Jul 7, 2013

Triple Chocolate Halawa Cookies


Halawa (also known as Halvah, Helva, or Heleweh – and a variety of other pronunciations depending on your region) translates to ‘sweetness’ in Arabic and has to be my favorite hidden gem here in the Middle East.  And I cannot understand why it is so underutilized.  If it’s an ingredient you’ve never tasted or seen before, you’d probably pass it in the grocery store without even giving it a second glance (you can find it usually next to the jams and peanut butter).  It’s pretty non-descript in appearance, but once you have a slice it’s a taste you truly won’t forget.
Halawa’s main ingredient tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds, gives it a strong nutty, almost savory flavor.  However halawa is usually pumped with sugar, butter, chopped nuts, or like the version I’m using here today, chocolate. 
Traditionally halawa was sold in blocks by the kilogram, however today it can easily be bought in 500 grams tubs.  Although halawa is a solid mass, as soon as you scoop or slice it, it easily crumbles.  The texture can be compared to a dry version of feta cheese (texture however, not taste!) 
Many countries throughout the Middle East, Far East, and Europe have their own version of Halawa.  In India for example, Halva is prepared with semolina, cashew nuts, or chick peas and is normally served at weddings.  Israel’s Halvah is typically made with tahini and does not include any dairy products such as butter or milk and is most usually eaten with toast at breakfast. 
Lebanon is the largest exporter of Halawa throughout the Middle East (their version is also tahini based) and typically contains pistachios, almonds, and chocolate.
And since I am always up for using sweets in different ways, I was determined to find another purpose for halawa when baking.  You may recall the Chocolate Halawa Nut Bars I made last year.  For today’s recipe, I used halawa two ways in the cookie.  First I incorporated 2 cups of crumbled halawa into the batter.  This gave the overall taste of the cookie a somewhat nutty, salty under-tone, but definitely not over whelming.   But what I was surprised to find was how unbelievably soft the texture of the cookie was.  This is no crisp cookie.  It’s heavenly soft and melts in your mouth, but not at all in a greasy way.  Store-bought soft cookies (including the ones from the bakery counter) are usually loaded with shortening to provide a soft texture, thus giving you that greasy-roof-of-the-mouth feel.
I also crumbled the halawa on top of the cookie prior to baking.  It somewhat melted and gave the cookie a really interesting appearance.  This was an ‘ahh-ha!’ moment because I then realized you can easily crumble halawa on top of your brownies and cakes too, yet another use for the future. 
Lastly, if you’re in the US reading this, you might have to dig a bit deeper to find halawa in your area.  You best bet would be to check your neighborhood Jewish, Indian, or Middle Eastern grocery shop.  If they don’t carry it, surprise surprise Amazon has it too, click here.
Triple Chocolate Halawa Cookies
makes about 4 dozen large cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup cocoa (I use Hershey’s Special Dark, I find it’s the best affordable quality cocoa on the market)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups chocolate halawa, crumbled
1 ½ cups chocolate chips 


Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. 

Sift together flour, cocoa, salt, and baking soda in a medium sized bowl.

Make sure your sous chef is nearby...

Whisk to combine.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream together the butter, sugars, and vanilla until light and fluffy, about 4-5 minutes.

Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Gradually add the dry ingredients in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  

To avoid a mess in your kitchen from flour flying everywhere, place a towel over the top of your mixer before turning it on.This keeps the floury wonderland effect to your kitchen at a minimum.

Fold in the crumbled halawa and chocolate chips. Do not over mix. 

Keep the pieces of halawa somewhat chunky so they won’t disappear into the batter (the white contrasts nicely here with the dark cocoa).

Place large mounds of dough onto the cookie sheet (about 2 tablespoons for each).  Sprinkle crumbled halawa on top of cookie (optional).

Bake for 12 minutes or until the center is set.  Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.


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