Greek/Middle-Eastern Cuisine/Halva

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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.
Ingredients:
•   Sesame tahini
•   Sugar
•   Water
•   Saponaria extract
•   Flavors
•   Nuts

•   The sesame tahini must be very fine milled/ground to the consistency of thick flowing paste. Standing undisturbed for a white, some oil will be segregated, covering the paste. Mechanical stirring returns it to the initial condition. The sesame seeds are used either raw, or slightly roasted. They must be hulled, white in appearance.
•   I believe that the sugar used to make the sugar syrup make use of 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, but I doubt it.
•   Old fashioned manufacturers use saponaria extract as an important additive. Saponaria, as it name implies, is kind of a natural detergent, or a surface active agent, extracted from the roots of a perennial herb called saponaria, 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. 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.
•   Most Halva's are flavored with Vanilla, cocoa or rose-water.
•   High-end halva may contain pistachios, walnuts or almonds added.

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 some cases the text indicates that the sugar syrup is whipped with the saponaria extract, obtaining thick foam. 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 don't know the appropriate ratios of sugar to tahini, although the lower the sugar content, the higher ranked halva is obtained. 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.

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.



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,
Yossi  

Answer
Dear Yossi,

Thank you for your extremely informative essay on helva. I agree with you that it is an amazing food and that in Turkey, Koska is the best brand. There was also an excellent brand found in the USA which I cannot remember the name of.

Notice that in Turkey, the generic term 'helva' also includes flour, semolina, and nut based concoctions without any sesame paste.

I'd be interested in featuring your information in one of our upcoming newsletters with complete credits to you.  Therefore if you can email me the PDF files to info to the address on our website at www.southerncrossbluecruising.com, that would be great.

I'd also be interested in reading a similar write up about hummus.

Thank you and best wishes.
Dina

Greek/Middle-Eastern Cuisine

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Dina Street

Expertise

I can answer questions relating to the history of the Turkish cuisine, specific recipes for home cooking and traditional methods of preparation and serving.

Experience

I am half Turkish and have spent the last 17 years in Turkey, having operated two businesses in the food catering industry.

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Regular restaurant reviewer and food writer for the Bodrum Observer newspaper

Education/Credentials
B.A. Near Eastern Studies (UC Berkeley) specializing in Turkish language and literature

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