The Other Sumptuous Halva
Besides sesame halva another popular sweet --also called ‘halva’ or 'helva'-- is made with semolina or other grains toasted in butter or olive oil.
In the traditional vegan Greek Halva Simigdalenio the grains are toasted in olive oil instead of butter as in the old Turkish helva. My dear friend, the brilliant chef Şemsa Denizsel recently published her take of this sumptuous helva with butter and milk. I am following here with our traditional olive oil version.
Substituting corn for the semolina you have a perfect, delicious, gluten-free sweet.
I have also come across old frugal confections of olive oil halva made with chickpea flour instead of semolina. The simple, yet enticing sweet is often prepared during Lent as it is vegan, with no eggs or dairy. Halvas simigdalenios used to be the free dessert offered at Greek taverns; but now it is replaced by yogurt topped with commercial preserves in the few taverns that still offer free dessert-bites…
Halva (or helvah) means ‘sweetmeat’ in Arabic and it can refer to several desserts. This richer halva is also popular in Iran, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf. The grains are sautéed in butter and then moistened with sugar or honey syrup to make a soft buttery confection.
In the 1862 Turkish Cookery Book by Turabi Efendi are listed several such helvãssi. Greek-Turkish author and researcher Marianna Yerasimos in her marvelous book 500 Years of Ottoman Cuisine has recipes for a few such sumptuous halvas. Unlike tahin helvãsi (sesame halva) which the Ottomans considered poor people’s sweet, according to Gerasimos, these grain confections are often moistened with elaborate syrups combined with milk and enriched with almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, and other nuts.
I make halva every now and then, following my mother’s recipe but using orange juice instead of water for the syrup. When I had to accommodate a guest who avoided gluten I decided to make it with yellow corn. I wasn’t expecting it but I liked the corn halva even more than our usual semolina one!
For the syrup:
1 cup water
4 cups orange juice
2 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon cloves
1 large piece of lemon or orange peel
2/3 cup light olive oil or 1/3 cup olive oil and 1/3 cup sunflower oil
1 cup fine semolina or yellow cornmeal
1 cup coarse semolina or polenta corn
1/2 cup almonds, blanched and quartered (optional)
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts (optional)
Ground cinnamon, for serving
Coarsely ground pistachios, for serving
First make the syrup.
In a pot bring to a boil the water and orange juice with the sugar, the cinnamon stick, the cloves, and the lemon or orange peel and simmer for 10 minutes.
Pass through a fine sieve and discard the cloves, the cinnamon stick and the peel.
In a heavy-bottomed pot warm the oil and add the semolina or corn.
Stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, cook the grain over medium heat for about 15 minutes or more, until the mixture starts to color. It is up to your taste how toasted you like the grains.
Add the almonds, walnuts or pine nuts, if using and sauté, turning just a few times.
Remove from the heat.
Very carefully, wearing kitchen gloves because the mixture will bubble vigorously, pour the syrup over the cooked grains, stirring once with the wooden spoon.
Cover the pot with a tea towel, and let sit for 10 minutes so that the grains absorb the syrup.
Spoon the mixture into one or several molds, and let cool completely before serving.
It can be stored, in the refrigerator wrapped in kitchen film, for up to 4 days or longer.
Unmold on a plate, sprinkle with cinnamon and pistachios and cut pieces to serve. Note that halva is quite a substantial sweet, so start with small pieces.