A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we're putting a peanut-buttery spin on halvah.
I grew up in a Jewish family, which is to say, I grew up in a brisket–latke–matzo ball soup family. But not a halvah family. Though increasingly popular, this crumbly candy has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation and, to put it lightly, my mom hates it. So it took awhile (years! decades!) to realize that I madly, deeply, truly love it.
The world halvah “is derived from the Arabic world halwa, meaning ‘sweetmeat,’ and it is believed to have originated in Turkey as a flour-and-sugar-based candy,” writes blogger, cookbook author, and halvah champion Molly Yeh in The 100 Most Jewish Foods. “As it spread throughout the Middle East and Asia, variations made with other ingredients like ground nuts, seeds, carrots, and semolina were popularized.”
The sesame version that Americans know today took hold in the U.S. thanks to Eastern European Jews, immigrating in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’d like to think my great-great grandma Anna was one of them, devouring halvah every chance she could, like me.
At its most basic, halvah has two ingredients: tahini (sesame seed paste) and sugar syrup (sugar plus water). But modern shops love to have fun with their flavors. Just look at Seed + Mill, founded in 2016 and based in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. They sell dark chocolate halvah (and sea salt dark chocolate! and chocolate orange!). And cinnamon and ginger and raspberry and rose oil.
But what if, instead of adding something, we swapped something? What if, instead of tahini, we used peanut butter? What then?
Turns out, the process stays exactly the same: You cook sugar-water until it reaches 245°F, aka the firmball stage, right above the softball stage, which is where you’d stop for something like fudge; halvah takes things further to yield its signature, flaky, Butterfinger-esque texture. Then you combine this sugar syrup with peanut butter for just shy of 30 seconds—no more!—any longer and the candy turns out too crumbly. After transferring this mixture to a loaf pan, let it cool as long as you can (for me, this usually means a couple hours, give or take, then I cave).
Of course, you could have peanut butter halvah plain and be a happy camper. But I couldn’t resist swirling in some chocolate, peanut butter’s best friend (as confirmed by Reese’s, this mousse, and these cookies). And, if we’re swirling in some chocolate, we might as well add more on top, right? Right.
You already know that you can eat halvah in slices. And you should! But you can also fold pieces into brownie, blondie, or waffle batter. Or crumble it on top of ice cream or Greek yogurt. Or give it to my mom. Because even she loves it.
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.
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