September 6th, 2010
Halva—the kind made with semolina—is one of my favorite Greek desserts (it might actually be Turkish in origin). I get to eat it just a few times a year, at family get togethers and on the rare occasion I encounter it on a menu. But I’ve only tried making it recently, and the first time was a disaster.
I tend not to trust most online Greek recipes and I don’t have any Greek cookbooks. I figure that my family is my most reliable source of Greek recipes. But, when I recently found a recipe for semolina halva on the Food Network site, I couldn’t resist. Partly, I was surprised—and, oddly, proud—to find a recipe that seemed so much like something I grew up with. And partly I couldn’t wait any longer for my family to come through on a recipe.
Though I’m sure the recipe is great, it totally failed me. I must have done something wrong. Or maybe I was comparing it too closely to my grandmother’s halva. Either way, I didn’t like it and didn’t try again. Until this weekend, when I finally got a recipe from my great aunt, an insanely talented home cook and the keeper of our family’s culinary history.
Thrilled to finally have her on the line, I grabbed my computer, the phone folded in the crick of my neck, and got ready to take notes. She began, “You need about 1 cup semolina. You know, I use the tall glasses to measure. The ones for water. Use one of those.”
I should have expected this. After my grandmother passed away, my mother and I prepared to absorb the secrets hidden in yiayia’s cooking notebook. We nestled together and, feeling wistful, leafed through the recipes. “Doesn’t that mean teacup?” I asked, unsure of my Greek. “Yes,” my mother answered.
“Wait. And that’s the word for glass, right?” I continued. My mother explained that my grandmother didn’t use proper measuring cups and spoons. It was all about ratios (and we’re talking pre-Ruhlman, people!). Yiayia used the glasses, mugs and spoons she’d had since she’d gotten married, the ones she carried here with her from Greece. They worked for her every time. My mom’s explanation jogged my memory: I flashed on my grandmother’s kitchen, the table strewn in a tableware version of mise-en-place.
So, there I was again, deciphering ratios communicated mostly in English, some in Greek. It was comforting. And kind of exciting. Because it left room for me to trust my own cooking instincts. It gave me the chance to be a part of my family’s cooking history, not just replicate it.
Some notes on cooking
Now I’m going to be like my family… only more clear. I’ve been very specific with the cooking times in my recipe below, but you also have to feel your way through this recipe.
You’re going to start by browning the semolina. This step reminds me of making a rue for gumbo. You want the semolina to get brown. Seriously brown. You obviously don’t want to burn it, but be fearless. Allow the semolina to darken and get very fragrant. The darker it gets, the better the flavor. See this color brown? Look at the almonds, in particular. They look almost as if they are about to get too brown, right? Well, you want it to get even a little darker.
Once you brown the semolina, you’ll add a simple syrup. Then you want to cook down the mixture until it thickens. A LOT. You cook it until it’s basically a (soft) solid that can be molded. This looks thick, right?
Well, it’s not even close.
This is better…
But still not there.
Now we’re starting to get somewhere! See how you can pretty much scoop this around and it won’t move? That’s how you want it.
Think about it this way: When this step is done, you’re going to put it into a bundt mold where it will solidify further, but not much. So this step isn’t done until you have something that’s very close to being sliceable.
Now scoop the semolina it into a mold.
And cover it up. While you wait for it to take form, make a topping of chopped almonds or walnuts and cinnamon. Simply pulse in a food processor, then set aside.
You don’t need to make a topping. The halva is delicious on its own. But, it makes the difference between this:
Then, slice and serve!
It’s delicious. Like CAN’T RESIST delicious. I even had to keep the Hungry Papa from eating it, right off of the serving plate, before dinner!
And the Hungry Boy. Well, this is what his plate looked like after seconds.
It’s what your plate will look like too. Promise.
(can be served to kids 12+ mos)*
2 c sugar
3 c water
2 cinnamon sticks
1/2 c canola oil
1 c semolina (I used a 50/50 combo of fine & coarse ground; you can use one or the other, or even just supermarket purchased farina)
1/4 c slivered almonds
1/8 c walnuts or additional slivered almonds
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1. Get a simple syrup started: combine sugar, water and cinnamon sticks in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Lower heat to low-medium and allow to cook until you complete step 2. Make sure that your syrup remains thin! If it’s starting to thicken and you’re not yet done with step 2, remove it from the heat and set aside. It’s better for this to be too thin than too thick.
2. Add oil and semolina to another medium to large sauce pan over high-low heat. Brown the semolina, stirring constantly. This step is very similar to making a rue for gumbo. Be fearless. You don’t want the semolina to burn, but you want it to darken quite a bit. Halfway through this step, about 7-8 minutes through, add the almonds. This step should take a total of about 15 minutes.
3. When you’ve achieved the right color, pour the syrup into the semolina and almond mixture. It will bubble and pop at first. Keep stirring until all of the syrup is combined with the semolina. Turn the heat to low-medium and cook down for about 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, especially towards the end of cooking. Keep in mind that it’s during this step that you achieve 95% of the dessert’s firmness. You should have something that forms firm peaks and is sliceable at the end of the cooking time.
4. Scoop halva into a 6 cup mini-bundt or any small mold. Immediately cover with a kitchen towel or lid. Set aside until just warm or completely cooled and firm to the touch.
5. In the meantime, pulse walnuts or additional almonds and cinnamon in a food processor until you get a fine chop (see picture above). When ready to serve, remove halva from mold and sprinkle with nut and cinnamon topping.
*Note: This can be served to children under 12 months old. In fact, the consistency, with the exception of the almond pieces, is great for little ones. While the Hungry Baby was given a small taste (or two!), I recommend sharing this with older babies due to the high sugar content.