These are halvah cookies. Halvah, also known as “halwa,” “halva,” “halava,” and “helva,” is a broad term used to describe a dense, sweet confection made with a base of flour or nut butter, sometimes vegetables (typically carrots), but most commonly with sesame tahini. Halvah is eaten in many countries: all across the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, the Balkans, the United States and Israel. In the U.S., a sesame-based version is by far the most common, originally brought here in the early 20th century by Jewish immigrants. Although I’ve never made it, this form of halvah is supposed to be simple to make from scratch, consisting primarily of tahini, ground sesame butter and sugar or honey. This was the kind of halvah I grew up eating in New York City, which we normally got from the world-famous Zabars. It was fresh, easy to locate and came in a variety of flavors.
Halvah is not your typical confection, it has an interesting texture: a bit crumbly but also fluffy at the same time. My favorite is marble, with chocolate swirled in, although the pistachio is not bad either. I wanted to try halvah in a cookie mainly because I Iove cookies, I love halvah, and I have never seen the two put together. Halvah mixed into the dough makes these cookies slightly crispy yet delicate when baked, with great nutty chocolate flavor.
When I was last in New York, I stopped by Chelsea Market, one of my favorite places on earth. There is now a booth there, Seed + Mill, that is dedicated to only sesame seed products, including tahini and lots of halvah. Seed + Mill’s selection includes traditional halvah varieties like marble, pistachio or rose oil as well as unique flavor combinations like white chocolate & lemon, ginger, cardamom or sea salt dark chocolate. Their halvah is gluten-free and kosher, and many are also vegan.
I had trouble locating this sweet confection in Northern California, but recently learned it is out here: apparently you can find it at World Market in their International food section–who knew?!?! The best halvah, if eating plain, is obviously fresh halvah, so if you are interested, I suggest you try making your own. Melissa Clark posted a great recipe in The New York Times on how to make this sweet treat–this is the one I would try. Unless you are planning a trip to NYC or Israel, you may need to be flexible about where and when you get it. (My son has a wonderful Israeli teacher who plans to go back to Israel in a few months for a bar mitzvah. I gave her some of these cookies to try, and she gave them a big thumbs up–I take that very seriously! She said that she will bring me some traditional Israeli halvah after her trip. I can’t wait.) But don’t let the halvah stop you, for this recipe, especially because the halvah is being baked, you certainly can get by with the store-bought version. The delicious sesame flavor will be there as well as the wonderful crispness.
Crispy Halvah Chocolate Chunk Cookies
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- dash of salt
- 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 6-ounce package semisweet chocolate chunks
- 3/4 cup marble or plain halvah, roughly chopped
- flaky sea salt
- Step 1 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
- Step 2 In a medium mixing bowl add the flour, baking soda and dash of salt. Mix well and set aside.
- Step 3 Using a kitchen mixer, such as a KitchenAid, fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter and both sugars. Beat low until well incorporated.
- Step 4 With the mixer on low, add the egg and vanilla and beat until just mixed.
- Step 5 Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the chocolate chunks and halvah, being careful not to over mix.
- Step 6 Using your hands, scoop about 2 tablespoons of the dough and roll into a dough ball. Repeat with the remaining dough. Sprinkle some salt flakes on each cookie. Be sure to leave enough space so cookies are not overcrowded when baking.
- Step 7 Bake cookies for about 15 minutes, do not over-bake. Remove from the oven and let cool. The cookies will firm up once they sit for a while.