When chef Danielle Oron was growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, she knew that her Israeli family’s habits of dousing vanilla ice cream with tahini and spreading halvah on toast would be considered odd. Sesame was for cold Chinese noodles, bagels and not much else.
“My American friends wouldn’t have understood that tahini is an addiction for Israelis; that we eat it out of the jar,” she said. “Sesame cookies, chocolate halvah, tahini with silan” — a date honey — “those are the treats everyone grows up with.”
Throughout the Middle East, sesame sweets are the taste of childhood. For Philippe Massoud, the Lebanese-American chef at Ilili in New York, it came in a bowl of carob molasses, with a float of tahini to stir together and eat with bread.
“Tahini and carob molasses is the peanut butter and jelly of the Middle East,” said Massoud, who lived in Lebanon until age 15; his family has been in the business of sweets there for more than 100 years. “A sandwich of butter, halvah and chocolate shavings is the best after-school snack of all time.”
Tahini, or pure sesame paste, and halvah, a soft sesame candy, are among the most ancient and beloved foods of that region. But outside traditional Middle Eastern enclaves like Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and Dearborn, Mich., sesame has never been a favorite flavor in U.S. desserts.
For decades, sesame bars and brittle were available only in health-food stores, a tip-off that any possible deliciousness would be trumped by nutrition. For American Jews, halvah has long been familiar but often feared as a strange beige loaf passing itself off as dessert.
But no more. New producers like Brooklyn Sesame and Soom Foods in Philadelphia are inventing mash-ups like coconut halvah spread and chocolate sesame butter. They are also making tahini that is fresh, light and creamy enough to remain emulsified in the jar, eliminating the hassle of stirring rock-solid sesame paste into oil.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t believe people here still thought that was tahini,” said Lisa Mendelson, an owner of Seed & Mill, a new all-sesame emporium in New York, who was raised in Israel. “Americans just haven’t had a chance to develop a palate for it.”
As Americans have become enamored of Middle Eastern food (especially hummus, which is strongly flavored with tahini), sesame-forward dishes and desserts are popping up like crocuses. At Bar Bolonat in the West Village of New York, a halvah crème brûlée; at Massoud’s Ilili, a crunchy topping composed of tahini, melted chocolate and crushed Rice Chex.
“Often, you don’t even taste the tahini,” he said. “It’s just this nutty, salty undertone that makes sweet things taste even better.”
For home cooks who want to achieve this effect, salted tahini chocolate chip cookies are a great place to start. Rich, savory and sweet, they are a rare variation that is just as good as the original.
“For the American palate, that’s the gateway recipe for tahini,” said Oron, who devised the recipe.
Tahini and halvah were long considered peasant food, good enough for those who could not afford sweets with expensive ingredients like butter, white flour and sugar. But now the region’s modern chefs are embracing these ancient flavors, devising new treats like multilayered halvah, sesame ice creams and pâte brisée made with tahini instead of butter.
Like peanut butter, tahini is made by grinding a naturally oily seed or nut until the solids are minuscule enough to form a smooth emulsion with the oil. But before the grinding begins, the unhulled sesame seeds are soaked, roasted, hulled and dried. Connoisseurs say that every step, and other factors like sourcing and humidity, affect the taste and mouthfeel of the finished product.
Halvah is approximately half sesame paste and half sugar, but that doesn’t convey its luxurious lightness. The sugar is boiled and whipped to a foam in a particular way that produces the confection’s sandy, melting texture. Small producers all over the Middle East still use caldrons, paddles and troughs — and the strength of young men for some vigorous hand-kneading — to produce the most coveted, fluffy halvah.
Tahini and halvah are also staples in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. For Eastern Orthodox Christians there, rich, oily tahini is a key ingredient during Great Lent (Orthodox Easter falls on May 1). All animals and animal products are forbidden, putting those who observe the fast on a vegan diet for 40 days.
“As a child, I can’t say I looked forward to those tahini desserts,” said Aglaia Kremezi, a historian of Greek food; there, too, sesame was long considered a poor substitute for “real” sweets. But she’s now an enthusiast, especially for the pasteli — soft wedges of sesame seeds, thyme honey and orange zest — made for thousands of years on the Cycladic island of Kea, where she lives. In her own kitchen, she has rethought the traditional tahini filling for a Lenten cinnamon roll called tahinopita, and developed a super-easy recipe for halvah semifreddo, a frozen emulsion of fresh whipped cream and crystalline halvah. “Using tahini and halvah as flavorings, instead of things you eat on their own, has changed the way I taste them,” she said.
Sesame desserts are not limited to the Eastern Mediterranean, of course. Halvah spread north through the Balkans and to Eastern Europe with Jewish migrants, for whom it served as a useful kosher sweet, and by the 19th century it was already popular in Poland and Romania. (Coming full circle, this is why halvah is a staple in Jewish-American delicatessens.)
Harvested by hand
Sesame was one of the first plants people cultivated for oil, and it was grown for millenniums in hot climates around the world. Since the seeds must be harvested from the pods by hand, it is now mostly raised where labor is inexpensive: China, India, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa, where the plant originated.
Black sesame paste is a sweet staple in East Asia, used in everything from traditional inky dessert soup to trendy Japanese chiffon cakes and cheesecakes (the results are an elegant shade of dove-gray). One of the most auspicious of Chinese New Year treats is jian due, balls of fluffy sweet rice dough coated in golden sesame seeds. Sesame candy balls and brittle are popular in India, especially in the winter, where the seed, “til” in Hindi, is considered a warming food in Ayurvedic tradition.
Sesame plants arrived with Africans in the American South, where the Bantu word “benne” is still used for the seeds — and where benne wafers, melting savory crackers, are a classic recipe. Grain expert Glenn Roberts is part of a modest push to restore sesame cultivation to the South: His company, Anson Mills, sells small quantities of domestic sesame flour, oil and “benne cream,” which may be described as American tahini. That’s why, at innovative restaurants like Eugene in Atlanta or Rhubarb in Asheville, North Carolina, benne flour may pop up in the pastry crust for peach pie, benne cream in the dressing for an updated hoppin’ John and benne seeds in a bar snack like Rhubarb’s brown-sugar/benne popcorn.
Also boosting interest in and sales of tahini in the United States: the growing number of American vegans, who appreciate its natural richness; its high levels of protein, calcium, iron and fiber; and its smoothie-friendly texture.
SALTED TAHINI CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Makes 12 to 18 cookies
4 ounces unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup tahini, well stirred
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, or matzo cake meal (See note)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¾ cups chocolate chips or chunks, bittersweet or semisweet
Flaky salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon
1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, tahini and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Add egg, egg yolk and vanilla and continue mixing at medium speed for another five minutes.
2. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and kosher salt into a large bowl and mix with a fork. Add flour mixture to butter mixture at low speed until just combined. Use a rubber spatula to fold in chocolate chips. Dough will be soft, not stiff. Refrigerate at least 12 hours; this ensures tender cookies.
3. When ready to bake, heat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or nonstick baking mat. Use a large ice cream scoop or spoon to form dough into 12 to 18 balls.
4. Place the cookies on the baking sheet at least three inches apart to allow them to spread. Bake 13 to 16 minutes until just golden brown around the edges but still pale in the middle to make thick, soft cookies. As cookies come out of the oven, sprinkle sparsely with salt. Let cool at least 20 minutes on a rack.
HALVAH SEMIFREDDO WITH HAZELNUTS
Makes 10 to 12 servings
14 ounces plain or vanilla halvah, preferably made with sugar, not honey (available online or in Middle Eastern specialty shops or groceries)
1 cup hazelnuts or pistachios, toasted and coarsely ground, plus whole hazelnuts for decorating, optional
½ cup heavy cream, cold
For serving, dark chocolate sauce for serving, optional, or orange marmalade or chunky apricot or peach preserves, thinned with orange liqueur, optional
1. Line a small loaf pan with plastic wrap. In a bowl, mash the halvah with a strong fork until crumbled.
2. Stir in the nuts (reserve some for topping), while continuing to mash, mixing the nuts and halvah together until almost smooth.
3. Beat the cream to soft peaks and fold into the halvah mixture. Pour into the loaf pan and bang the pan on the counter several times to distribute the mixture evenly. Transfer to the freezer and freeze until firm, at least four hours. (To keep longer, wrap semifreddo in plastic wrap and keep for up to one month.)
4. To serve whole, place the frozen loaf in a serving dish. Drizzle chocolate sauce or spoon fruit preserves on top, if desired. Arrange hazelnuts on top and slice at the table. Alternatively, serve as individual slices and pass toppings at the table.
CHOCOLATE-SESAME CRUNCH BARS
Makes 12 medium bars, 2 dozen rounds or 3 dozen small
8 ounces Rice Chex, puffed rice or another crunchy, light cereal like cornflakes
10 ounces milk chocolate
1 ¼ cups tahini, well stirred
1. Line a rimmed 9- by 13-inch baking pan with parchment or wax paper.
2. In a food processor, pulse cereal until just broken into bits; do not process into a powder. Transfer to a large bowl.
3. In the top of a double boiler, combine chocolate and tahini. Stir over simmering water until melted and smooth. Alternatively, melt in the microwave, using short bursts of low heat.
4. Pour chocolate mixture over cereal and stir together quickly.
5. For bars, spread mixture in the prepared pan. It should be about ½-inch thick; you may need to push the mixture toward one end and level it if it does not quite fill the pan. For rounds, drop spoonfuls of the mixture onto prepared pan and use the back of the spoon to form into circles. Refrigerate until hardened, about two hours.
6. To serve, cut into bars or squares, or serve rounds as cookies. Any extras can be crumbled and used as an ice cream topping. Store in the refrigerator.