Before tahini became an “it” ingredient and halvah the sweet of the moment, our family munched the stuff every Sunday morning after our weekly bagels and lox brunch, back when I was a kid in Brooklyn.
At first, we ate the plain kind of halvah, cut from a giant cake, and dotted with the occasional almond or pistachio. But once we discovered slices of chocolate-spiked seven-layer halvah, we never went back. As soon as we were done eating our fill of smoked salmon and cream cheese (and a small, crisp, half-sour pickle for me), we descended upon dessert, nibbling away at the halvah until the chocolate melted on our fingers and all over our newspapers (the New York Times for my parents, the Daily News with the comics for my sister and me) and the sugary shards got stuck in our teeth. No matter how large a slice we bought at the appetizing store, we always managed to finish it all as our Sunday wore on. Just one more tiny piece, we’d tell ourselves as the chunk dwindled into crumbs. Before you knew it, it was all gone.
I forgot about chocolate seven-layer halvah for a few years when I went to college and focused on other sweets. Like the buttery shortbread recipe I perfected and can now bake in my sleep (okay, not in my sleep, but definitely in a sleepy, Sunday morning, pre-caffeinated state without a recipe, which speaks to its inherent simplicity).
Then one day, when I was a grown-up food writer creating recipes for publication, it occurred to me to combine the two confections into a delightfully crumbly whole. Thus this shortbread-halvah hybrid was born, and it was utterly delicious—a little salty, a little chocolatey, with a dense, nut-like character from the tahini and a pleasingly sticky sweetness from the halvah.
Now, here’s the bad part of the story.
When I first published the recipe in my cookbook, In The Kitchen With A Good Appetite, I somehow left out the sugar. Bakers were not happy, of course, to have gone to all that effort for naught. They sought out the halvah! They wasted the chocolate! And it was all my fault. Every time an email with the subject line: “mistake in recipe” appeared in my inbox, my stomach seized up. I felt terrible.
This is the correct version, with the 1/2 cup (106g) light brown sugar back where it should be in the ingredient list, under the flour, before the salt. Apologies to all the cooks out there for the previous mistake! Now is my chance to make it right.
In its original and correct form, this recipe is a staple at our house during the holidays, perfect for both Hanukkah and Christmas—and any other festive gathering that demands a cookie that’s just sweet enough. Once you add the sugar, that is. —Melissa Clark
Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Line an 8 x 8-inch (20 x 20cm) square baking pan with parchment paper.
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, and salt just to combine. Add the butter, tahini, and vanilla. Pulse together until a crumbly dough forms.
Press the dough into the prepared pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Use a fork to poke holes the dough. Bake until the top is light golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes.
Scatter the chocolate pieces on top of the shortbread. Turn off the heat and return the pan to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes to soften the chocolate. Using an offset spatula, spread the softened chocolate into an even layer over the shortbread. Sprinkle with the crumbled halvah and allow to cool to room temperature in the pan before cutting.
Melissa Clark writes about cuisine and other products of appetite. After brief forays working as a cook in a restaurant kitchen, and as a caterer out of her fifth floor walk-up, Clark decided upon a more sedentary path. She earned an M.F.A. in writing from Columbia University, and began a freelance food writing career. Currently, she is a food columnist for the New York Times, and has written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Every Day with Rachel Ray, and Martha Stewart, amongst others. All told, Clark has written over 30 cookbooks.
Clark was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where she now lives with her husband, Daniel Gercke, their preschool daughter Dahlia, and their formerly cosseted cat.