“Another bite” is a series of occasional posts about food, presenting the delicious local products, tasty dishes and other gastronomic delights we encounter on our tours and cruises.
Along the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, from northern Africa and the southern Balkans eastwards to Lebanon and Syria, the desserts of each country contain more or less the same ingredients and are prepared along the same patterns. What distinguishes them, however, are slight variations in the manner that they are made, as well as the use of specific raw materials distinctive to a given region. Dried fruits, nuts, honey, filo pastry, rosewater, milk, butter, lemons, oranges and all kinds of fruit can be combined in multiple ways to create the tastes and aromas that are recognized as Anatolian desserts. This scope of variation within set patterns is what we call traditional cuisine.
For me, halva conjures up a sense of nostalgia and of family warmth - beyond that, it is one of the most famous traditional confections of Greece and of neighbouring Turkey, as well as of all the Middle East, frequently associated with family feasts, Sunday afternoons at home and the sugar-cinnamon scent of mum’s kitchen.
Alongside baklava, lokum (better known as Turkish Delight in English and loukoumi in Greek), rice pudding and many other sweets, halva can be (and is) served throughout the day, not just after meals, as a great accompaniment to go with a cup of coffee or tea. Its name derives from the Arabic world halawa, meaning “sweet”, a term that perfectly describes the taste, the occasionally sticky texture and finally the various modes of preparation, based on varying ingredients (semolina, sesame/tahini, rice etc). Moreover, halva often bears a religious and ceremonial significance: in Turkey it is also cooked as an offering to God and distributed among relatives and neighbours after a funeral ceremony, while in Greece it is traditionally prepared and consumed during Lent, as it contains just olive oil (no butter!).
On our tours in Greece and Turkey, you do - of course - have several opportunities to taste various versions of semolina halva, the most typical dessert across a wide range of cultures. My recipe, based on semolina, olive oil and sugar, is the most traditional version used in the Greek household - a recipe that stretches across generations, passing from mother to daughter and so on…. it is simple, easy to make and extremely delicious.
Its name, “Halva… 1, 2, 3, and 4” is a reference to the quantities of the main ingredients: 1 unit of oil, 2 of semolina, 3 of sugar and 4 of water.
So, here it is: a recipe and a taste that you will never forget!
Traditional Greek (semolina) halva… 1, 2, 3, and 4
(For a medium-sized cake tin or pudding mold)
1 cup olive oil
2 cups coarse semolina
For the syrup:
3 cups sugar
4 cups water
Peel of ¼ of a lemon
2 cinnamon sticks
Always measure the ingredients using the same cup.
Various additional ingredients can be added optionally, such as almonds, pine nuts or raisins. We frequently prepare halva with (raw) skinned almonds. Their quantity depends on your taste - I would use about a cup and a half of almonds.
The colour of halva depends on how much the semolina has been roasted. The more we roast the semolina, the darker and heavier becomes the halva. We tend to prefer a medium roast and golden-coloured semolina, which is lighter.
The only challenging point of the entire recipe is the need to stir continuously.
The syrup: In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the water, sugar, lemon peel and cinnamon sticks. Bring to the boil for 5 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer gently for another 5 minutes until the syrup forms bubbles. Remove the cinnamon sticks and lemon peel.
The semolina: Pour the oil into a larger saucepan and heat it until it starts simmering. Add the coarse semolina and almonds (optional) and cook, stirring continuously to prevent the mixture sticking to the pot. Continue for a few minutes, until the mixture begins to turn a golden colour.
Lower the heat and start to add the hot syrup to the semolina mixture carefully and gradually (using a ladle). For the next 10-15 minutes, stir continuously. The semolina is going to bubble, so be careful not to burn yourself. Continue to stir and cook until the semolina has absorbed all of the liquid.
Once the mixture is ready – solid and golden coloured – remove it from the heat, cover the pot with a kitchen towel and set it aside to cool and dry out for 10 minutes.
Spoon the mixture into a cake tin (or pudding mould) and allow it to cool down to room temperature. Remove from the mould and sprinkle with cinnamon - your semolina halva is ready to be served!
While halva contains some nutrients, it is a candy with a high sugar content and may not be the healthiest option. But it can serve as a sweet in a healthy and balanced diet.