By Bonnie Fishman / San Francisco Bay Area
Every Sunday when I was growing up, my dad would pile his three little girls into his car (the fourth hadn’t been born yet!) and go to the car wash he shared ownership of with his brother-in-law Benny. Our reward for tagging along was receiving a small bar of halvah wrapped in chocolate. I was smitten from the first bite! Fortunately for us, Dad clued in Pro, his longtime friend and University of Michigan baseball teammate (1939-42), that we enjoyed such delicacies. Whenever Pro would visit our busy household in suburban Detroit during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, his coat pockets were filled with halvah bars.
That’s how I began my lifetime love affair with this Middle Eastern candy, made of crushed sesame seeds and sugar syrup. For the uninitiated, the texture is a bit sand-like. I know, it sounds unpleasant at best. I have offered it to people who have never had the pleasure and they make a face. I tell them “It’s an acquired taste and texture.” Well, I sure acquired the taste as a young girl and it’s been my weakness ever since.
Recipes for halvah were first developed in the fifteenth century in Persia, maybe even centuries before. The word is Arabic for sweet. Its popularity slowly spread across the Mediterranean. Now you can get halvah from Israel, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and most of the Arab nations, each claiming it as their own.
The taste and texture varies from country to country, but it is always recognizable as halvah. Popular flavors include vanilla, chocolate, vanilla chocolate marble (a crowd favorite!), pistachio, almond, or any combination of these. Nathan Radutsky, a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, began making halvah in his house back in 1907. The business quickly outgrew his house and eventually he had a thriving factory in Brooklyn in the 1950s. That’s when Radutsky named his product Joyva, the leading halvah manufacturer in the United States to this day.
I’ve had some memorable moments searching for halvah while traveling the world. One of my favorite memories is of the summer of 1973, when my school friend Margie and I hitchhiked (we did that back then!) around Europe. We landed in Athens, where I sought out a halvah shop, bought a hunk, and went straight to the Acropolis to enjoy the entire experience.
Fast forward to the 21st century, July 2015, when my sister Marcia and I flew to Tel Aviv for a cousin’s wedding. A visitor would be remiss if they didn’t visit the Carmel Market or the “Shuk,” one of the finest outdoor food markets in the world. Stall after stall offer fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, legumes, spices, and even clothing. I was strolling down an aisle and in the distance was the mecca of all meccas: a halvah stall. It almost had a halo over it! My heart began to palpitate at the possibilities with all of those flavors. How does one choose?
Now that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, my search is on for great halvah out west. I’m struggling with this task. My solution: when friends from Detroit come to visit, they ask “Do you want anything for here?” Of course! Go to Babylon, a lovely Arabic market in West Bloomfield, Mich., where they sell fresh hunks of halvah from a few different countries. Bring me some.
But be careful what you ask for. My old school friend Mitch took that request to heart. He bought me a 2.2 kilo block of halvah (5 pounds!) and stuffed it in his luggage. Of course the TSA stopped him when it went through screening. Is that a C-4 explosive in that bag?! As the agent removed it, she said “What is THAT?” Mitch replied, “Halvah, want some?” If that halvah block wasn’t enough, I received another 5-pound block in the mail, but a different flavor, . I shouldn’t be deprived.
The 10-pound gift of halvah inspired me for today’s column. Truth be told, the best way to eat halvah is to shave off pieces from the block. It has been a tradition of sorts at bar and bat mitzvahs in suburban Detroit to display a 10-pound wheel of it on the sweet table after dinner. Forget everything else, I zeroed in on the stuff.
Today, I am incorporating halvah chunks into dense chocolate brownies. What could be a better pairing? Take the liberty to try different flavors of halvah or to add nuts to the batter. Let us know here at The Insider what you come up with. Then call me…with your address!
Chocolate Brownies with Halvah
Yield: 16 pieces
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, cut into bits
4 oz. butter or margarine, room temperature
3/4 c. sugar
2 lg. eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 c. flour
1/4 c. cocoa powder
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 lb. vanilla or nut halvah
Preheat oven to 350°. Spray an 8” baking dish with pan release. Reserve.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave, being careful not to burn. Reserve.
In a mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar. Beat together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, allowing the first egg to fully blend in before adding the second. Stir in the melted cooled chocolate and vanilla.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the dry ingredients, using a wooden spoon or spatula. Spread batter into prepared pan. Cut up the halvah in 1/2” chunks. It will crumble, don’t worry. Distribute the chunks and crumble all over the top of the brownies.
Bake for 25-30 minutes. For fudge-like brownies, bake less. For cake-like brownies, leave in the oven longer. Cool completely in the pan. Remove the brownie square from the pan and put on a cutting board. Trim the edges. (Good snacks!) Cut into 16 squares. Serve at room temperature.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.