Thursday, February 3, 2011

My kind of sweet

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you are undoubtedly familiar with my proclivity for sweets. I haven't tried to hide it, not for a minute.

Quite the contrary, I have been trying to drag you down this road with me. A road paved with chocolate truffles and mango tiramisu, chocolate dulce de leche bars and triple chocolate cakes, Greek saragli and ravani. I know. I'm shameless. I am without shame.

And because I'm like that and I'm not going to change in the foreseeable future, I have something else for you, for me, for everyone. Another Greek sweet. A Greek sweet that will however make you feel a little less guilty for eating it, since it doesn't include a speck of butter or cream. No, those wicked ingredients will be included in my Valentine's Day sweets.

This Greek dessert is a traditional semolina halva with cinnamon and blanched almonds and trust me, it may be lacking in fat but it is certainly not lacking in flavor. It is a recipe that is categorized under Politiki cuisine, of which I have written about in a previous post. Politiki cuisine is a specific type of cooking of the Greeks who came from Poli (Constantinople) and it is the type of cooking I grew up with—it is my family's way of cooking.

This semolina halva is the one I have been eating ever since I was a little girl. It is the one I yearn to savor every time I go to my grandma's house and the one I have learned to prepare by watching her cook it a million times for my brother and me.

Semolina halva has only a handful of ingredients that yield one of the best desserts. Some of you may have not eaten it before so let me explain how this works. The semolina is first browned in some vegetable oil, while a simple syrup of water and sugar is prepared. The syrup is poured over the hot semolina, making it bubble up and sizzle, and after a few minutes, and through stirring, it calms down, now having the consistency of thick polenta. It is left covered for a while to absorb all the liquid and it is then fluffed up with a fork, like one would do with couscous, and sprinkled with ground cinnamon and blanched almonds.

There are versions of semolina halva that have a very gelatinous texture due to the addition of large amounts of syrup and milk, which I don't like at all. My family's recipe is somewhat different, not to mention better, in both texture and flavor.

The halva has a slight bite to it, being a little granular rather than sticky and has a deep, nutty flavor from the semolina. It is sweet but not overly so, it has a spicy, gentle finish of cinnamony awesomeness and the blanched almonds render a crunchy texture and a beautifully milky taste to the dessert.

Have it after dinner with a cup of coffee or tea or, if you are like me, enjoy it spoonful after spoonful, while you're sitting in front of your computer, reading your favorite blogs.

Politikos Halvas (Greek Semolina Halva with Cinnamon and Blanched Almonds)

Make sure you use good quality semolina because it makes all the difference in this dessert.

I usually buy blanched, halved almonds from the super market but there are times when I can only find raw ones, with skins on, which I need to blanch myself. It is extremely easy to do, believe me, and here's how you do it.
Put them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them stand for 1 minute (not more as they'll lose their crunchiness), drain them, rinse them under cold running water so that they're cool enough to handle, and drain them again. Place them on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze the skin off with your fingers. Pat them dry and they're ready to use.
If you want, you can cut them in half lengthwise but you can use them whole too.

Yield: 6-8 dessert servings

590 ml water
275 g sugar
70 ml corn or sunflower oil
250 g fine semolina
2-3 Tbsp ground cinnamon (or more depending on your taste)
35 g blanched, halved almonds (read above on how to blanch them)

In a small saucepan with a lid, add the water and sugar. Set aside.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer.
Add the semolina and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it has taken on a golden-brown color. This will take about 10 minutes and this is the tricky part of the recipe. You need to stir the semolina the whole time otherwise you run the risk of burning it. You also might need to moderate the heat. If you notice that the semolina is starting to burn rather than brown evenly, then you might want to turn down the heat a little.

While you're browning the semolina, place the small saucepan with the water and sugar over high heat in order to prepare the syrup. Stir with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved and let the syrup come to the boil. Remove from heat and put a lid on the saucepan.
Note: You need to pour the syrup over the browned semolina while they are both hot. So prepare the syrup as late as possible.

Once the semolina has taken on a golden-brown color, take the pan off the heat and pour the hot syrup slowly over the semolina. Be careful, it will splatter as it bubbles up and sizzles. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon while you're pouring the syrup. It would be wise if you'd wear an oven mitt on your hand while doing that, so that you don't get burned by the bubbling up of the semolina. The mixture will have a liquid texture at this point.
When it stops bubbling and sizzling, put the pan back on the heat (low heat) and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously. As you stir the semolina, it will thicken and create large lumps.
Take the pan off the heat, place a clean kitchen towel on top of the pan and put on the lid. After 5 minutes, take the lid and kitchen towel off and allow the halva to cool slightly in the pan.

Using a spoon, break up the halva into smaller pieces and fluff it up a bit, using a fork. Add the ground cinnamon and mix it through. Alternatively, you can sprinkle some cinnamon on top of the halva when you serve it.
Add the blanched almonds on top of each plateful.

The halva is best eaten warm but it can also be eaten at room temperature. I actually prefer it at room temperature myself.

You can keep the halva in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 4 days.


  1. Can save it for up to 4 days ... as if it could last that long! Cheers!

  2. Very interesting! I'd love a bowl right now as I peruse my favorite blogs. :p Looks so good!

  3. Great dish and great post!

  4. I'm glad you also have a sweet tooth because it makes me feel less bad about having one too. Semolina and almonds together sound irresistable so I think this is my kinda dessert. I love your photos and presentation.

  5. Magda, this is so different from the Halváh Cake that I got from my Greek friends. I can't wait to try it - and I just found a great source of top-quality semolina here! The thing I like best about it so far (as I haven't tasted it)? It looks like "home." Comforting. Thanks for sharing this gem.

  6. Love the semolina! I will be making this soon for the fasting season coming up.

  7. What a delightful dessert! That is something I still have to try...



  8. I'm a big fan of halva. This is a great way to serve it. Looks delightful!

  9. wow, another recipe that we share with the Greeks; except in Lebanese cooking there is a lot of cinnamon for savory dishes and not for sweet; this is flavored with rose water and orange blossom water. People also throw in some cheese till it melts in there. All in all a great comfort sweet, I agree!

  10. I didn't know that halva covered different types of dessert - I thought it was just the sesame based blocks you buy in supermarkets. Thanks for extending my knowledge and sharing such an inviting recipe (the last picture is what my bowl would look like!)

  11. You certainly don't have to drag me along behind you for sweets! I'll come along quite happily! This is such an intriguing dish and not what I thought halva would be! But much better! Looks quite delicious!

  12. Hehe no need to explain or apologise for loving sweets! I am the same! :D This looks lovely and simple too!

  13. I'd really love to try a bowl of this. It really does look wonderful. This is my first visit to your blog, so, I've spent some time poking through some of your earlier entries. I really like the food and recipes you feature here and I'll definitely be back for second helpings. I hope you have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

  14. i have always been a fan of halva - i once even made a halva cake for my daughter's birthday (it fell on kathara deftera), and who doesnt love sweets!

  15. OMG.., does it come with instructions on how to stop eating this..., everything in it sounds amazing. Must have :)

  16. I come willingly down the sweet tooth path. No dragging needed here! This looks sooo good Magda, I hope to try making it one day! Thanks

  17. Hi Magda---this must be delicious. A different look and texture, and not too sweet, but nutlike---these characteristics all rate high in my book of desired desserts. lovely!

  18. I cannot get enough of your wonderfully exotic sounding (to me!) desserts. After making your saragli I will now have to try this too! I accidentally bought a bag of fine semolina (I needed the coarser kind) and have been wondering what to do with it. Now I know.

  19. What a lovely and fascinating desert, much like and Indian desert called sujee. I'd love to try this one.
    *kisses* HH

  20. I've never tried anything like this. Looks so tasty - I love sweet + cinnamon too!

  21. hi, just chanced upon this wonderful blog and cant stop drooling ever since! however, this post caught me by surprise! i always thought that halwa was an Indian dessert (am an Indian) since it was a commonly eaten dessert in our household! but guess i was wrong, it seems halwa/halva has its origin in the Mediterranean! wow, who knew that? :) well, on another note, i just recently discovered Greek food and i must say I am in LOVE!!! omg what a delight! as a person who turned nose upon salads, i just cant have enough of the Greek salad with the heavenly feta of course! your blog has got me hooked! looking for more delish vegetarian delights from you :)

  22. Hi there,
    i just tried the recipe. It took 25 minutes for everything to b prepared and cooked. The result was AMAZING!!! A little reminder of my youth...taste, aroma, satisfaction!! I would recommend greek coffee (Elliniko kafe), if you don't have it, tea would do nicely!!
    Well done Magda and thank you!

    1. Hi Antony! Thank you so much for the feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed the halva!