Why It Works
- Lightly toasting the semolina gives the halva a light golden color and delicious toasty fragrance.
- Fried dried fruit and nuts seasoned with spices adds texture and flavor.
Halva (sometimes spelled halwa) refers to a large family of Indian desserts that can be made with a wide variety of ingredients. Halva can be made from grains like wheat (semolina and wheat flour), pulses like chickpeas and mung beans, nuts like almonds and cashews, vegetables like carrots and pumpkin, and fruits like bananas and sapota; there is a version that is even made with eggs.
Halva is usually served on special occasions and during holidays like Diwali, Holi, and Ramadan, and while it’s technically a dessert, I used to eat it for breakfast as a kid. My recommendation is you should eat it as I do, which is whenever I want something sweet.
Whether you’re using semolina or a carrot, halva is typically prepared by boiling the base ingredient in milk or water along with some kind of aromatic fat, like ghee or coconut oil. Cooks will add spices and seasonings like saffron and rosewater to this mixture to enhance its aroma and flavor, but also its color; presentation can be quite important since halva is often served at celebrations. Similarly, garnishes for halva are used to provide texture and improve its visual appeal: a combination of fried nuts and dried fruit provide crunch and chew, for example, and strands of saffron or sheet of varak (or silver foil) are often used to make halva look more celebratory.
Indian vs. American Semolina
The recipe I’ve provided below is for semolina halva, which might just be the quickest halva to make. Semolina is a coarse wheat flour made from a type of hard wheat called durum. In India, semolina goes by the names sooji or rava and it’s ground a bit more coarsely, with particles that are slightly larger than the semolina sold in American stores (although King Arthur Baking Company makes a coarse semolina that works wonderfully in this recipe). You can use either kind, but a halva made with American semolina will be much smoother in texture than one made with Indian semolina.
To spice the halva, I add a combination of green cardamom, cloves, black pepper, and saffron, but instead of just adding it to the semolina mixture, I incorporate the spice mixture with the dried fruit and nut garnish as well. I also add rosewater for aroma, which is optional but I highly recommend using it. Be sure to add the rosewater toward the end, after the semolina is completely cooked, to prevent its volatile fragrance from evaporating.
How (and Why) to Toast the Semolina
My main deviation from classic methods for making semolina halva is that I prefer toasting the semolina in a pan, which gives the halva a light, toasty aroma. Be sure to stir the semolina occasionally as you toast it to promote even browning and prevent it from burning; burnt semolina will make the halva taste unpleasantly bitter. Once the semolina is toasted, I add in ghee and the spice mixture, which will help bring out the oil-soluble compounds in the spice mixture, and then all you have to do is add boiling water and sugar and simmer the mixture until it’s fully cooked. However, do be careful when adding the boiling water, as the mixture will immediately start to sputter.
Garnishing and Serving
Finally, I prepare the garnish: blanched and peeled nuts and a combination of dried fruits—a mixture of raisins, dried apricots, and dried tart cherries remains my favorite. Once you stir the fried and spiced garnish directly into the prepared halva, you can scrape the mixture into a serving bowl and serve it immediately, or you can set it aside to serve at room temperature at a later time. Just remember that halva is best served warm or at room temperature, as that means the ghee will be a liquid instead of a solid, which gives the rich treat an even more luxurious mouthfeel.
- For the Halva:
- 20 strands saffron
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground green cardamom
- 1 cup (160g) semolina, preferably coarse grade
- 2 tablespoons (30g) ghee (see note)
- 3 cups (710ml) boiling water
- 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
- For the Garnish:
- 2 tablespoons (30g) ghee (see note)
- 6 dried apricots (about 50g total), chopped
- 1/4 cup (40g) raisins
- 1/4 cup (45g) dried sweet and tart cherries
- 2 tablespoons (25g) raw shelled blanched chopped pistachios
- 2 tablespoons (20g) raw sliced or slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons (25g) raw blanched whole cashews
For the Halva: In a small bowl, stir together saffron, pepper, and cardamom; set aside. Place semolina in a medium saucepan, and toast over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to prevent burning, until the semolina smells nutty and turns light brown, about 10 minutes.
Add ghee, and stir to evenly coat semolina. Add half of the spice mixture, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds; reserve the remaining spice mixture for the garnish. Remove from heat.
Stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, slowly and carefully add the boiling water to semolina mixture (it will sizzle and sputter), until water is fully incorporated and mixture is smooth without any lumps. Add sugar and stir until thoroughly incorporated.
Return saucepan to medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently, until liquid has been absorbed and semolina mixture thickens and starts to leave the sides of the saucepan, 30 seconds to 1 minute for fine semolina and 3 to 4 minutes for coarse semolina. Remove from heat, stir in rosewater (if using), cover, and set aside.
For the Garnish: In a small saucepan, melt ghee over medium-low heat. Add remaining reserved spice mixture along with apricots, raisins, cherries, pistachios, almonds, and cashews. Cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is aromatic and nuts are lightly toasted, about 2 minutes.
Add half of the hot fruit and nut mixture to the semolina, and using a rubber spatula, gently stir to combine. Transfer to a serving dish, top with remaining fruit and nut mixture, and serve.
If you don't have ghee, you can use clarified butter.
Make Ahead and Storage
Halva tastes best the day it's made, but it can be made 2 to 3 days ahead of time. To rewarm the halva just before serving, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water to the halva and heat it in a covered saucepan held over medium heat.