Skip to main content

The Barks

Origer has a small stall in a prestigious part of The Mongers. In part because of it’s place within the Mongers and his incredible constancy, it has become a meeting place in that twisting built up maze of thin streets and broad awnings. “I’ll meet you at Origer’s in The Mongers,” one might say to a friend at the begininning of the day. The popularity of the spot may have something to do with Origer’s penchant for silently handing out paper pouches of small candied almonds to faces he knows. For everyone else, the draw is the incredible scents that waft from under his awning, from the back room, in the dark shadows where the grinders lurk, pungent.

Origer sells spices, herbs and resins. His shop is a large table covered with bowls of spices, some piled into neat cones, others under round plates to keep out the light. The wall of his shop is decorated with shelves, lined with tins of all sizes, each affixed with a small label letters in a light, tight script. Hanging from the ceiling are scales, many scales: he sells some, but uses most. He sits behind the table under the stars with a wooden box of scoops to one side and another box of paper squares to his other. When anyone needs something from the table, he reaches out with his long arms and wide hands to gently lift and scoop seeds or powders or dried leaves into the center of a square of paper, which he quickly folds into a neat parcel that needs no string. With deft strokes he repairs each spice pile after each sale.

Origer is tall and broad, strong limbs and a long, bald head. He moves slowly in all that he does, careful with his limbs in his small shop. People say he never smiles, but he often does: he does so slowly, letting the smile creep across his whole face until he beams to tease the sun.

The Cherry Trees

We have two cherry trees established in the side yard. We have a cheery tree that offers us an abundance of sour cherries, pie cherries. That little tree can gift us with two or three quarts of ripe fruit each year (with maybe as much again going to the birds when we are not vigilant). The cherries are dark red, fat with staining juice, intense with flavor, and we turn them into sauce we eat with ice cream. We get maybe six cherries from the sweet cherry, if that, and the birds take every one.

This is not too surprising. The sour cherry is self-pollinating; it can produce fruit on its own. The sweet cherry needs another cherry to pollinate it so that it can produce fruit; the idea was to have the sour pollinate the sweet, and to see what would happen. The problem here has been that the two cherries do not flower at the same time, so we went ahead and got another sweet cherry for the side yard, this time hoping that we’d end up with good pollination (this new cherry is purported to be good for that) at the same time, and both sweet cherries would be abundant.

This year, the sour and the old sweet have bloomed together. The new sweet still hasn’t bloomed yet. We will watch, and see what happens, but it is telling to see here in our little side yard that the clocks are off, now.

We will watch, and see what happens.

The Lift

These parts of the caves were filled with contraption, wood and ropes and water wheels, leavers to start things, stop things. Part of it was a crude conveyor on a track, that reached down into the darkness. “That,” she said, “is a blessing. It used to be murder to get the barrels back up to the surface.”

The whole thing was powered by a stream of water that fell out of a channel above, past the great wheel, and then down into a draining pool below. “We don’t know where it comes from, exactly,” she said, “and we don’t know where it goes. But it never stops. We are thankful for that.”

Halva

I am pleased to report that I have made some headway into making a good halva. I’m getting some decent results, and I expect these recipes will work well for you (I would be eager to hear specifics if otherwise!).

A while back, I spent a summer learning how to make candy. I read a lot, I practiced a lot, and I got okay at it. I learned a lot of things about working with hot sugar, and the one I wanted to put up front here is that, in a somewhat similar way to how the ocean wants to take all of your stuff, hot sugar wants to put you in the hospital. Preparation and practice are wise in this arena! So, I will be wandering through this in many steps.

At base, halva is a very simple food: if you were very careful, you could make it with just two ingredients: sesame seeds and sugar. I do not recommend this; this would be annoying, and not worth the trouble. The deeper truth hinted at by this simplicity is that halva is the result of the tight control of few variables, and the better the control you have, the better the halva will be.

If you want to try this, you will need some things.

You will need some binder clips. You may already have these around the home; 1” or so is a good size.

You will need a scale. Halva uses ingredients in simple ratios, and the best way to manage this is to measure everything by weight. Look for a kitchen scale that measures in grams (which is plenty accurate) and has a tare function to re-zero the scale (which is very convenient). Most good kitchen scales will let you weigh up to several pounds of stuff. You should have one of these anyway; a kitchen scale will come in handy if you ever decide to make pita bread.

You are going to want to track two temperatures while making halva: the heat of the tahini and the heat of the sugar syrup. The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to get two probe kitchen thermometers (the kind that have a wire running from the probe to the display). If you can, try to get thermometers that will allow you to set an alarm for either a maximum or minimum temperature (or both!); this will come in handy if you ever decide to make yogurt.

You want to have two good pots.

I strongly recommend investing a little bit into saucepans that are stainless steel, with a core of aluminum or copper for heat distribution. Good saucepans for this sort of thing should have the core metal in the sides of the pan, not just in a thick metal sandwich on the bottom of the pot. A good heavy pan with good heat conductivity characteristics will make a more stable platform for heating the sugar, and in turn will mean fewer surprises once the fun gets started.

If you have an electric range, you really want to have good pots. Better yet, you want to have a friend with a gas range in their kitchen. Or a friend who is a good rental agent.

Part of candy making is handling hot things with comfort and confidence. This is difficult if the thing you are holding is too hot for you to hold on to for longer than this sentence. I highly recommend getting oven mitts that have a surface augmented with silicone - this will allow you to get a firm grip on pots and such while putting together the halva.

You will need other stuff: you will need bowls, bowl scrapers, spoons, that sort of thing. If you want to get fancy, you can get a mold for your halva, but I just use a heat-resistant glass bowl to shape it into a dome. I line the bowl with plastic wrap first to make the halva easier to get out of the bowl in one piece.

Ingredients

Sugar

I’ve been using sugar: plain, white, highly refined sugar. I am hesitant to provide brand advice, here, but I’ve always had much better luck with Domino white sugar for candy making than any other available brand.

An intriguing alternate is honey, but making candy with honey is tricky. Refined white sugar is less surprising and easier to control, and we want this process to be both of those things.

Tahini

So I know this guy.

He imports tahini from Lebanon, and then repackages it into pint and quart containers. It is fresh, it is thick, it is rich, and very nearly tastes sweet. He sells it out of a little grocery and sandwich shop, where he makes the spinach and feta pies himself. I don’t know of any better tahini in the city, except the stuff I make by hand.

I don’t know if you happen to be in or near a locus of a middle eastern community, but if you do, I will say: go there on some afternoon, find the local market that everyone is using, find the tahini section in the aisles of shelves, and buy the tahini that has the fewest labels on the package. Hopefully, it will be a bog standard takeout container of clear plastic that someone may have hastily written something on the front of. Get that one.

I will say: don’t make tahini by hand. It’s a monumental pain in the ass.

Everything Else

All of my test batches so far were simple halva flavored with a splash of vanilla extract mixed into the tahini. I can only imagine the near infinite amount of stuff one can mix into halva; I am reasonably certain that there are yet sublime combinations that have yet to be found (or that everyone has forgotten).

Previewing the Recipe

An important aspect of candy making is that it is a real-time process. Once you start, it’s difficult to stop halfway through to adjust or amend. Hence: this walk through the recipe is meant to cover all of the considerations without concern for efficiency, grace, or timing.

Preparing the Workspace

Things you want to have ready, because you will need them:

  • A large bowl in which to fold the tahini and the sugar syrup together.
  • A spatula, to scrape tahini and syrup into the large bowl and fold them together with.
  • A mold for the finished halva, lined in plastic wrap.

Things you want to have ready, because you might need them:

  • A dish of water with a pastry brush, for rinsing the sides of the sugar pot.
  • A deep bowl of cold water for plunging your hand into if you manage to get it covered with molten sugar.

Ratios

I’ve been having very good success with 5 parts tahini to a syrup of 4 parts sugar, by weight. My test batches have been built from 200g of tahini and 160g of sugar.

I don’t know how well these ratios scale, but I expect scaling the recipe to useful batch sizes should work out fine.

Preparing the Tahini

To measure the tahini, I put a pot on my scale, tare the scale to zero, and then spoon in the tahini to desired weight.

Mix in any extracts now; mixing them in later with a thermometer probe in the way can get tricky.

Preparing the Sugar

To measure the sugar, I put a pot on my scale, tare the scale to zero, and then pour in sugar to the desired weight.

I add a little water at this point to loosen up the sugar and get the syrup started; there is usually hot water in the tea kettle, so I use that, but hot tap water will do. You just need enough to turn the sugar into a slurry, and help the sugar start to melt into syrup.

Monitoring the Temperatures

This is where the binder clips come in - I’ve had good luck clipping the binder clip to the side of a pot and then threading the probe though the clip handles; it’s usually pretty easy to get the probe positioned so that the tip of the probe stays in a good place to measure the temperature of whatever’s in the pot. For an accurate reading, make sure the tip of the probe is submerged, but not touching the bottom of the pot.

Be careful removing the binder clips when cleaning up; they will become very hot.

Heating up the Tahini

The target temperature of the tahini is 120°F.

I put the tahini on the stove over low flame, attach a binder clip, thread the thermometer probe through the clip arms, adjust the probe to rest in the tahini, and adjust the thermometer to yell at me when it reaches 115°F. I then keep an eye on it until it hits 120°F.

The tahini usually heats up pretty quick; I let it hang out over the lowest heat to stay warm while the syrup finishes heating up.

Heating Up The Sugar

The target temperature of the sugar syrup is 260°F.

I put the sugar slurry on the stove over a medium flame, attach a binder clip, thread the thermometer probe through the clip arms, adjust the probe to rest in the tahini, and adjust the thermometer to yell at me when it reaches 255°F. I then keep an eye on it until it his 260°F.

The sugar syrup may do odd things while heating; it may linger a while at some temperatures, and it may rocket past others. Keep an eye on it, and remember that it wants to put you in the hospital. As the syrup approaches the target temperature, back off on the heat so that it doesn’t overshoot.

One thing you may want to do is use a pastry brush to gently wash down the sides of the sugar pot with small amounts of warm water. The fear here is that sugar crystals might form on the sides of the pot, and those crystals might trigger a crystallization of the sugar syrup. The water from the brush should dissolve those crystals back into the syrup. I’ve only had a catastrophic crystallization happen to me once when I was practicing sugar candies all those years ago, so I’m not sure this is really necessary; these days, I usually do it anyway.

The Grand Collision

One the target temperatures have been reached, you’ll need to swiftly combine the tahini and the sugar syrup (along with any mix-ins) to make the finished halva. I keep a large bowl nearby for this.

As the sugar is approaching temperature, I remove the binder clip (remember, it’s hot!) and thermometer probe to the sink, then scrape the tahini into the bowl. When the sugar approaches temperature, I remove the binder clip (remember, it’s hot!) and thermometer probe to the sink, and I carefully (but with confidence!) pour that into the bowl with the tahini. Start folding the two together until the mixture firms up and losses a little bit of it’s gloss. Quickly scrape the mixture into the prepared mold. It usually takes a bit less than thirty seconds to go from mixing to mold for me.

Confidence!

I have not been making halva with mix-ins, so I have little notion about how those work, or when to add them. I would guess that they should be added in the folding stage, but it might be okay to add them to the tahini before adding the sugar. I will try some things and report back in a later letter.

Aftermath

The halva will need an hour or so to cool and set. This is a good time to soak anything that is encrusted with sugar, clean up the kitchen table, etc.

Once it’s cooled, I transfer some the halva to an airtight container. The rest I wrap up in tin foil to give away so I don’t eat it all.

Recipe

Ingredients

  • 200g good tahini
  • 160g white sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract (or other extract, to taste)

Method

  1. Mix tahini and extract in a saucepan; bring to 120°F.
  2. Mix sugar with a bit of water in a saucepan; heat until hard ball stage, 260°F.
  3. Combine the tahini and sugar syrup in a bowl; fold until well combined and the mixture loses some of its gloss.
  4. Pour out into a heat-safe container lined with plastic wrap, and let the halva cool for an hour.

Store the halva in an airtight container in a cool place.

Notes

This particular intersection of tahini to sugar ratio and respective temperatures makes a really nice halva: creamy, nutty, a little bit toothy. I can easily see improving the stuff through iterative experiment with adjusting the ratios.