When I was growing up in Jerusalem, Israel was practically a third world country. Since then, it’s leap-frogged into today’s “Startup Nation.”
One of the ways in which this developing-country mode expressed itself, at least from my child’s point of view, was in the culinary sphere. Nothing could match the fragrant and abundant bakeries replete with their yeasty treats, but when it came to snacks it was pretty much bamba, bisli, the delicately foil-wrapped krembo, or a simple chocolate bar.
And then was halva, the treat that said “Israel.”
In America at the time there was a huge variety of kosher candy and chocolate bars, from Hershey’s to red straw Twizzlers. But the velvety pale crumbly halva was nowhere to be found.
Then a few years ago, halva exploded as the on trend foodie ingredient — both halva and its close cousin, the creamy sesame paste tahini. Talk about worlds colliding!
Here was my primitive halva reaching starring role status in the gourmet food scene.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s brownies with a tahini halva flavored glaze were deemed divine. The New York Times salted chocolate chip tahini cookies — that tahini infusing a good ’ol routine American chocolate chip cookie with a Middle Eastern halva flair — became the new frontier of chocolate chip cookie innovation.
Bon Appetit magazine ran a Chocolate-Tahini Linzer Cookie recipe, showcasing a beautiful, glossy, full page photo of the cocoa shortbreads in square, diamond and tear drop shapes filled with jewel-toned jams inside.
If you weren’t already turned on by the halva-tahini craze, Michael Solomonov of Zahav fame had a Tehina shortbread cookie recipe to add to the collection. And once I was at a Shabbat meal where dessert was Halva blondies, the last piece was literally fought over.
This elevation of the humble halva’s rise to superstar status has not been limited to America and Europe. In Israel itself, the Halva Kingdom, a halva bar boasting round and domed halva “cakes” of endless flavors such as coffee, chili and pistachio, located in the heart of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market, has become a tourist stop.
There’s a whole art to slicing a piece of halva carved from those cakes. I think it’s one of those Israel gifts that the customs and security agents have become accustomed to seeing from Israel travelers.
Halva and tahini have become ubiquitous now, lending a certain validation of my Israeli childhood. It’s cool to have been ahead of a food curve — even if at times I detested it!
Then today, I was surveying the pastry shelves at a Whole Foods Market, trying to find new baking ideas, something jumps out at me from the plexiglass case. I take a second look. Can it be?
Ma’amoulim? Did I just see that word?
My eyes follow the shelf beneath the sign touting the vegan quality of the cookies. Sure enough, there were overflowing confectionary dusted ma’amoulim, the Levant’s signature date-filled Sephardic shortbread cookies.
Well, what do you know! Good ma’amoulim are one of the yardsticks by which the talent of a Sephardic “balabusta” is measured. Word is, the secret to the perfect ma’amoulim dough is using boiling hot water.
Startup Nation, indeed. Forget about technology. The current trendiest pastries at Whole Foods and beyond are the stuff of my childhood back when Israel was still a developing country.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News