Lenten Desserts to Enjoy: Tahini Cake and Halvas

Tahinopita, a nistisimo cake. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

During Great Lent, there are a number of classic Greek desserts that can satisfy the sweet tooth, including tahini cake and halva. Traditional favorites, both desserts highlight Greek ingredients and flavors. Halva has the bonus feature of being made entirely on the stovetop, no baking required.

Tahini Cake (Tahinopita)

  • 3 and 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon Greek sea salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup Greek honey
  • 1 cup tahini
  • 1 and 1/3 cups orange juice
  • 1/2 cup cognac, Metaxas works well
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup raisins
  • Sesame seeds, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the baking pan by lightly greasing a 13 by 9 inch baking pan with a little olive oil, then dust with a little flour, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ground cloves, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the sugar, honey, tahini, orange juice, and the cognac. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just combined. Fold in the walnuts and raisins. Golden raisins or a mixture of golden and dark raisins can be used, if preferred. Pour the cake batter into the prepared 13 by 9 inch baking pan, top with sesame seeds, if preferred, and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the strength of your oven. A toothpick, skewer, or cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely before cutting into squares and serving.

Halvas with semolina. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

Halvas with Semolina

  • 2 cups semolina (coarse ground durum wheat)
  • 5 cups water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Greek honey
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 5-7 whole cloves
  • Two-inch strip orange peel
  • 1 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup blanched almonds, chopped or sliced as preferred
  • Ground cinnamon for dusting
  • Sliced almonds for decorating

For the syrup, in a large, deep pot, boil the water, sugar, honey, cinnamon stick, whole cloves and orange peel for about five minutes, reduce heat. Meanwhile, heat the cup of oil in a large sauté pan until it shimmers, reduce heat to medium. Add the semolina, stirring with a wooden spoon and cook until it absorbs the oil and colors lightly or as golden as you prefer. Add the almonds and cook until they too are toasted and lightly colored. Remove the cinnamon stick, whole cloves and the peel from the syrup and add the toasted semolina and nuts to the pot. Stir until the syrup is absorbed and the mixture no longer sticks to the sides of the pot or to the wooden spoon. Switch off the heat and cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel and the lid of the pot. Let stand for 15-20 minutes. Remove the lid and the kitchen towel and transfer the halva to a tube pan or Bundt cake mold and press in with a rubber spatula. Unmold onto a serving plate and sprinkle with a little ground cinnamon and decorate with additional sliced almonds. Alternatively, after the halva has rested in the pot, it may be transferred to custard cups and unmolded onto dessert plates for individual servings dusted with cinnamon and decorated with sliced almonds as above. Allow the halva to cool completely before slicing and serving. Pine nuts or a mixture of walnuts or almonds and pine nuts can be substituted for the almonds.