It's a little crazy, how many years I had been eating hummus before I knew what tahini was. It was never a part of my childhood pantry and, as I only ever encountered it blended into a delectably creamy mess of chickpeas, lemon and garlic, I suppose it makes sense that I hadn't heard of it until I started getting into food in my mid-20's.
I remember discussing tahini with a friendly employee at my local independent market when I was living in London and how enthusiastically this young, bearded, flannel-wearing Canadian man extolled its virtues. My brain struggled to wrap itself around the fact that A) there was an equivalent of peanut butter made out of sesame seeds and, B) that it was the second main ingredient in a culturally relevant dip that I had been enjoying my entire life. I hastily bought a jar, trotted home, opened it, dunked in a spoon, put the creamy paste to my mouth and—BLEH!!—almost spit it out. It was SO BITTER! I could not comprehend who would voluntarily eat this stuff, let alone recommend it to other people.
Needless to say, I eventually wholeheartedly boarded the tahini train. The turning point came almost a year later when a new friend (incidentally, also Canadian) asked me if I wanted some halva—a Middle Eastern treat which I had also never heard of. Shaped into a bar with the consistency of snappy nougat, this mysterious dessert is traditionally made with two ingredients: tahini and honey. Little did I know it, but this was a watershed moment. Halva changed my life.
Let's just take a moment to appreciate the divine relationship of these two ingredients. Have YOU ever mixed tahini with honey (and a pinch of salt) and spread it on toast…or eaten it with a spoon? Game changer. For real. (On a side note, don't ever buy the commercially packaged halva you typically see in grocery stores or Middle Eastern markets, as it's loaded with corn syrup and other junk. If you're curious to try it—which you totally should—make sure the only ingredients on the package are sesame and honey. Or get it from an outdoor market in Israel, where it is a whooooole other level of cloud-like, melt in your mouth deliciousness.)
A Tale of Two Tahinis
As I began to fully integrate tahini into my life, I quickly learned that there are two different types of tahini: hulled and unhulled. But what does this even mean? What is the difference in flavor, consistency and nutritional value?
The easiest way to understand it is to liken the sesame seed to a grain of wheat, as they both have an outer shell that contains a hefty portion of their nutrients. When this outer bran is removed from a grain of wheat, we get white (or "all purpose") flour; when the outer shell of the sesame seed (called the "hull") is removed (as shown in the middle sesame seed photo above), we get a lighter, more refined version of tahini. This is hulled tahini. Unhulled tahini is like whole wheat bread: thicker, darker, maybe not as sweet and tasty, but packed with way more nutrients.
For such a tiny thing, sesame seeds are actually an incredible source of copper, calcium, magnesium and iron. While the hulled seed still contains some of this nutritional value, it is no longer a whole food and much of it is lost. Take the calcium, for example. According to WHFoods, one tablespoon of unhulled sesame seeds contains about 88 milligrams of calcium (for perspective, one tablespoon of whole milk only contains 17 mg of calcium; maybe we should start feeding our youths sesame milk instead?). Once the hull of the sesame seed has been removed, the calcium content plummets to about 37 milligrams, which is 60% less!
Unfortunately for us, most commercial brands of tahini are made out of hulled sesame seeds because they blend more smoothly and are less bitter in taste. Unless your jar of tahini says "unhulled" or "whole" in front of the word "sesame" on the front or in the ingredients list, it's safe to assume that you've got the refined version. I picked up a jar of Al-Arz Whole Sesame Tahini in Israel which was the sweetest tahini I've ever tasted. When I returned home, I was able to track it down at a Jewish market in LA (yes, okay, I emailed the manufacturer to find out if they had US distribution, shhhh). Sadly, I haven't found a single brand of unhulled tahini in the Bay. But the good news is that if you can't find it in your area and don't want to buy it online, you can always make your own. Just make sure you buy raw, unhulled (brown) sesame seeds when you do!
Halva is the New Healthy [Macaroon]
I knew I wanted to create something to share with you all in time for Passover (in case that's your jam) that would also be non-denominationally delicious. Running through the list of traditional dishes in my head, it wasn't too long before lightning struck: halva macaroons! Most of the macaroon recipes I've seen and tested use condensed milk as the primary sweetener and binder, which yes, is delicious, and is also pretty terrible for you. Halva spread (tahini + raw honey, not turned into candy-nougat-treat) is delicious, super nutritious, AND basically the consistency of condensed milk! I felt like I was onto something big, and guess what? It totally worked!
I made these macaroons on the larger side because I was feeling excited about them and was feeding them to grown adults, not small children (mostly; hi Sadie and Theo!). I invite you to make them whatever size feels right for your crowd, just be mindful to adjust the baking time accordingly. I also drizzled the chocolate because I thought it would look pretty, but I encourage you to dip the tops of the macaroons in it if you want a richer party in your mouth.
Tahini Honey (Halva) Macaroons
Adapted from Danny Cohen's 'Danny Macaroons' recipe
makes 26 1" cookies
2/3 cup tahini (preferably unhulled)
1/3 cup raw honey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
14 oz. (4 1/4 cups) unsweetened, shredded coconut
2 large eggs, whites only
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips
1 tsp. coconut oil
Flaky sea salt (like Maldon), to finish
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, melt honey over low heat until entirely liqueified.
3. Add tahini and whisk together until the mixture becomes like the consistency of condensed milk, thick but still runny.
4. Whisk in vanilla.
5. In a large bowl, mix together the shredded coconut and salt.
6. Pour the tahini honey mix into the coconut and, using your hands, blend together until the coconut is entirely covered. The consistency will be sticky and crumbly, almost like a crumb cake topping.
6. In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment or with an electric beater/whisk, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.
7. Gently fold egg whites into the coconut mixture.
8. Using your hands, form 1"-2" balls with flat bottoms out of the coconut mixture and set on parchment. They can be set close together, as they will not expand when baked.
9. Bake macaroons for 13-18 minutes, depending on size, until the tops and bottoms are golden.
10. Once the macaroons are done baking, remove from oven and set aside. Cool completely on tray.
11. Melt chocolate chips and coconut oil in a double boiler. Drizzle chocolate over macaroons with a fork or, once the macaroons have cooled, dip the tops or bottoms of them into the chocolate. Finish with a pinch of flaky sea salt.
12. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to allow the chocolate to set.
Macaroons will keep refrigerated for up to a week.