Once upon a time, before Mediterranean food got a facelift and a silent endorsement from the healthfood industry, tahini was a one-trick pony: you made hummus, and then you mixed in some tahini to give the finished dish that je ne sais quoi. Yes? Yes.
These days, tahini is something of a trend. Tahini is showing up everywhere. At Le Pain Quotidien, a French cafe chain, a spicy tahini dipping sauce accompanies the black bean hummus tartine. Mark Bittman, of Minimalist fame, combines tahini with herbs and onions as a coating for his “15-minute herbed fried chicken.” The day tahini met fried chicken was the day it earned its claim of ubiquity.
Amid all the fanfare about tahini’s versatility in savory dishes, few contemplate its potential in dessert. Aside from halva – the quintessential tahini-based dessert – it makes appearances in sweet things far too infrequently. I’m here to fix that.
But first, some history: while hummus has Lebanese pedigree, according to Wikipedia, tahini first appeared in ancient Persia (Iran) and was called ardeh, or “holy food.” Not limited to the Middle East, tahini is a prominent ingredient in East Asian cuisine as well (it’s zhimajiang in Chinese, nerigoma in Japanese). Depending on the region, tahini is made by grinding either unhulled, hulled, or hulled and lightly roasted sesame seeds. Tahini made of unhulled seeds has a grainier texture and a somewhat darker color. Hulled-seed tahini is lighter, smoother, and has an almost silky consistency.
This silky consistency is exactly what makes tahini an ideal ingredient in sweets and baked goods. An added plus: its high fat content allows it to replace butter or oil, giving it a versatility that water-soluble ingredients, such as applesauce, just don’t have. Whereas adding applesauce to brownies can make them mushy or dense, cookie recipes that call for tahini can be even more delicate than their butter-filled counterparts. Alice Medrich has a characteristically perfect recipe for Sesame Coins in her book “Pure Dessert”, which yields thin, delicate creatures, a sort of hybrid between sables and lace cookies, shot through and through with toasty, nutty, sesame flavor.
The last time I was in Jerusalem, I was watching the sun set after a long summer Saturday in a friend’s hammock, and she and her mother snuck into the house to prepare a surprise dessert. “You’ll never guess the ingredients,” she said. Indeed, she had me fooled. When I tucked into a scoop of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with homemade tahini and local honey, all I knew was that it was the best sundae I had ever tried. The combination is downright addictive.
If tahini cookies and tahini sauce don’t convince you of the versatility of this modest ingredient, allow my granola recipe to serve as key evidence. I developed this recipe after getting sick of my usual recipe, which calls for almond butter. I was concerned the sesame flavor would overwhelm the others, but it didn’t. Because the granola cooks until golden, the other flavors — almonds, oats, ginger, cherries, raisins — get a chance to toast and intensify, bringing the sesame flavor into balance. The result is ideal for breakfast and noshing, final proof that tahini can improve pretty much anything.
Granola with Tahini
2 1/2 cups oats
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup tahini
1 tablespoon walnut oil, optional
2/3 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), either salted or unsalted, depending on preference
2/3 cup sliced almonds
2/3 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup raisins, cranberries, or other dried berry (I like half raisins, half cherries)
2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cloves
Preheat oven to 325˚.
1) In a small bowl, mix syrup, tahini, oil if using, salt, and cinnamon until incorporated. In a large bowl, mix all remaining ingredients until well-distributed.
2) Drizzle the syrup-tahini mixture overtop, stirring with a fork until all dry bits are at least slightly wet and clumps have started to form.
3) Spread granola on a large rimmed baking sheet in a thin layer and bake at 325 for 10-12 minutes.
4) Remove from oven, stir with a fork to move pieces from edge to center and from top to bottom. Make sure pieces that have started to brown are in the center and well-surrounded.
5) Return to oven and bake 10-12 more minutes, until golden brown throughout. Granola will not be crunchy when it leaves the oven; don’t worry — it’ll crisp up as it cools. Once cool, transfer to air-tight container; granola will keep this way for up to 1 month.
Rivka Friedman is a native Washingtonian, back in her home town after stints in Manhattan and Jerusalem. She spends most of her free time cooking up a storm. With whatever time remains, Rivka maintains a food blog, NotDerbyPie, where she catalogs her cooking adventures and posts photos that’ll make you hungry.