Persian Purim Halvah

What do Persian Jews prepare for each other to celebrate Purim? I have always wondered about this. The Persian Jewish community is very insular, and I have never had the opportunity to ask. Thanks to the development of social media, it was possible for me to approach a group of Persian Jewish women to inquire. The special Purim treat of the Persian Jews is saffron halvah.

Saffron halvah is not like the white sesame halvah I am used to from Israel. A base of flour and oil is cooked, and then flavored with nuts and spices. Its consistency is more akin to that of a brownie. The resulting halvah has a deep golden tone, and is redolent of saffron and rosewater. The soft pastry is accentuated with the crunch of almonds and pistachios. It is a Purim treat that truly harkens back to Queen Esther’s palace.

Saffron Halvah
Adapted from the Iran Chamber Society

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 7/8 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup rosewater
  • 12 threads of saffron
  • 1 tablespoon almonds, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon pistachios, crushed
  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot.
  2. Mix in the flour.
  3. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly.
  4. When the dough thickens, turn off the flame.
  5. In a separate pot, bring the water and sugar to a boil.
  6. Add the saffron to release its golden color and aroma.
  7. Add the rosewater.
  8. Turn off the heat.
  9. Pour the sugar syrup into the dough.
  10. Mix thoroughly.
  11. Pour the halvah onto a serving platter.
  12. Flatten the dough with a spatula or spoon.
  13. Garnish with crushed almonds and pistachios.

Tahini-Carrot Cake for Tu B’Shvat

— by Ronit Treatman

During the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the “New Year of the Trees,” it is always freezing in Philadelphia. I enjoy celebrating with foods that incorporate dry fruits and nuts, to honor the trees, and in hopes that spring will arrive soon.  

One of Israel’s most creative chefs, Yaron Albalak, has created a cake for Tu B’Shvat which is infused with the flavors of Israel’s trees. Almond extract, date honey, dried apricots and pistachio nuts pay homage to the bounty nature has blessed us with.  

This moist, delicious cake pairs perfectly with a cup of hot tea.

Full recipe after the jump.
Tahini-Carrot Cake — Adapted from chef Yaron Albalak

For the batter:

  • 2 cups unbleached flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons Amaretto liqueur or almond extract
  • 1/2 cup raw tahini paste
  • 1/2 cup unsulfured dry apricots, chopped
  • 2 cups carrots, grated
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the garnish:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place all of the ingredients for the batter in a bowl, and mix well.
  3. Pour into an oiled Bundt pan.
  4. Bake for 50 minutes. (Check the cake with a wooden toothpick. If necessary, allow to bake longer.)
  5. Drizzle the cake with Silan date honey, garnish with shaved halva and pistachios.  

Israeli Lag Ba’Omer Bar-B-Que

— by Ronit Treatman
Every year, on the thirty-third day between Passover and Shavuot, my cousins and I would forage for dry wood.  We needed this wood to build a bonfire for our Lag Ba’Omer “kumzitz” or gathering.  While the origins of this holiday are not entirely clear, for me the most meaningful part of Lag Ba’Omer is commemorating the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire.  Lag Ba’Omer traditions include the lighting of bonfires, picnics, and Israeli folk music and dancing.

More after the jump.  
The Bar Kokhba revolt took place from 132 CE to 136 CE.  Jews of the Judaea Province, led by Shimon bar Kosiba (also called Simon Bar Kokhba), rebelled against Emperor Hadrian.  Bar Kokhba occupied Jerusalem and was responsible for many casualties among the Roman troops. The result of this uprising was the creation of an independent State of Israel.  Simon Bar Kokhba ruled it for three years.  He took the title of “Nasi Israel”, or “President of Israel.”  He announced the “Era of the redemption of Israel” and minted coins with this inscription.  In 135 CE, six legions of the Roman army led by general Sextus Julius Severus crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt.  This was the last time that Israel was a sovereign state until 1948.

In the days of Bar Kochba, Roman troops lit bonfires on hilltops and towers to be used as signals.  Jews were forbidden to light bonfires, lest it become a military tactic.  In Israel, people celebrate Lag Ba’Omer by lighting the once prohibited bonfires.  Children reenact the guerilla warfare between Bar Kokhba’s forces and the Roman Legio X Fretensis with bows and arrows made from sticks.  

All that gathering of wood and reenacting of the Bar Kokhba revolt creates a healthy appetite!  Enjoying an outdoor meal around the bonfire is one of the nicest customs of this holiday.  The traditional Israeli Lag Ba’Omer picnic is very simple.  Cold, peeled, hard-boiled eggs are brought from home.  They are eaten with potatoes that are roasted in the bonfire.  Here is a recipe.

Bonfire Roasted Potatoes With Biblical Herbs

  • Large Russet Potatoes
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Minced fresh garlic
  • Minced fresh chervil

Wash the potatoes well.  Cut each potato almost in half.  Rub with olive oil.  Sprinkle salt, pepper, and the spices of your choice in the potato.  Wrap well with aluminum foil.  Bury the potato in the embers of the bonfire for 30 minutes.  Remove the potato from the fire, and unwrap carefully.

When you open the aluminum foil, the aromas of the hot potato will caress your nose and tempt your palate.  This method of cooking produces a potato with a very unique flavor.  It will be tender, salty, and a little smoky.  Enjoy every bite of it, including the skin!

Preparing dessert in a bonfire is a lot of fun.  What better way is there to conclude the Lag Ba’Omer feast than with that wonderful invention of the American Girl Scouts, the s’more?!

Classic Girl Scout S’more

  • 1 graham cracker
  • 1 large kosher marshmallow
  • 1.5 oz. piece of chocolate

Snap the graham cracker in half.  Place the chocolate on one piece of graham cracker.  Impale the marshmallow on a stick, and roast in the bonfire until it becomes golden-brown and begins to melt.  Place the hot marshmallow over the piece of chocolate.  Use the other piece of graham cracker to hold it in place as you pull the stick out.  Press the sandwich together and enjoy the gooey, crunchy treat.

Here is a s’more recipe with an Israeli twist.

Israeli Halva S’mores

  • 1 graham cracker
  • 1 large kosher marshmallow
  • 1 slice of sesame halva

Please proceed as in the recipe for Classic Girl Scout S’mores, replacing the chocolate with a slice of sesame halva.  This sweet and nutty treat is reminiscent of a fluffer nutter.

It is traditional to bring along a guitar or accordion for an Israeli folk song sing-along.  Alternatively, you can bring some recorded music with you.  The high point of the Lag Ba’Omer celebration is dancing a lively Hora around the fire.  As I retell Bar Kokhba’s story and celebrate, I know that Shimon bar Kosiba,  “son of the star,” would feel that he had not fought in vain if he could see us now.