Halva, an Arabic word meaning sweet, is a well-recognized global dessert that by many accounts dates back to 7th century Persia, when dates and milk were cooked to create a creamy paste. Since then, the term halva has been used to reference a variety of sweets that include the cooking of wheat, rice, or semolina and sunflower or sesame seeds with butter or oil and regionally-specific spices and aromatics.
Iranian halva is comprised of wheat or rice flour that is patiently toasted over low flame until it becomes highly aromatic. Then, butter or oil is added to the mixture, which is cooked – while stirred continuously – until a beautiful golden roux emerges.
The classic version of Iranian halva will add warming spices such as cardamom or cinnamon, together with saffron, rosewater and a sugar syrup, making it a spectacularly flavorful yet straightforward dessert.
Pureed cooked carrots are added to this version, while other varieties may get their signature flavor from ginger.
I have often had a hard time introducing this dessert to my non-Iranian friends and students, as there is genuinely no equivalent in western culture. It is not a cake, not a cookie, not a pie, nor a bread. I have seen it referenced as a paste, which doesn’t sound terribly appetizing; I have also seen it called a brownie, which still doesn’t really fit the bill.
So, let’s just call it halva!
This dish is typically associated with and prepared for the Persian Winter Solstice Festival called Shab-e Yalda, various religious holidays, and funerals and memorials in Iran. However, in our household, we don’t need any special holidays to prepare this satisfying dessert!
- 4-5 average-sized carrots, about 500 g, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup sugar, adjust to your taste
- 1 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup rice flour
- 1/2 cup rose water
- 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
- 2 teaspoons cardamom, ground
- 2 tablespoons pistachio, slivered
- 1 teaspoon dried rose petals, crushed
- Place the carrots in a saucepan with the sugar, water, and salt. Bring to a boil while stirring and dissolving the sugar. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Once cooked, place in a food processor and puree until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
- Select a large frying pan and toast the rice flour over low heat for about 10 minutes. The flour should turn aromatic. However, take extra care not to burn the flour.
- Add the remaining ingredients and the pureed carrots to the frying pan, and continue to stir continuously for 10-15 minutes over low flame.
- The mixture should turn into a thick and smooth paste at this stage.
- Spoon the halva into a plate, a pie dish, or a tart pan with a removable ring and pack firmly with the spoon. Allow the dish to cool and then garnish with ground pistachios and rose petals.
- Halva can be served chilled or at room temperature.
- Store the remaining halva in the refrigerator covered with a lid or plastic wrap.