Lemon-Vanilla Halvah (Middle-East Sesame Candy) - Easy No-Mixer Recipe

Halvah.  Unlike the Indian Carrot Halva (pudding) dessert I shared (and spelled differently) a while back, this halvah is a middle-eastern fudge-like confection.  The basic version is made from sweetened tahini (ground up sesame seeds).   You can buy it plain, with chopped nuts or coated with chocolate, just to name two.   While there is a local vendor in a nearby farmer's market that carries 5 or so different kinds, In Israel some places sell handmade halvah in as many as 100 different flavors!

To tell the truth, I grew up not caring much for halvah.  Back then the only kind I knew about was that store-bought stuff:  dry, gritty and crumbly, with a yukky aftertaste .. and not in a good way either.  Even the chocolate coated style didn't save it.  So I'm not even sure why this recipe called out to me. But hoo-boy! I am sure glad it did!

Homemade halvah is insanely good!  Smooth melt-in-your-mouth delicious, without that manufactured gritty taste.  The version I made here has refreshing lemon notes, with a hint of vanilla.  Much too good for kids.   My first attempt was slightly crumbly on the edges, but that was my fault since I over-beat the mixture.   I've since learned to judge it better with this little secret:

When the ingredients are just about all mixed together ... stop.

Just. Stop.

Yeah, I know, it's like asking someone if this train goes to Avenue N, and the guy helpfully answers, "Sure!  Watch me, and get off the stop before I do."  

But seriously, better to understir a bit than over.  But if you overdo it, the flavor is not all affected, only the consistency, so you'll want to make it again.  And again. 

And then a third time, but with chocolate swirled through.  Yum! 😋 

Bonus!  Check the end of the recipe below on how to make this chocolate marble version.

Oh, yeah, one more thing to a successful halvah.  If you are handy enough to judge sugar syrup consistency by the softball stage method, be my guest.  Otherwise (if you are like me), you'll need a candy thermometer for better accuracy.

Just one little square is the perfect little dessert.  Or maybe two squares.  Okay, maybe a handful ...

Lemon-Vanilla Halvah
Adapted from The New York Times
For a chocolate marble version, see note below recipe

2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cold water
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 (16-18 oz) container 100% tahini (about 1 ½ cups), stirred if separated
1/8 tsp. kosher salt

Snip, snip, here ... snip, snip, there

1.  Line an 8- x 8-inch baking pan as best you can with ungreased parchment paper cut to fit the bottom and up the sides a couple inches.  It doesn't have to sit perfectly since the weight of the mixture will eventually do push it down (gravity works!).   But if the parchment really fights you, very lightly spritz a spot on the bottom of the pan with cooking spray, then try again.

2.  Combine sugar and lemon zest with 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Let mixture simmer, without stirring, until temperature registers 245F on a candy thermometer (soft ball stage if you don't have a thermometer). Remove from heat.

3.  While sugar mixture is heating, microwave tahini in a 1 quart microwavable bowl for 30 seconds or until slightly warm to touch.  Remove from microwave; stir in vanilla extract and salt.

4.  Slowly pour cooked sugar mixture over the tahini, stirring it in as you do with a wooden spoon until just combined, a minute or less.  Be sure to stir up from the bottom.  Do not over mix. If you think it needs just another stir or two, DON'T! It's done.  It will seem thin, but will start to thicken up VERY quickly.

Totally worth the wait!

5.  Immediately pour mixture into prepared pan.  If necessary, gently smooth into corners. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate a few hours to overnight. Cut into small squares and serve.

Store, tightly covered in the refrigerator.  Remove at least 1/2 hour before serving.   Oh, to heck with it ... enjoy straight out of the fridge!

Note:  for a chocolate marble version, omit lemon zest.   After step 4, pour 4 oz. of melted semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate over the mixture, then quickly swirl the chocolate around a few times with the wooden spoon.  Don't overdo it, the mixture will marbleize itself a bit more during the pouring step.  Then continue with step 5.