
100g caster sugar
2 medium eggs, lightly whisked
200g plain flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
130g soured cream
60g unsalted butter
120g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tsp ground cinnamon
25g dark muscovado sugar
170g sesame halva, broken into large, 3 cm pieces
heat the oven to 160C/320F/gas mark 2½ grease & line a 12cm x 25cm loaf tin
make the topping; melt the butter in a small saucepan until it's light brown & smells slightly nutty, cool & mix with the walnuts & cinnamon, divide in two, stir the muscovado sugar into one of the portions, breaking up the sugar evenly into the nuts
make the cake; cream the butter & sugar until light and fluffy, add the eggs slowly, sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda & a pinch of salt & add to cream mixture
spread half the batter into the cake tin and evenly scatter over the sugarless nut mix, dot the halva on top & spread the remaining batter over this & sprinkle the sugary nuts on top
bake for 40-45 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean