Greek/Middle-Eastern Cuisine/Curious about Halva
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if anyone will shed some more light on this enigma,
which I am sure, must be very simple (eventually).
My name is Yossef [Yossi] Gofer. I am an electrochemist and surface science spectroscopist in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. I am also an enthusiastic cook, in particular Thai and south-east cuisine and Italian. However, I love experimenting with all sort of unusual cooking, especially those things that are made commercially and often seems beyond the scope of home kitchen.
There are two enigmatic goods that I have never been able to unravel its secrets, but I've got the feeling that the key to the mystery shouldn’t be anywhere as hidden as the Stone of the Wise. The two intriguing goods are Halva and Humus. Interestingly, both foods are interconnected through one of their key ingredients: sesame tahini.
I will start with the more enigmatic and intriguing one, Halva.
Halva [also named halvah, helva, helwa, helvah, etc.] is a Mediterranean sweetmeat made almost entirely of sugar and sesame tahini. The later is basically ground and milled sesame seeds paste (either raw or slightly roasted), the sesame analogue of peanut butter. The very best Halva's are made in Turkey and in Israel, both by Israeli Arabs or Israeli manufacturers. I consider the high-end Turkish halva made by "Koska" to be the best.
As to halva, the world is divided into two types of humans (just like the case of okra…) those that are addicted to this heavenly stuff, and those that can't stand it. Most humans belong to the first group, provided that they got acquainted with this delicious invention.
Before I continue, I'd like to emphasize two very important aspects: first, I am interested ONLY is sesame halva. There are other dishes called halva, mainly from India, Iran, some of the 'stan' nations east of Russia and Greece. These other dishes are very simple and web and cookbooks have all the information needed to prepare them. Second, REAL halva worth its name ONLY of it acquires the solid-crumbly dry consistency. There are a vast amount of recipes that use tahini and sugar (or, worse, honey), both is popular and professional cooking books, as well as on the web, but unfortunately, without exception, they result is a sweet and gooey mass. They usually boast, indeed, the flavor of halva, but without the crumbly-gritty texture it's like eating sweetened butter instead of enjoying fool bodied whipped cream…
For those who are interested, I will draw an overlook of information I gathered regarding real halva, although, obviously it lacks a secret essential ingredient, most probably concerning the preparation method.
• Sesame tahini
• Saponaria extract
• The sesame tahini must be very fine milled/ground to the consistency of thick, semi-flowing paste. Standing undisturbed for a white, some oil will be segregated, ascending above the paste. Mechanical stirring restores the initial condition. The sesame seeds are used either raw, or slightly roasted. They must be hulled, white in appearance. This sesame paste/butter is sold (at least in Israel) as "raw tahina", and it's usually made into tahini (tahini salad) by vigorously mixing with water, lemon juice and spices.
• I think that the sugar used to make the sugar syrup is normally regular white sugar. I don’t thing corn syrup is being used here, as it is the partial crystallization of sugar that contributes to the desired texture. It might be that during the sugar cooking into syrup acid is added, like lemon or tartaric acid, which will "invert" some of the sugar. In some cases there are indication for the use of glucose and glucose syrup.
• Old fashioned manufacturers use saponaria extract as an essential additive. Saponaria, as it name implies, is kind of a natural detergent, (surface active agent) extracted from the roots of a perennial herb called saponaria, Saponaria officinalis, soapwort, bouncing betty, Sweet William or helwa-root. Its role is critical in the halva manufacturing, presumably emulsifying the oily sesame paste with the sugar syrup, thus both imparting appealing light color to the solid "emulsion" and somehow creating the desired texture. As such, it also acts as stabilizer. I have noticed that some modern manufacturers substitute other emulsifying agents, such as mono and diglycerides for saponaria. Some amateur recipes call for egg whites for this purpose, but I wouldn’t take this substitution seriously. I got the impression that saponaria extract is added at a rate of less than 1 percent, e.g. 0.5%.
• Most Halva's are flavored with Vanilla, cocoa or rose-water.
• High-end halva may contain whole or broken pistachios, walnuts or almonds.
• Many recipes, in particular amateurish and those found on the web, list various additional ingredients, such as flour, corn flour, gelatin, milk solids, semolina, molasses, etc. I am pretty sure that professional halva maker doesn't use these in sesame halva. Frequently, sugarophobia stricken naturalists proposes the use of "more natural" sources of sweetness, like honey, molasses and brown sugar. All these is fair, but they do not yield the flaky-crumbly-gritty solid halva that produced by professionals. BTW, there are professional manufacturers that developed sugarless halva, probably substituting sugar for sorbitol, xylitol, etc., with or without sucarlose, aspartame, etc.
The most probable preparation method scheme should be something like this: sugar syrup is boiled to the appropriate temperature (or water content) like in candy making.. Usually the texts indicate something around "soft ball" and "hard ball" stage. In "Snack Food" 138C is indicated. In some cases the text indicates that the sugar syrup is whipped with the saponaria extract, obtaining thick foam "frappe", just like in nougat making. Then, the tahini and the hot sugar saponaria syrup/foam are mixed by beating thoroughly, until some stage, at which the viscous mass is poured to molds for hardening. I believe that the right way of mixing, as well as the extent, is of great importance for the realization of the appropriate texture. In one instance, for example, the writers call linear motion kind of mixing, indicating that circular mixing is bad. In another account the term used in kneading, mentioning that the proper kneading time is of great importance. In "Snack Food", the best reference I know of, they indicate that it is not mixing, but rather lamination by lapping and starching with spatula that makes the trick. I don't know the appropriate ratios of sugar syrup to tahini, although the lower the sugar content, the higher graded halva is considered (just like with chocolate). Also, I don’t know is the tahini added at room temperature, or heated, and if the sugar syrup-tahini is cooked together while beaten.
There is another variety of halva, called "halva strands", stranded halva" or "hair halva". It is basically the same halva, but in its processing they aim at very airy, long threaded product. It has similar texture, in that it is also solid, brittle and gritty. However, it looks and feels like hair or wool (resembles sugar cotton). The drawback of these halva, at least all those that I had tasted, is that are always considerably sweeter than the block-halva, and exhibits much less intense halva flavor.
Anyway, I guess that somewhere here, in the preparation section, the key to the ancient secret is missing…
I have some PDF documents dealing with Halva prep, if you are interested. Also, I have a bag of powdered Halva-root (saponaria) that I am more then wiling to share for the experimenter.
• Gordon Booth, Ed. "Snack food", AVI Books, NY NY 1990, pp. 101-102.
• Petkoff, Nic. "Composition of the Oriental Foodstuffs, Bosa, Halva and Locoum", Sofia. Z. offentl. Chem. (1908), 14, 205-8.
• Baylan, N. Artik, N. Cemeroglu, B. "Saponin content of tahini halvas dessert", Doga: Turk Tarim ve Ormancilik Dergisi (1993), 17(3), 785-800.
• Hashem, H.; Osman, M. A.; Shaheen, A.; Khalifa, A. A."Production of Halva tahinia from sunflower (Helianthus annuus) seeds. III. Chemical, sensory and keeping quality evaluation of the produced halva", Egyptian Journal of Food Science (1991), 19(1-2), 199-208.
• Sawaya, Wajih N., Khalil, Jehangir K., Ayaz, Mohammad, Al-Mohammad, Mahmoud M. "Chemical composition and nutritional quality of halva", Nutrition Reports International (1985), 31(2), 389-97.
• "Yearbook of the Faculty of Agriculture", Ankara Üniversitesi Ziraat Fakültesi, 1951, p. 138
• Alice Arndt, "Seasoning savvy: how to cook with herbs, spices, and other flavorings", Haworth Press, NY. 1999, p. 215.
• Peled R., , Mannheim C. H., Peleg Y, "Evaluation of Halva peocessing conditions and two stabilizers on the quality of product" Israel Journal of Technology, 9, 6, 1971 pp. 617-620.
• Krylova, E. N.; Savenkova, T. V. "Method of halva production" Russ. (2009), RU 2354130 C2 20090510
• Kochetova, L. I., Blagodatskikh, V. E., Aksenova, L. M., Savenkova, T. V., Khodak, A. P. "Method of halva production" Russ. (2008), RU 2335135 C1 20081010
I apologize for the length of the email, however, I couldn't find better way to convey all the essential information.
Thank you in advance,
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Also would be interested in your hummus comments. I will post the helva article in our next company newsletter to see if anyone has something to say.