Hulwa a’Jamiyya: Take half a pound [ratl] of flour and fry it in four ounces of sesame oil. Take a pound [ratl] of honey and put it on the fire, and if the honey is strong, add water. When it boils, throw it hot on the toasted [flour] and stir it and beat it white. [Take] poppy seeds and pistachios for it and throw them on it. Let the honey be covered with a dirham of saffron. Stir it and put it up covered. Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada Chapter X (The Description of Familiar Foods, trans. Charles Perry). Features in Medieval Arab Cookery, ed. Maxime Rodinson.
When people think of halwa (also halva, halvas or hulva) today, they think of the yummy, slightly gritty sesame-based sweet with nuts. But this is only one type of halwa – halwa literally translates as “sweet,” and refers to a dense sweet based either on flour and honey or sugar syrup, or nut butters/pastes and syrup.
One of the great problems I’ve found with redacting historical recipes is the translation of measurements. For instance, a common measurement in these recipes is the ratl, which often gets translated to “pound.” However, a ratl is NOT the same as an imperial pound, which caused bad results until I found metric equivalents. Furthermore, the same term had different meanings at different times and places, and ratl is certainly indicative of this! If you are interested in checking weights and measures, this site is a great place to start. For reference’s sake, in this recipe I have used the C12 Egyptian measurements. This is why I stick to metric measurements when I write recipes. It’s less painful.
|225 g flour||4 tbs poppy seeds|
|120 mL virgin sesame oil (see Notes)||½ cup pistachios|
|450g honey||Generous pinch of saffron|
- Put the pistachios in a bowl of boiling water for about 20 minutes, then rub off the skins. Allow to dry.
- In a big, heavy based pan, heat the sesame oil over a low heat and then add the flour. Stir well so the flour is completely coated with the oil. Keep stirring for around 10 minutes, until the flour has gone golden and smells toasted. Be careful the flour doesn’t catch and burn.
- In another saucepan, heat the honey to the soft ball stage (112° – 116° C). Then remove it from the heat and skim off any scum.
- Steep the saffron threads in boiling water, then stir into the honey.
- Pour the honey into the toasted semolina, and fold in gently until well mixed and the mixture is pale.
- Add the poppy seeds and pistachios.
- Pour the mix into an oiled cake tin, and cover with cling film.
- Leave in the fridge for at least a day to allow the mix to set properly.
- When set, slice the mix with a knife dipped in warm water.
- When you are dealing with sugar syrup in candy making, you’re transforming sugar from a solid to a liquid, and then back into a solid again, but in a more cohesive form. You combine the sugar with water to dissolve it; but when sugar heats up, it keeps right on getting hotter (unlike water which reaches 100°C and doesn’t get hotter). As the sugar transforms from solid to liquid, you are evaporating water out of the sugar syrup, and the amount of water evaporated will affect the final texture. More liquid evaporated will result in a harder candy.
As the sugar syrup reaches various temperature stages, it will start to behave in different ways, as described below:
Temperature Description (Cold water method of testing) Stage name 110° – 112° C The syrup drips from a spoon, forms thin threads in cold water Thread 112° – 116° C The syrup easily forms a ball in cold water, but flattens once removed Soft Ball 118° – 121° C The syrup is formed into a stable ball in cold water, but loses its round shape once pressed Medium Ball 121° – 130° C The syrup holds its ball shape in cold water, but remains sticky Hard Ball 132° – 143° C The syrup will form firm but pliable threads Soft Crack 149° – 154° C The syrup will crack if you try to mold it Hard Crack 160° – 176° C The sugar syrup will turn golden at this stage Caramel
Prior to the invention of candy thermometers, candy making relied on spooning some of the syrup into cold water and watching how it behaved. It’s known as the “cold water method” of checking the temperature, but the candy thermometer is much more precise.
You can also treat honey as sugar syrup, but the results will have the distinctive honey flavour, and it needs to be watched more closely to ensure it doesn’t burn. However, honey is less likely to crystallise badly when working with it. (LeBau, 2012, 21).
- When working with sugar syrup, as I said, it can get a lot hotter than boiling water. And it’s sticky. SYRUP BURNS HURT. So be very careful when working with sugar syrup that you don’t splash yourself with it. The same goes for hot honey.
- Because making candy from sugar syrup relies on evaporating the water from the sugar, it’s best to make candy on a cool, low-humidity day. Trying to make candy on a day of near 100% humidity, unless you are in an air-conditioned kitchen, is pretty darned impossible.
- You don’t want to heat sugar syrup too rapidly; otherwise it can burn easily, or start to re-crystallise too quickly, and become grainy. Dissolve your sugar over a low heat, and once the sugar has completely dissolved, stop stirring. While the sugar syrup is cooking, regularly brush the sides of the pan with a soft, natural bristled brush. This will brush any syrup that has splashed onto the side of the pan back into the pan, and this will also stop crystallisation.
- If you are used to Asian cooking you’ll assume sesame oil should only be used sparingly, as the type of sesame oil used in Asian cooking can be overpowering if used heavily. However, this type of sesame oil is produced from toasted sesame seeds, which heavily concentrates the sesame flavour and aroma. If you are familiar with modern Indian or Middle Eastern cooking, you might have come across virgin or cold-pressed sesame oil, which is much paler and more subtly flavoured. This is the sort you need to use for baking.
If are going to be cooking for anyone with a sesame allergy, almond oil, rice bran oil or canola oil make good substitutes (the last two don’t have any flavour).