SMALL sand-colored blocks of halvah may be a familiar sight on the counters of delis and Middle Eastern markets all over New York City, but not even diehard fans would call it candy with cachet. Falling into the same category as pastel strips of sugar buttons and sticky jelly rings -- things your grandparents ate as children -- halvah is as much about nostalgia as it is about dessert.
In view of this old-fashioned reputation, I was surprised the first time I saw halvah, a sesame paste and honey concoction, in a restaurant, as an ingredient in a dessert. That was two years ago at the Tonic, now closed. The pastry chef, Dalia Jurgensen, layered it with almond ice milk, chocolate sauce and morello cherries in a parfait.
It is on current menus as well. Bill Yosses, the pastry chef of Citarella, beats halvah into the mousselike filling of a dacquoise cake and also stuffs it like a pale bull's-eye into a dark chocolate terrine, where its grainy texture contrasts with the smooth ganache.
At Oceana, David Carmichael rolls it thin, drapes it over puff pastry and tops it with lavender mousse and tiny strawberries. Halvah flavors the base of a nutty-tasting ice cream at Nice Matin. And at Thalassa, the chef, Gregory Zapantis, grinds it into a paste with sweet muscat wine, and folds it into crepes.
Although these dishes may seem like the usual fusion-dabbling, they might also be viewed as the natural progression of a confection that, historically, has always been about variety. The sesame kind is the standard in the United States, but this was not always the case.
The word halvah originates from an Arabic term, halwa, meaning sweetmeat. In the 1,000-odd years that halvah has been written about, recipes for it have included a chewy confection of dried fruit and nuts, a milky pudding of buttered semolina and even a soft, cooked cream made from fresh cheese and sugar, eaten with a spoon. These types of halvah still exist in the Middle East and in Greece.
In Lebanon, where Ghassan Matli, the halvah maker and manager at Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, grew up, halvah is served as a snack or part of a meal. Mr. Matli likes his crumbled and rolled up into pita bread with bananas. ''It's good for breakfast because it makes you strong,'' Mr. Matli said.
At Damascus, he makes his halvah alone, and always under cover of night. ''The recipe is a secret, but I can tell you we use the best sesame seeds, from Guatemala, and not too much sugar,'' he said. ''Many people add too much sugar because sugar is cheaper than sesame. But when it's too sweet, it's no good.''
His recipe, slightly smoother and silkier than many others, is just sweet enough. He makes 300 pounds of it a week most of the year, but up to 50 percent more in spring, when demand is at its peak. This is when Sephardic Jews seek it out for Passover (Ashkenazic Jews do not consider halvah kosher for Passover) and Greeks seek it for Lent. Mr. Zapantis, of Thalassa, said, ''Everyone has halvah during Lent because it has no dairy or eggs.''
Last year, he put halvah in ice cream; this year, crepes. ''I guess when you're in your 20's you experiment with all kinds of new ingredients,'' he said. ''Now I'm 41, and I'm rediscovering my roots.''
Although halvah is not exactly part of Mr. Yosses' roots, it still evokes his childhood in Toledo, Ohio. ''There is a big Lebanese community in Toledo, and we could always find halvah bars in the candy store,'' he said. ''To me it was the Lebanese equivalent of a Milky Way. I love its gritty, crunchy, sticky texture, the way it gets stuck in your teeth. It must be a dentist's nightmare.''
It is that particular layered, almost glassy-sandy texture, which reminds me of cotton candy, that makes halvah so irresistible to its fans. Achieving that texture is no easy feat, even for a professional.
The secret is careful, measured mixing by hand, said Richard Radutzky of Joyva Corporation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the largest halvah producer in the country. ''We make at least 20,000 pounds of halvah every week, and all of it is mixed by hand,'' he said. ''We tried to build a machine to do it, but we couldn't get it right. Most machines mix it too much, which makes it too smooth. But then if you don't mix it enough, it's too rough, and it will fall apart. You are looking to get that perfect flaky texture.''
The halvah (all kosher) is mixed in large, bowl-shaped copper kettles by big, burly men, who alternately paddle, stir and knead a mixture of egg whites, sugar syrup and tahini (sesame paste). Flavorings, like melted chocolate for the marble halvah or pistachio nuts, are added at the end.
''When my grandfather Nathan Radutzky started the company in 1907 on the Lower East Side, there was one flavor, the regular,'' he said. ''Then my father and his brothers added pistachios and marble. The newest flavor we added was 20 years ago, chocolate-covered halvah with almonds. When you have three and four generations in one company, you take baby steps. Change is slow.''
Mr. Radutzky, along with his cousin Sandy Wiener, would like to create newer flavors to entice younger customers. ''We've been tossing around things like cookie dough, cappuccino and cherry, but it's tricky because we don't want to alienate our regular customers either,'' he said. ''People are very passionate about halvah. They really go nuts. We need to think about it, so it may not end up happening for yet another generation.''
That means the world is safe from cookie dough halvah, for, oh, at least 20 years more.
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH HALVAH HONEY SAUCE
Time: 45 minutes
Butter and flour for pan
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 tablespoon brandy or rum
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Halvah honey sauce for serving (see recipe).
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan, line it with parchment paper, and grease and flour parchment.
2. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1/2 cup butter, then add chocolate. Melt, stirring frequently, until just smooth. Remove from heat, whisk in brandy or rum, and let cool.
3. In a large bowl, whisk egg yolks with 1/2 cup sugar and the salt, then whisk in cooled chocolate mixture.
4. In an electric mixer on medium speed, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, and beat to stiff peaks.
5. Stir a little of the whites into chocolate mixture to lighten it, then gently fold all the whites into chocolate. Scrape batter into prepared pan, and bake until cake springs back when gently touched in center and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with some crumbs attached, about 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, and let cool for 20 minutes, then turn cake out onto rack, and cool completely. Wrap well, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight to firm texture. Serve with halvah sauce.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.
HALVAH HONEY SAUCE
Time: 10 minutes
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons tahini
1 1/2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
1 ounce halvah (2 tablespoons, firmly packed).
In a saucepan, bring cream to a simmer. Whisk in the tahini, honey and salt. Simmer the mixture, whisking, until it thickens to a custardlike consistency, about 2 minutes. Let mixture cool, then crumble in the halvah. Serve sauce with the flourless chocolate cake.
Yield: About 1 cup.