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Persian Halwah


  • Author: Recipe by Sima Dehestani | Photo by Shannon Kelli
  • Yield: Makes enough for 2 plates

Description

In non-Persian communities, people are often quite familiar with a sesame seed–based “halva” popularized by the Ottoman Turks, but the confection has its roots in Persia, where the earliest versions may have been made from mashed dates and milk. 

Present-day Persian halwah (which rarely employs sesame seeds except as a decoration) is a constant at Persian funerals and memorial services, where it’s offered to family members and friends of the deceased as well as to strangers. Dehestani says that if a plate of halwah is present, a Persian person will always take a spoonful and say “God bless him” or “God bless her” because they know it was made in memory of someone who has passed. To make sharing easy, halwah might be offered in little cups, spooned onto slices of bread, or sandwiched between thin wafer cookies.

While halwah is traditional at memorials, people also enjoy it at other times. In fact, says Dehestani, “Pregnant women often crave halwah. They cleverly ask for it by saying ‘I think the baby wants some.’”

This sweet is not on Syma’s menu. Persian halwah is made at home, and making it is always a group project. The cook toasts wheat flour and combines it with butter, sugar, saffron water, and rose water to make a warm paste, which Dehestani describes as looking like mud. As the mud is spread on plates as thin cakes, a group gathers around to decorate them quickly while the paste is still warm. The process invites family collaboration (or competition), and the opportunities for creative expression are endless.


Ingredients

Units Scale
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water
  • 1/4 cup rose water
  • 1/4 cup saffron water(see note below)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (or whole wheat, if you like)
  • 2 sticks sweet butter, cut up in pieces

For decorating:

  • Chopped pistachios (both fine and coarse)
  • Blanched, slivered almonds, (toasted or raw)
  • Barberries
  • Flaked coconut
  • Sesame seeds

Instructions

Combine water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and add the rose water and saffron water. Set aside.

Place the flour in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or skillet and toast over medium heat, stirring constantly until flour has turned a rich tan color. Add the butter and stir until it melts and the mixture looks like mud. Stir in the sugar water and cook to a smooth, thick paste.

Spread several large spoonfuls of the warm halwah paste evenly across two plates and decorate while it remains warm from cooking. (If you are working alone, spread one plate at a time while the remaining paste stays warm in the cooking pot.)

The traditional way to decorate the halwah is to first pinch a scalloped edge around the outside edge of the paste. Use a spoon to make a pattern of indentations. (Some cooks use a small glass to make the indentations. For the photos on this page, Dehestani piped out halwah paste from a pastry bag to create elaborate textures.) The simplest and most traditional decorations are floral designs made with chopped pistachios and slivered almonds. Dehestani likes to add barberries to her designs for a nice sour counterpoint and will also use flaked coconut and sesame seeds for textural interest.

Notes

Saffron Water

Saffron is an important flavor in many Persian recipes, which is why Sima Dehestani always has a cruet filled with saffron water at the ready in her kitchen. To make it, grind 1 tablespoon saffron threads and mix with ½ cup hot water in jar or cruet.

  • Category: Dessert
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