19 May Dry Halvah
Then Serve It Forth…
By Lady Rosemary Willowwood de Ste. Anne
From Germany, where we have spent the last few months, let us go to a warmer climate and to the subject which lies near and dear to the hearts of all – that is, “sweets”. The Arabs and Persians were past masters at using sugar, which is probably due to the fact that they have been raising it on the Indian subcontinent since about 800 b.c.e.; it was mentioned in at least three books of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) as a precious purchased gift to royalty. It was discovered in India (and brought home, of course) by the Persians in a military expedition in about 510 b.c.e.. In 287 b.c.e. Theophrastus described it as “honey which is in a cane”, and Dioscorides (ca. 300 a.d.) described it as “a kind of concentrated honey, called saccharon, found in canes in India and Arabia, like in consistence to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth.” 
Halwā Yābisa” (Dry Halvah)
From A Baghdad Cookery Book, From about 1226
attributed to Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Karim al-Katib al Baghdadi
Take sugar, dissolve in water, and boil it until set: then remove from the dish, and pour on to a soft surface to cool. Take an iron stake with a soft head and plant into the mass, then pull up the sugar, stretching it with the hands and drawing it up the stake all the time, until it becomes white: then throw once more on to the surface. Knead in pistachios, and cut into strips and triangles. If desired it may be colored, either with saffron or with vermilion. Sometimes it is crumbled with a little peeled almonds, sesame, or poppy.
TRANSLATION: This translation was taken from Al-Baghdadi, A Baghdad Cookery Book (1226 A.D./623 A.H.), A.J. Arberry, tr., Islamic Culture 1939. available in Volume I of Cariadoc’s Miscellany, © by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 1988, 1990, 1992.
REALIZATION: For those of you with any experience at candy-making, you may recognize this as a simpler version of pulled taffy. This result will not be as creamy as the stuff you get at the coast, because it contains no corn syrup to inhibit crystal formation.
Bring about 2 cups sugar with 1½ cups water to a boil, boiling until it reaches the “hard ball” stage (260º on a candy thermometer, or until a small amount dropped in cold water forms a ball which can be easily picked up with your fingers). If you wish to color the candy, a few threads of saffron may be added during the boiling process. Pour into a generously oiled pan to cool, 9×13” is a good size. I recommend using sesame oil, because sesame flour and oil are commonly used in “soft halvah” so will be of acceptable taste. Unlike classic salt-water taffy, this must be worked while still very hot, so lifting the hot mixture on a nail or other implement makes good sense. Lift the mass, stretching it and stirring to incorporate the edges until the mass is cool enough to handle. Generously oil your hands, and pull the mass like taffy, until it becomes cooler and white. While still warm and pliable, roll in chopped pistachio nuts, cut the candy into bite-sized pieces, and allow to cool completely.
This candy will cool to a very brittle consistency, almost like maple sugar in texture. The pulling and working is to keep the crystal size small and “chewable”
As an alternative, you can chop or grind the pistachios very finely and work them into the mixture as soon as possible. The candy will have a stronger pistachio flavor, and will be closer in texture to the soft halvah commercially available, but will still be more sugary and crystalline than the modern stuff, which contains a CONSIDERABLE amount of oil.
As with any sugar candy in this rainy state, it should be stored in an air-tight container, or you will have an unworkable sticky mass when you get around to enjoying it..
Vermilion: Painters will recognize vermilion as a red coloration, originally derived from cochineal, a critter ground up for dye. However, today DO NOT USE VERMILION PIGMENT to color any foodstuff! Modern vermilion is mercuric sulfide, derived from cinnabar. Please, no mercury compounds in food!