I remember the first time I tasted halvah. I was still living in New Orleans, and it was my first time in New York. And I loved it—it tasted really good, but what struck me was the texture, all those crisp layers that break apart and melt in your mouth. While there are many candies called halvah (or some version of that spelling) from all over the world, the classic Israeli halvah is a mixture of sugar and sesame paste (tahini).
I've been taking a class called "The Science of Cooking," and it happened that last week was "candy week," so I thought, what about halvah? And there was this jar of almond butter in the pantry, calling to me.
This looks like a really simple recipe—and it is, but as they say, simple doesn't mean easy. Over-blend the almond butter and the sugar and you get a hard brick. (There is one sitting in my garbage can as we speak.) Most recipes call for cooking the sugar to the soft ball stage, which would seem to prevent that, but unfortunately, what you get is fudge—not those sweet little crunchy/soft layers that are the very definition of halvah. However, if you cook the sugar to the hard ball stage (260° F) AND blend the nut butter in gently and minimally, that's where the magic happens. And when you break into it and see those layers—so exciting.
Please note: You can make a smaller amount if you want by decreasing the sugar and almond butter but keeping the same ratio. But don't use less than 1/2 cup of water to cook the sugar syrup.
You can wrap this and keep it in the refrigerator almost indefinitely. The halvah does get softer and more fudgelike after a few days, but it is still delicious. —drbabs
Test Kitchen Notes
WHO: Drbabs is a Food52 veteran based in Austin, Texas.
WHAT: The classic Middle Eastern candy halvah trades in tahini for almond butter.
HOW: Fold almond butter into a boiling sugar syrup, pour it into a pan, and coat it with melted chocolate and slivered almonds.
WHY WE LOVE IT: Halvah maintains its buttery flakiness even when you swap almond butter for tahini; it's as crispy and crumbly as ever. (Now we're thinking about all the other nut butter halvahs we could try!) And since it's dairy-free, the vegans in your life will thank you for offering up a decadent treat they can also indulge in. (But if you're serving it to vegans, be sure you're using a vegan sugar! We like Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Sugar or Trader Joe's Organic Sugar.) —The Editors
8 inch pan of candy
1 1/2 cups
almond butter (should be ground almonds only; no sweeteners or stabilizers)
bittersweet chocolate; I used Ghiradelli 60% baking chips
Heavily butter or spray an 8-inch cake pan (or you can use an 8X8 square or a loaf pan). You can also line it with parchment or foil.
Pour sugar, water, and kosher salt into a medium saucepan and place over low heat. Stir gently until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high and insert a candy thermometer. Let the syrup boil without touching it while you prepare the almond butter.
In a small saucepan, stir the vanilla extract into the almond butter and warm to about 130° F. (Heat it until it's very warm but you can still touch it—if you don't have another thermometer.)
As the sugar syrup boils, the sugar will become more and more concentrated, and the temperature will increase more rapidly. Watch it carefully and don't stir it (or you will get crystallized sugar instead of hot syrup). As soon as the temperature reaches 260° F, take it off the heat. Gently fold the almond butter into the sugar syrup until it is barely mixed together. You may see streaks of syrup in the mixture; that's okay. (It's actually what you're going for.)
Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan. Smooth the top and refrigerate it till it is firm to the touch. (Overnight is fine.)
Melt chocolate and pour onto the halvah. Spread it evenly and sprinkle it with flaky sea salt and toasted sliced almonds. Put it back into the refrigerator to harden.