Sesame Extends Its Sweet Reach Beyond the Middle East
Pistachio halvah from Seed & Mill in Chelsea Market. Credit Liz Barclay for The New York Times
When the chef Danielle Oron was growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, she knew that her Israeli family’s habits of dousing vanilla ice cream with tahini and spreading halvah on toast would be considered odd. Sesame was for cold Chinese noodles, bagels and not much else.
“My American friends wouldn’t have understood that tahini is an addiction for Israelis; that we eat it out of the jar,” she said. “Sesame cookies, chocolate halvah, tahini with silan,” a date honey — “those are the treats everyone grows up with.”
Throughout the Middle East, sesame sweets are the taste of childhood. For Philippe Massoud, the Lebanese-American chef at Ilili in New York, it came in a bowl of carob molasses, with a float of tahini to stir together and eat with bread.
“Tahini and carob molasses is the peanut butter and jelly of the Middle East,” said Mr. Massoud, who lived in Lebanon until the age of 15; his family has been in the business of sweets there for more than 100 years. “A sandwich of butter, halvah and chocolate shavings is the best after-school snack of all time.”
Rose-water halvah from Seed & Mill, with tahini dip. Credit Liz Barclay for The New York Times
Tahini, or pure sesame paste, and halvah, a soft sesame candy, are among the most ancient and beloved foods of that region. But outside traditional Middle Eastern enclaves like Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and Dearborn, Mich., sesame has never been a favorite flavor in American desserts.
For decades, sesame bars and brittle were available only in health-food stores, a tip-off that any possible deliciousness would be trumped by nutrition. For American Jews, halvah has long been familiar but often feared as a strange beige loaf passing itself off as dessert and stored a little too close to the herring at venerable appetizing stores like Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side.
But no more. The updated Russ & Daughters Cafe that opened in 2014 serves a sundae of halvah ice cream and sesame crumble, drizzled with a deep salted caramel. New producers like Brooklyn Sesame and Soom Foods in Philadelphia are inventing mash-ups like coconut halvah spread and chocolate sesame butter. They are also making tahini that is fresh, light and creamy enough to remain emulsified in the jar, eliminating the hassle of stirring rock-solid sesame paste into oil.
“When I arrived, I couldn’t believe people here still thought that was tahini,” said Lisa Mendelson, an owner of Seed & Mill, a new all-sesame emporium in Chelsea, who was raised in Israel. “Americans just haven’t had a chance to develop a palate for it.”
As Americans have become enamored of Middle Eastern food (especially hummus, which is strongly flavored with tahini), sesame-forward dishes and desserts are popping up like crocuses. At Bar Bolonat in the West Village, a halvah crème brûlée; at Mr. Massoud’s Ilili, a crunchy topping composed of tahini, melted chocolate and crushed Rice Chex.
Pure tahini being made from the mill at Seed and Mill. Credit Liz Barclay for The New York Times
“Often, you don’t even taste the tahini,” he said. “It’s just this nutty, salty undertone that makes sweet things taste even better.”
For cooks who want to achieve this effect at home, salted tahini chocolate chip cookies are a great place to start. Rich, savory and sweet, they are one of the rare variations that are just as good as the original.
“For the American palate, that’s the gateway recipe for tahini,” said Ms. Oron, who devised the recipe.
Some observant Jews do not eat sesame during Passover, which begins at sunset on April 22, placing it in the category of kitniyot — foods that resemble wheat — which are forbidden during the eight days of the holiday.
But for many others, sesame in desserts is a timeless way to connect their home kitchens to Israeli tradition. In Israel, sesame cookies and pastries are everywhere, as are vendors of halvah: Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market is home to the most famous, Halva Kingdom, where nearly 100 different flavors are sold, and where each round cake sprouts its own paper label, like the wheels of cheese in a French fromagerie.
A grilled halvah panini on challah at Seed & Mill. Credit Liz Barclay for The New York Times
There, and elsewhere in the region, chefs are looking at tahini and halvah with new appreciation. “There has already been a major push on the savory side to reinvent our cuisine,” said Mr. Massoud of chefs in the Middle East. “Now there is an equally strong push to reinvent the sweet.”
Tahini and halvah were long considered peasant food, good enough for those who could not afford sweets with expensive ingredients like butter, white flour and sugar. But now the region’s modern chefs are embracing these ancient flavors, devising new treats like multilayered halvah, sesame ice creams and pâte brisée made with tahini instead of butter.
Like peanut butter, tahini is made by grinding a naturally oily seed or nut until the solids are minuscule enough to form a smooth emulsion with the oil. But before the grinding begins, the unhulled sesame seeds are soaked, roasted, hulled and dried. Connoisseurs say that every step, and other factors like sourcing and humidity, affect the taste and mouthfeel of the finished product.
Halvah is approximately half sesame paste and half sugar, but that doesn’t convey its luxurious lightness. The sugar is boiled and whipped to a foam in a particular way that produces the confection’s sandy, melting texture. Small producers all over the Middle East still use caldrons, paddles and troughs — and the strength of young men for some vigorous hand-kneading — to produce the most coveted, fluffy halvah.
Tahini and halvah are also staples in Greece, Turkey and the Balkans. For Eastern Orthodox Christians there, rich, oily tahini is a key ingredient during Great Lent (Orthodox Easter falls on May 1). All animals and animal products are forbidden, putting those who observe the fast on a vegan diet for 40 days.
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“As a child, I can’t say I looked forward to those tahini desserts,” said Aglaia Kremezi, a historian of Greek food; there, too, sesame was long considered a poor substitute for “real” sweets. But she’s now an enthusiast, especially for the pasteli — soft wedges of sesame seeds, thyme honey and orange zest — made for thousands of years on the Cycladic island of Kea, where she lives. In her own kitchen, she has rethought the traditional tahini filling for a Lenten cinnamon roll called tahinopita, and developed a super-easy recipe for halvah semifreddo, a frozen emulsion of fresh whipped cream and crystalline halvah. “Using tahini and halvah as flavorings, instead of things you eat on their own, has changed the way I taste them,” she said.
Maura Kilpatrick has been rethinking traditional sesame desserts for more than a decade as the pastry chef at Oleana, a refined Middle Eastern restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.
“Tahini is the most underrated ingredient in the dessert pantry,” said Ms. Kilpatrick, who said she had barely tasted the stuff when she began working with it but soon found herself compulsively pouring it into hot chocolate and adding it to brioche dough. Now, at her nearby bakery, Sofra, the sesame desserts are the stuff of dreams — and of doughnuts. First, she invented a stuffed doughnut, modeled on a Boston cream, with tahini in the dough and a brown-butter/tahini filling. Then came a coconut cake doughnut coated with sugar-spiked dukkah, an Egyptian mix of cumin, pepper, coriander, salt, sesame seeds and chopped nuts. Both are available only on weekends, and they sell out in a matter of hours.
Sesame desserts are not limited to the Eastern Mediterranean, of course. Halvah spread north through the Balkans and to Eastern Europe with Jewish migrants, for whom it served as useful kosher sweet, and by the 19th century it was already popular in Poland and Romania. (Coming full circle, this is why halvah is a staple in Jewish-American delicatessens.)
Sesame was one of the first plants people cultivated for oil, and it was grown for millenniums in hot climates around the world. Since the seeds must be harvested from the pods by hand, it is now mostly raised where labor is inexpensive: China, India, Myanmar and sub-Saharan Africa, where the plant originated.
Coconut cake doughnuts coated with sugar-spiked dukkah, and stuffed doughnuts, modeled on a Boston cream, with tahini in the dough and a brown-butter/tahini filling, from Sofra, a bakery in Cambridge, Mass. Credit Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times
Black sesame paste is a sweet staple in East Asia, used in everything from traditional inky dessert soup to trendy Japanese chiffon cakes and cheesecakes (the results are an elegant shade of dove-gray). One of the most auspicious of Chinese New Year treats is jian due, balls of fluffy sweet rice dough coated in golden sesame seeds. Sesame candy balls and brittle are popular in India, especially in the winter, where the seed, “til” in Hindi, is considered a warming food in Ayurvedic tradition.
Sesame plants arrived with Africans in the American South, where the Bantu word “benne” is still used for the seeds — and where benne wafers, melting little savory crackers, are a classic recipe. The grain expert Glenn Roberts is part of a modest push to restore sesame cultivation to the South: His company, Anson Mills, sells small quantities of domestic sesame flour, oil and “benne cream,” which may be described as American tahini. That’s why, at innovative Southern restaurants like Eugene in Atlanta or Rhubarb in Asheville, N.C., benne flour may pop up in the pastry crust for peach pie, benne cream in the dressing for an updated hoppin’ John and benne seeds in a bar snack like Rhubarb’s brown sugar-benne popcorn.
Also boosting interest in and sales of tahini in the United States: the growing number of American vegans, who appreciate its natural richness; its high levels of protein, calcium, iron and fiber; and its smoothie-friendly texture.
In February, halvah completed its artisanal arc with the opening of the chic-simple Seed & Mill stall in the bustling Chelsea Market, where tahini is milled on site. Fluffy round cakes of halvah in flavors like rose, lemon, ginger and cardamom are artfully garnished with shiny coffee beans, leaf-green chopped pistachios and curling chocolate shards, the better to be cooed over and Instagrammed all day long. Its halvah is made by small producers in Israel to the owners’ specifications; some of their recipes include butter, to make the halvah especially light and melting.
“It’s hard to describe halvah to people who’ve never had it,” said Monica Molenaar, an owner. “If they are American, I tell them it’s like the inside of a Butterfinger. And if that doesn’t work, I just give them a taste.”