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Aleselmo

Going Out

Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, a place where a brook, a creek, a crick, a run, some small amount of water regularly wandered down the land to topple over into the river. All remnant of that is long gone, now: the spaces near rivers are too precious and flat in a place like this to be given over to troublesome water, and now here stands roads, parking lots, rails.

There is an old rail bed that used to be a useful path for moving trains, but has been abandoned for that, and now stands as a bike path and walking trail, a curiously unmechanized stripe of passage though an otherwise industrial space. It does not take too long to leave the valley of the stream entirely and find yourself in a new valley, the river valley: broader, wider, with a big blue sky. The river is a lazy sweep of water in the place between the banks, and the wind has found channel here, too. The breeze pushes into you gently as you walk the path,, making it harder going now but a comfort that the way back will be eased some. There is a low where the walkway meets the hillside that this path was originally carved from, a shallow cut like a large gutter at the bottom of the stone that crops out of the hill up above. In the low grow cattails, and you note them, but would likely not want to eat them.

In time, there is a bridge, old and overbuilt for its new purpose, staunchly carrying the bike path up and across the river to the other side. It is a strange mixture of pure brawn, iron and steel, with more modern touches of enameled railings and widened places for those strolling to stop and take in the view without being in the way. To stand on the bridge is to be over the river but yet within the valley, above so much activity down there on the flat water but still contained in space by the hills to either side. There are birds up there, large and circling, and in a moment you wonder what it would be to see what they see, without the attendant noise and clatter of propellers and metal. You resolve to look into hot air ballooning as you move across the bridge towards places you’ve heard of, places where dogs are welcome aside a hot drink, places where pretzels are sold in back alleyways, and where you might find a chess game as trains rumble by, below.

Going Up

Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, a cleft in the earth made by water in time, the quick slopes to either side of you, covered in trees because it is too steep to build anything there. It is summer now, and the air is hot and close, but it is flowing down the valley gently toward you, past you, behind you toward the river. It is quietly refreshing, if you do not move too much. Slowly go, then, up into the valley, past the ball court and the old iron trestle.

The stream that carved this place is no longer here, zipped up underneath a soccer field, and hiding under scrubbed land left to nature, the unstable scrabble of weed and shrub, competing against the still too-small trees to make use of the soil and the sun. It’s all green, though, the meadow areas of rippling grasses that betray the breeze, the crowded canopies of the places where trees have won the battle with gravity. There is a softness to the air down here, as you walk along the path, the end of the valley invisible beyond the next turn, or turns, unknown.

The outside world of machines and metal creeps in a bit, but is still at distance. You can hear the hum of the world above, the grumble of engines and the warble of tires on worn asphalt, sometimes horns. It filters down over the tree tops, muted. You can see evidence, too, as an old and underpainted bridge leaps from lip to lip of the valley above you, an incongruous geometry amongst the patterned chaos of all those trees reaching haphazard for the light, leaves dancing in the winds. A plane may go by, high in the blue, the shimmering roar chasing after, offering you to look in the wrong place. It is difficult by any modern standard to ge where you stand, because you needed your feet, and only them, to arrive here in the quiet as you have.

Going Through

Imagine yourself for a moment at the bottom of a stream valley, standing in front of a door to a building that you have never noticed before. It was painted dark blue once, lighter now from fading, and the door stands silent. There is a small notice about a turtle on the door post, but nothing else: what had once been a storefront is opaque painted panel now, plain, and it is empty above where a name may have been. There is a small square window in the door, but it is dark behind, and there is little to see. The knob is sturdy and firm, and the door opens with a solid click, opening up into a dim, cool space.

There are places here for shoes, and a sign too, requesting that you remove your shoes. Once that has been attended to, through the next door, plain and white with panels, to a new room with a warm wooden floor and a row of sinks, shelves of towels, soap. The sign asks that you wash your hands, and recommends a song to sing while washing so you wash them long. The towels are soft, and make short work of droplets. Another door, then, to another space.

This one is big, comfortable: the ceilings are high, so that conversation can be close, but not too loud. There is a big table to sit at, and some friends are already here, more behind you. There are enough chairs tonight, so everyone gets to set at the table. On the table is a large bowl of rice, a kettle of broth, a kettle of tea. You are given a bowl, and sit at the table, adding rice to the bowl or broth to the bowl and tea to your cup. Dishes appear from somewhere and are passed around: pickles, meats, vegetables, sauces, condiments. Each time something goes by, it gets added to the rice or broth or both in the bowl, each time something goes by, the flavors in the bowl deepen and change. Someone brings more rice, someone brings more tea.

It is easy to find the way out at the end of the evening, but most linger as they can. When it is finally time, step out into the little valley, squinting up at the sodium bulb of a streetlamp at the clear black sky, and remember to later look for stars.

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.