Semolina halva, traditional and modern too

Today is Clean Monday for Orthodox Christians, a very important celebration in Greece as it is the first day of the Great Lent (Sarakosti) before Pascha (Easter). On Clean Monday the tradition has it to fly kites and eat fasting dishes in the countryside or at home with family and friends. During the period of the Great Lent, at Eat Dessert First Greece we will focus on “sweet” articles with fasting recipes, and other social articles with “sweet” ideas and initiatives too. But let’s start with a dessert first…

Painting by the important Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas (Niko Ghika) (detail) (source)
At the festive table of Clean Monday..

One of our favourite fasting desserts is semolina halva (simigdalenios halvas in Greek). For the Clean Monday’s feast and our first fasting article we made a semolina halva 2 in 1, with two layers, one traditional with almonds and raisins and one more modern with chocolate, cashews and dried kiwi, after we first researched its history and variations in Greeece and abroad.

Wishng a happy Clean Monday!

Except for fasting, semolina halva -and many other Greek traditional sweets- are also vegan, as they don’t contain any animal products. We think that our traditional sweets are a great solution for those interested in or following this kind of nutrition and maybe they are not promoted as a vegetarian and vegan option as much as they could.

Halva, tahinopites (pies made with tahini), kidonopasto (quince paste), spoon sweets, and many more Greek desserts, are all vegan. At Eat Dessert First Greece we love our traditional sweets and we propose those suitable as a vegan choice, familiar, although kind of forgotten, for the Greeks and definitely original for other countries. Our sweets bear tradition, history and memories, and deserve to be promoted in as many ways as we can!

Semolina halva is a confection popular in many places in Greece, as well as in many other countries in the East, and the West too. As Simoni Kafiri mentions in her book Με αμύγδαλα, καρύδια & μέλι (2006), semolina halva was brought to our country by the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople.

The semolina halva of Eat Dessert First Greece is 2 in 1!

Marianna Gerasimou in her book Οθωμανική Μαγειρική (2013) describes that our semolina halva is a variation of a Turkish confection, which in contrast to the tahini halva that was considered the sweet of the poor, was prepared with a mixture of cereals enriched with rich syrups, milk or cream, almonds, pine nuts, pistachio or other nuts. The name comes from the arabic word hulw that means sweet and refers to many different desserts. In Greece we use the name halva for different types too, such as the tahini halva or sesame halva, the halva Farsalon and the semolina halva.

Χαλβάς Φαρσάλων, ένα από τα ελληνικά είδη χαλβά.

Semolina halva is a flexible dessert that can take various forms, depending on the choices we make for its components:

  • the starch-semolina: semolina flour or coarse semolina, corn flour, wheat flour, flour from legumes, rice flour i.a.
  • the fat: olive oil, sesame oil, vegetable oil, clarified butter i.a.
  • the sweetener: sugar, honey, grape molasses, carob honey i.a.
  • the liquid: water, milk, orange juice i.a.
  • the fragrance: cinnamon, other spices, rose water, orange or other citrus zest, vanilla or bitter almond extract i.a.
  • the extras: nuts, dried fruit, candied fruit, raisins, cranberries and other super foods, spoon sweet, chocolate i.a.
  • the shape: cake pan, mini cake molds, glasses, tablespoon i.a.

The traditional recipe of our grandmothers follows the rule 1-2-3-4, meaning one cup of oil, two cups of semolina, three cups of sugar and four cups of water. In contemporary recipes, though, sugar is diminishes, as the dietary habits evolve. Tradition evolves together too. As Mr. Ilias Mamalak very aptly said, tradition is like a river that flows, leaving at the shore some old pebbles and taking with other new ones.

In many places of Greece we find different variations of semolina halva. A characteristic one is the Politikos halvas (from Constantinople) that is made with milk butter and milk and has a brighter colour.

Politikos halvas with milk and orange sauce by Ilias Mamalakis (source)

We found many other local variations of semolina halva in Simoni Kafiri’s book. One such variation is smyrneikos halvas (from Smyrna) which was made with sesame oil, as olive oil was hard to find in the area, and with a syrup with honey or grape molasses instead of sugar.

Chiotikos halvas (from Chios island) is made with butter and milk, with a honey syrup and in some old recipes rice flour was used instead of semolina of wheat flour. During the Great Lent oil and water substituted butted and milk.

Halouvas” of Nisiros island is offered on weddings and celebrations and its recipe contains flour and baking soda diluted in ouzo (a Greek aperitif). Its preparation is quite different, as the halva is baked in a tray in the oven and then moistened with syrup, while usually semolina halva is made in a saucepan.

“Halouvas” from Nisiros island (source: Με αμύγδαλα, καρύδια & μέλι)

Moraitikos halvas (from Peloponnese) is made in a similar way, by firstly preparing the mixture in a saucepan, then baking it in the oven and lastly moistened with syrup.

Another halva that is made in a quite different way is the Rina’s halvas or oven halvas. To prepare it, we must cream the butter with the sugar, then add eggs, flour,  baking powder, semolina and milk and finally bake it in the oven. After baking, the halva is moistened with syrup. This type of halva, according to Simoni Kafiri, was usually made on Easter.

Rina’s halvas or oven halvas from Tselemente’s cookbook (source)

The halvas with rice from Kimi (a town in Evia) made an impression on us. It is made with rice ground with a mortar and pestle or in the blender instead of semolina. To prepare it we must roast the ground rice in butter and then gradually add the syrup with a ladle. This type of halva must stay for and hour in a covered saucepan before getting into a mold.

Halvas Koumiotikos (from Kimi) (source)

And a different halva… Mizithrohalvas from Lesvos island that had as a base a type of “trahanas” (a dried food ingredient) made of mizithra (a Greek fresh cheese), salt and milk. To prepare it we must make a honet syrup, add it to the “trahanas”, let it stand for fifteen minutes and then sprinkle a platter with rose water and spread the halva on top.

Mizithrohalvas from Lesvos island (source)

Looking for other types of halva, we found a recipe for alevrohalvas (flour halva) in a brochure of the residents’ association of the village Agia Efthimia in Fokida from 2014. There we read that alevrohalvas was an easy and common dessert in the village, that was made on the arrival of the fresh oil at the end of November. An inexpensive confection made with oil, flour, sugar, water and cinnamon that made all the houses smell nice!

Alevrohalvas from Agia Efthimia village in Fokida

Many other countries have similar desserts too. The traditional semolina halva from Syria is called Mamounieh and its origin dated back to the ancient times, in the city Aleppo. It is a pudding made with semolina, cinnamon and pine nuts, served warm for breakfast.

Mamounieh from Syria (source)

In Turkey, Un Helvasi halva is made with flour and butter and shaped with two tablespoons. Its texture is more like a paste.

Un Helvasi from Turkey (source)

In India halva -and many other confections- exists in so many variations, at east 25. One that resembles the Greek semolina halva quite enough is Sooji Halwa (sooji means semolina) made with semolina, sugar and clarified butter. It is served crumbled in glasses or bowls.

Sooji Halwa from India (source)

A very original type of halva is Gajar ka halwa. Guess what is it made of… Carrot! A halva with carrot, milk, sugar, clarified butter and nuts, flavored with cardamom and served in the classis Indian way, in a bowl.

Gajar ka halwa from India (source)

In Iran we find the Persian halva, a dense paste made with flour and butter, moistened with a syrup of sugar, rose water, cardamom and saffron. It is served with intricate decorations, topped with coconut, almonds or other nuts. Usually it is consumed during Ramadan and after funerals.

Persian halva from Iran (source)

However, semolina halva reaches the West too. For example, in France they make a semolina cake called Gateau de semoule with semolina, milk, sugar and eggs. The flavor is enriched by raisins and rum, but also sometimes a caramel sauce is poured over the cake.

Gateau de semoule from France (source)

The list of various halvas is really unending… Now though, as we got an appetite seeing all those halvas, we will rush into the kitchen to roast semolina, add some cinnamon and make our home smell delicious! Our halva will have two layer to satisfy all tastes, to bring back memories and suggest something new. So, the traditional layer will have almonds and raisins, while the modern one chocolate, roasted cashews and chopped dried kiwi.

Our semolina halva for Clean Monday will have a traditional layer with raisins and almonds, and a chocolate one with cashews and dried kiwi.

Both layers will be made with the same mixture of extra Virgin olive oil and semolina. In the syrup we will substitute the great Cretan thyme and mountain herbs Samaria honey for sugar, for taste and health, and also because we try to support local Greek businesses and producers. As honey is not considered a vegan product though, those who make this nutrition choice can use the same recipe, only with agave syrup instead of honey.

Thyme and mountain herbs Samaria honey is a 100% natural product, produced in Agia Roumeli, Sfakia Crete by Ioannis R. Tzatzimakis (

Our recipe

Semolina halva 2 in 1

Ingredients for the semolina halva

Semolina flour1 cup
Coarse semolina (or semolina flour)1 cup
Extra virgin olive oil1 cup
Cinnamon powder1 tbs
Couverture50 gr
For the syrup:
Honey or agave syrup (for vegans)1,5 cup
Water3 cups
Orange juice1 cup
Cinnamon 1 stick
Lemon peel1
Almonds0,5 cup
Raisins0,5 cup
Cashews0,5 cup
Dried kiwi0,5 cup
Our ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, semolina, thyme and mountain herbs Samaria honey, cinnamon, lemon, couverture, raisins, almonds, cashews, dried kiwi…

How to make the semolina halva

Τhe first step is to roast in a small pan the cashews and the almonds separately, as they will be used in different layers of our dessert. Roughly chop the nuts and the dried kiwi and finely chop the couverture.

Then prepare the syrup in a saucepan. Put the water with the cinnamon stick and the lemon peel for two minutes to boil. Add the orange juice and boil for three more minutes. Finally add the honey (or agave syrup) and stir well. We don’t add the honey from the beginning so that it keeps its nutrients.

Then, warm the olive oil in a deep saucepan and pour the semolina inside. Roast while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it gains a nice colour and the kitchen smells nice, for 7-8 minutes approximately. In the end, add the cinnamon powder and stir.

We even had a mixing halva competition….

Take the saucepan off the heat and pour inside the warm syrup with a ladder, carefully as it spills and burns! Add the syrup gradually, a spoon at a time, stirring well to incorporate before adding the next one. When all the syrup is added, put the saucepan back on low heat and stir until it becomes like a choux paste (pâte à choux), meaning it comes off the sides of the saucepan and it gathers around to the wooden spoon.

Place the chopped couverture in a bowl and add half of the halva mixture. Stir to homogenise the mixture and add the cashews and dried kiwi. To the other half of the halva mixture add raisins and almonds, to make the traditional layer. It goes without saying that you can use the basic halva recipe and enrich it with a anything you want!

Pour firstly the traditional halva mixture into a cake pan and press well with a spatula so that there is no air left inside that would create holes. Add the chocolate mixture on top. Let cool for half an hour at least and take it out on a platter. The outcome will be impressive, as suits the table of Clean Monday.

Happy sweet creations and enjoy everyone!

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. That’s a wonderful post about so many varieties of halwa.
    I loved the way you have presented simple rava halwa through cake pan.


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, we are glad to hear that!

      Liked by 1 person

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