Classic Greek semolina dessert with a seasonal twist
Halva is the perfect go-to dessert during periods of Orthodox lent. Naturally vegan it meets all the requirements of no meat, eggs, or dairy when we are fasting. Although the Orthodox calendar is almost 1/3 fasting days, halva is so good that we find ourselves making it even when we can have egg, butter and dairy filled desserts like bougatsa or galaktoboureko or double chocolate zucchini cake.
We love halva so much that this is the fourth halva recipe we have posted, and it’s hard for us to decide which one we love best. Is it the classic orange flavoured halva with raisins, or our chocolate halva, or perhaps the apple and raspberry beauty? Or maybe it’s this one – a halva made with cactus pears (a favourite fruit of our dad’s), dry lavender and walnuts. This halva ends up being a beautiful colour and has a taste that is sweet, fresh and mildly addictive.
The truth is however that although our parents, and we, love halva, not everyone in our family feels the same way about this semolina based dessert. The texture is certainly something to contend with. As it cools, the semolina that has been toasted in olive oil and then boiled in a fragrant sugar syrup, sets. What results is a firm, but kind of mushy dessert that holds its shape when removed from the mould you have poured it into.
Halva is not only versatile in the flavours you add to it, but you can also get quite creative with the shape that it takes. You can pour your warm halva into a jell-o mould, a bundt pan, mini cake pans, or in a spring form pan as we have done here. We like this particular shape because the surface then allows us to decorate the halva easily with the key flavour ingredients. Let your halva be your canvas, and decorate away!!
What exactly are cactus pears?
The plants of cactus pears, also known as prickly pears, or fragosyka in Greek, can be found in the rocky terrains of Greece across much of the country, including the Peloponnese where our family is from. These days they have really gained in popularity and so if you can’t get to Greece to get them there, most larger markets do carry these lovely seasonal fruits.
To peel cactus pears simply cut off each end and using a sharp knife cut through the peel, top to bottom. Then, simply open up the peel to reveal the gorgeous fruit.
If you want to read more about cactus pears, and see our dad in action as he picks them in Greece, check out our post for cactus pear, orange and Metaxa cocktail.
Should I take any precautions when adding the syrup to the semolina?
Yes! As you read through the recipe you will see that you will be combining the sugar syrup to the semolina mixture. The risk here as you combine two hot mixtures (one of which contains sugar) is that you may have some splattering. For this reason, it is very important to cook the semolina in a large, deep pot, and to add the liquid syrup slowly, and off the heat. If you can allow the syrup to cool a little as well, that is ideal.
Should I remove the lavender from the syrup?
We don’t, as we like the bit of texture and flavour that the dry lavender adds – plus it’s an extra step to strain the syrup. You can choose to remove them if you prefer however.
How long does halva keep?
Kept in the refrigerator, halva is good for at least a week.
Looking for other lent-friendly and vegan desserts? Here you go:
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Cactus pear, lavender and walnut halva (Χαλβάς με φραγκόσυκο, λεβάντα και καρύδια)
- Spring form pan
- 2 cups semolina or 340 grams
- 1 cup olive oil or 250 ml
- 6 cups water or 1500 ml
- 2 cups sugar or 400 grams
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tsp dry lavender or 3 grams
- 1 1/2 cups cactus pear puree, seeds removed from approx. 6 cactus pears, see Notes or 375 ml
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or 50 grams
- 2 cactus pears, sliced
- 1/4 cup walnuts or 25 grams
- 1 tsp dry lavender or 3 grams
- In a medium saucepan combine the water, sugar, cinnamon sticks and dry lavender. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and simmer, covered, for approximately 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Remove cinnamon sticks and lavender (if desired) from the syrup and discard them.
- In a large pot heat the olive oil and the semolina over medium heat. Stir well and cook, stirring constantly until the semolina starts to brown slightly and smells toasty. Move pot off of the burner for the next step.
- Very carefully, add the syrup to the pot with the semolina and oil. It will likely splatter, so be very careful and be sure that there are no children or pets near the oven. Once all of the syrup has been added, return the pot to the heat. Reduce heat to low-medium.
- Add the cactus pear puree and the chopped walnuts to the pot and stir well to combine.
- Stir constantly. The mixture will thicken and begin to pull away from the sides as you stir it. When it has reached this consistency, remove from the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes. See video here.
- Ladle the mixture into a lightly greased spring form pan. Before the halva has set decorate the top with sliced cactus pear, walnuts and lavender. Let the halva cool and refrigerate for at least one hour.
- Remove the side of the spring form pan and serve.