Halvah is a well-known treat in the Middle East and Israel. People buy slices of the sesame-based sweet cut from wheels or loaves in open-air markets and snack on it, crumble it onto toast or yogurt, and even make it into sandwiches.
Here on the North Shore, unless you grew up near a Jewish deli or have traveled afar, it isn’t so familiar. But Victoria Wallins thinks it should be. Nut-free, gluten-free, and packed with protein, the crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth candy made from tahini (a paste of ground-up sesame seeds) and sugar syrup is the perfect treat. “I love it,” Wallins says. “I crave it. I grew up eating it as a child, and there’s just something about the flavor, the texture.… It’s hard to stop eating it, even for me.”
And she’s hands-deep in it several times a week, packaging the candy herself for her business Halvah Heaven. Obsession led the serial entrepreneur to take a deep dive into halvah, experimenting with recipes and knocking on doors for years before launching her business. “It checks all the boxes for current food trends,” Wallins says. “It is a more clean candy that is addictive, gluten-free, and vegan.”
Previously, Wallins introduced locally roasted coffee to New England with two Beans cafes in the 1990s. She also owned home décor and women’s clothing stores in Wellesley before launching into the uncharted territory of halvah.
It might be kismet that enabled Wallins to turn her obsession into an international business. She relocated from Sherborn to Rockport in 2017, out of sheer love for the North Shore. After meeting with numerous manufacturers around the country and even in Canada in the hopes of getting someone to produce her candy (which is made just 18 pounds at a time), she found a perfect partner right in her own backyard at Tuck’s Candy Factory. The third-generation company has been making chocolates, fudge, and salt water taffy by hand for 90 years, and was happy to take on the project.
The way it’s worked out is impressive, especially since more than one manufacturer said it couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done—which just made Wallins even more determined. “I almost broke my KitchenAid mixer, just burnt out the motor,” she recalls of her early experiments with the recipe. “I made dozens of batches, throwing most away. I was just driven.”
The Internet, usually a wealth of information on just about any topic, was surprisingly bereft of guidance, perhaps because even in countries where halvah is a popular snack, no one makes it at home anymore. But overseas consumers have a choice of dozens of providers. Here in the United States, Wallins says she only found one company in the entire country making halvah—Joyva in Brooklyn, New York. And it was clearly a mass-produced product, made with corn syrup, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil.
“I was motivated to just see if I could do this without the corn syrup and the additional oils,” Wallins says. “No one was trying to do this. I mean, look at the caramel world. Look at the chocolate world. There’s so many brands—a new brand every other day. But this universe was just me going after it.”
Along the way, Wallins found inspiration in a few surprising places. In a TV segment on Martha Stewart touring the Joyva factory, she saw men stirring 64-pound batches of the thick paste by hand. Another inspiration came from that New England classic Marshmallow Fluff. Both Fluff and halvah start with a foamy nougat base—before veering off in dramatically different directions.
Now, with her recipe perfected, demand for her sweet produced in Rockport is international. A gelato shop in Japan even crumbles it onto their ice cream, and it’s carried by the mail order specialty shop Zingerman’s, which says, “She makes the best halvah we’ve ever tasted with a texture that’s light yet solid and melts on the tongue with flavors direct and lingering.”
Zingerman’s only sells two flavors, but if you catch Wallins at an area farmers’ market, you can usually taste eight, including the addictive Silk Road, flavored with five-spice powder that makes it reminiscent of spice cake. “I’m a flavor chaser,” Wallins says, noting that the unique offerings (a floral Honey Rose and a citrusy Fiore di Sicilia among them) have always been part of the plan. Her favorite right now is the Anise, but getting people to try it is a challenge, perhaps because they’ve had a bad past experience with the flavor. However, she says that when you combine organic vanilla (which she uses in all her blends) with anise, something magical happens. “I find the anise is a vanilla enhancer,” she explains, clarifying that the anise is actually a subtle supporting character for the vanilla.
For all the exotic tastes on the menu, Wallins says the most popular flavor is Peanut Butter. “I knew it was going to be fabulous,” she says. “It’s outselling everything right now.” Perhaps that’s because it is the perfect combination of exotic and American.
Victoria Wallins sells Halvah Heaven (and offers free samples) at area farmers’ markets. Her products are available on the North Shore at Common Crow, Joppa Fine Foods, and Willow Rest.
For more information, visit halvah-heaven.myshopify.com.