A Vegan Dessert for Orthodox Lent
Orthodox Easter is on May 2nd this year, so for Orthodox Christians, we are still in lent. During this time of abstaining from meat and other animal products, the search is always on for something sweet.
I grew up eating Halva (also Halvah, Halwa) during Lent. My family also enjoyed it at other times throughout the year because it’s so easy and economical to make. There are many versions of Halva. Some are cake-like and are baked in the oven, others are prepared like candy and the last is made in a pot on the stove and molded before serving. This is my favorite because it comes together so easily.
The basic stovetop recipe for Halva is quite easy to prepare and easy to remember. Most people use the 1-2-3-4 ratio--1 cup oil, 2 cups semolina, 3 cups sugar, four cups water and the aromatics. My Greek family and I have our version. Other families throughout Greece and the Greek Diaspora have their own. Likewise, throughout the Middle East, in India and other parts of Asia, there are versions that have survived for centuries.
Aromatics may include cinnamon, lemon, orange, rosewater, mastic and fillings such as walnuts, almonds, sesame, raisins and other dried fruit, and even grated carrots. Some people use vegetable oil, some a light olive oil; I prefer the Greek tradition of using extra-virgin olive oil.
Alan Davidson says, in his book, The Oxford Companion to Food, a marvelous encyclopedia of food terms, names, ingredients and more, that the word Halva can be traced back to 7th-century Arabia, and that it comes to us from the Arabic root for “sweet.” Originally, it referred to a paste made of dates and milk. Those of us who’ve grown up eating our family’s version of Halva/Halvah aren’t as interested in the history of this vegan sweet. We are more interested in knowing whether we have semolina and olive oil in our kitchen so that we can enjoy eating this delicious treat as soon as possible.
During the Lenten period leading to Orthodox Easter, many of us also enjoy the sesame seed version of Halva, which we usually purchase instead of preparing at home. This is an entirely different product from what most families prepare at home.
My mother adapted a recipe for Halva from the most popular Greek cookbook by Sophia Skoura. I am grateful to have my mother’s copy, which was published in 1967. What I am sharing with you today is my version of my mother’s adaptation for Greek Halva. I enjoy it warm or cold, just out of the refrigerator. During cooler weather, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but it has a very refreshing quality served cold. It’s my favorite way to eat Halva.
The Recipe: (a printable version is available here)
I use extra-virgin olive oil, but you can use a neutral oil instead. Most recipes call for toasting the nuts prior to cooking or not toasting them at all. I add the nuts to the hot oil first and they toast along with the semolina. I don’t use raisins, but you may add ¼ to ½ cup at the end. If I add dried fruit, I prefer craisins (dried, sweetened cranberries).
In the pot:
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup slivered almonds
2 cups semolina (fine or coarse or a combination)
For the syrup:
5 cups water
2 ½ cups sugar
½ cup honey
1 stick cinnamon
3 whole cloves
the peel of one lemon
1 cup raisins, craisins or other dried fruit (stirred in at the end)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (added with the almonds)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds or toasted ground almonds (to dress the Halva at serving time)
Grated zest of one lemon (stirred in at the end)
A light sprinkling of powdered cinnamon (to dress the Halva at serving time)
In a small pot, combine the syrup ingredients. Stir, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for no more than five minutes.
Using a large pot over medium-high heat, pour in olive oil and bring to smoking point.
Stir in the almonds and cook for thirty seconds. Stir in the semolina and reduce heat to medium. Continue stirring and cooking until the almonds and semolina have turned a golden-brown. (Some cooks prefer a darker brown color.) Move the pot off the stove to add the syrup.
At this point, remove the aromatics from the syrup. Pour syrup carefully into the semolina and stir until the bubbling and steam subside. Move pot back to the stove and continue stirring until the semolina has thickened and is coming away from the pot when you stir. Turn off the heat and add fruit and/or lemon zest if using. Cover and allow the mixture to dry out and cool a bit.
In a bundt cake pan or a deep fluted tart pan, turn out all of the semolina mixture and smooth with a metal spoon or spatula. I like to sprinkle cinnamon and toasted sesame or toasted ground almonds on the bottom of the pan before spooning in the semolina. This way it adheres to the warm mix.
Leave on the counter to cool for 10-15 minutes. The Greek celebrity chef, Akis Petrezikis, waits only five minutes. Now you can unmold your Halva onto a plate. Once it has cooled for about an hour, slice and serve, or chill in the refrigerator before serving.
If you don’t have a fancy pan, you can use a simple cake pan or a bowl. You can also use muffin baking cups or Greek coffee cups. When I use the coffee cups, sometimes I turn it out onto the small plate and top with aromatics and nuts at serving time. Other times, I leave the halva in the cup.
|First, prepare the syrup. Set aside.|
|Heat oil and add nuts and seeds|
|Stir in the semolina|
|Keep stirring until color deepens|
|Remove pot from heat and pour in syrup|
Be careful as the syrup will bubble up for a few seconds.
Back on heat and stir until syrup is absorbed.
|A fluted tart pan is perfect, but a bowl will do.|
Sprinkle cinnamon and toasted sesame on bottom.