Halva is a sweet dessert found in cuisines across the eastern Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East, and South Asia. “Halva” means “sweet” in Arabic and describes two types of desserts: one flour based and the other nut butter based.
Greek halva refers to halva with semolina flour (course wheat flour), which is my personal standard of halva. In Greece, if one receives unexpected special guests whether at one’s home or at a taverna (causal restaurant), halva is one of those desserts that can be whipped up within 30 minutes and the ingredients are always in one's pantry.
How to describe it? Something new, yet familiar; almost pudding-like, but can cut like a cake; reminiscent of childhood with the texture and aromatics of cinnamon and cooked cereal. Over the years, I've tried to figure out how to covert halva with semolina into a worthy gluten-free iteration. I have tried cracked buckwheat, different mixtures of gluten-free flours, but the taste and texture were never quite right. Then, one day when I was vacillating over cereals in the grocery store, Cream of Rice starred at me with the tag “Gluten-Free” on the front of the box. “Hindsight is 20/20,” as my phyiscal chemistry professor would say.
I grew up on Cream of Rice. After making a couple of modifications in the traditional Greek halva recipe, mine is now perfect. My Greek husband cannot tell the difference between the one I make with Cream of Rice versus the one his mother makes the traditional way with semolina flour. He tells me mine tastes better, probably because I buy great quality, fresh cinnamon that can make a big difference. I like to toast pine nuts for the halva, and garnish it with chopped pistachios for great flavor and eye appeal. Nuts are something you can customize in your halva or leave out completely. It is your choice.
In a large heavy saucepan, heat the butter until melted over low heat. Add the Cream of Rice, stirring continuously. When the mixture begins to turn golden, add in the pine nuts/almonds and stir until the mixture is golden brown. Stir in sugar, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Add in the boiling water with caution, stir until blended and cook for 2-3 minutes until the syrup is absorbed. Remove from heat and cover for about 15 minutes.
Turn into a 8-by-8 inch dish, press down firmly and even out with a spatula. While it is still hot, garnish by sprinkling on a light dusting of cinnamon and the chopped pistachios. Gently, but firmly press with hands. Allow to cool slightly, and then cut into 16 pieces. Serve. Any leftovers can be stored in refrigerator, covered.