Friday, January 18, 2013

Halvas (Semolina Syrup Cake)

Thank you to everyone for your encouragement and good wishes for this blog. I'm really excited about sharing some of my thoughts, photos and of course recipes with you here. There are lots of Greek vegetarian dishes that people just don't know about, and so many meat-based dishes that can be converted into vegetarian ones with a little creativity and imagination. I can't wait to share all this with you.

It goes without saying that this blog will also feature plenty of Greek desserts, and I thought I'd start with a favourite of mine that reminds me of my childhood.

A thousand years ago I was a little kid living in the then very brand new anglo-saxon Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. Our family was the only Greek clan in the street. My sisters and I (and one other boy) were the only Greek kids at our school. We kind of stood out a bit.

My parents were on the 1956 boat to Australia, bound for a land that promised greater opportunities and freedom. They made a committment to their new country and chose to assimilate with the Australian culture as much as possible. They anglicised their surname, had backyard barbeques with the neighbours, and didn't teach their children to speak Greek. I didn't even know I was Greek until I was 8. I thought "Papou" was my grandfather's name. My two sisters and I only had one aunty and one cousin, also with anglicised names. This is not Greek at all.

But there was another relative. Great Aunty Betty. And she was definitely Greek. This was the dead giveaway for us as children that we weren't the skips we thought we were. Great Aunty Betty was my mum's mum's sister. My mother's Aunt. Our Great Aunt. But everyone just called her Aunty Betty.

Aunty Betty lived in Australia with us for a few years when we were growing up. She didn't speak much English but the unspoken "grandma" language was understood by all. And Aunty Betty was just like a grandma to us. She would teach us Greek words, show us how to play card games, and knit "sosonia" for us (woollen booties to keep our feet warm at night).

She was a black-clothed widow with no offspring but seemed content living a solo life. She was very independent and travelled back to Greece several times during her time with us in Australia, eventually moving back to her hometown of Volos in the early 80s.

One of my most vivid memories of Aunty Betty was her morning ritual for breakfast. A few cigarettes, some tablets and a whisky. After breakfast she would spend the morning in the kitchen cooking Greek biscuits and sweets.

The house always smelled of cinnamon, freshly ground nuts and cakes baking in the oven. Many of the recipes I'll write about on this blog will be inspired by my memories of Aunty Betty and the little treats she used to cook up in the kitchen.

The syrupy semolina cake, "Halvas" as she called it (sometimes known as "Revani"), was one of my favourites. Spongey cakey goodness made from semolina and almonds, soaked in a lemony sugar syrup, served with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.

Halvas (Semolina Syrup Cake)

Adapted from Recipes from Limnos by Ourania G. Vayakou

Makes 8 ramekins


  • 250g fine semolina
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 cup brandy
  • 1/8 cup of milk
  • 3/4 cup ground almonds

For the syrup

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • One sliver of lemon peel


  1. Mix the semolina, cinnamon and ground cloves together in a medium bowl and set aside.
  2. In a new bowl, whisk egg whites and a pinch of salt until stiff and set aside.
  3. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer (or hand beat if you so desire!). Add egg yolks and beat until the batter starts to lighten.
  4. Mix the brandy and baking powder together in a small glass and add to the batter.
  5. Continue to beat and add the milk then slowly add the semolina.
  6. Use a wooden spoon to carefully fold in the almonds, followed by the egg whites.
  7. Pour the batter into oven-safe ceramic ramekins (no need to grease) and bake at 170 degrees celsius for 30 minutes. Insert a knife into the centre of one of the cakes – if it comes out clean, the cakes are cooked. Allow to cool.
  8. Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer for around 12 minutes, stirring very carefully and only very occasionally to test consistency.
  9. When the simmer bubbles start to look a little sticky, the syrup is ready. Do not allow the syrup to change colour.
  10. Carefully spoon syrup over cakes, a bit at a time. Give each cake time to soak up the liquid before adding more syrup. You will need to do this a few times until the cakes are saturated.
  11. Decorate the top of each cake with a blanched almond* and enjoy with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.
* It's easy peasy to blanch your own almonds. Just soak them in hot water for five minutes and the skin peels right off.


  1. I'm sure your "Auntie Betty" would have been very proud of the result, judging by the pics.
    Tony :)

    1. Well I hope so! She might have been horrified to see I used ramekins instead of a large baking dish which is the traditional way to cook halvas.

  2. Lisa, What a gorgeous story and your photos are beautiful. I wouldnt mind eating one of those cakes right of the screen--might have to make them tonight! Lovely post! Looking forward to more! Jackie

    1. Thank you Jackie - nice to see you here again! I'd love to know if you ended up making them and how they turned out.

  3. What a lovely story and recipe. The cake looks delicious and your photos are so beautiful! I'm looking forward to more Greek recipes :)

    1. Thanks Deb and I'll be keeping an eye out on your Vegie Project as well (I love your blog's name!)

  4. A beautiful story, Lisa. Every family needs an Aunt Betty, I think. I remember growing up in the Western suburbs, about 1/4 of the kids in my class were Greek and were made to go to Greek school on the weekends.

    I agree with Tony, you Aunt Betty would definitely be proud of your sweet concoction here! (How would I pronounce 'halvas'? Thanks!)

    1. I'm fairly certain my sisters and I were the only Greek kids in the whole of Australia that managed to escape Greek school! From all accounts it sounds like it was a fairly unpleasant way to spend a Saturday!!

      Halvas is pronounced "hull-VUSS" but in Greek, the "s" sound is slightly softer than ours, although not quite as soft as our "z". Also the "h" has a slight harshness to it, a little like the "ch" in "loch". You'll be speaking Greek in no time!

  5. Love your blog, Lisa! The Halvas look great and I will be looking for more recipes from you - but I'll pass on Auntie Betty's breakfasts!!! Sandie

  6. No, I wouldn't say an Aunty Betty Breakfast is the most nutritious way to start the day! Amazingly, she didn't give up smoking until she was 75 and lived well into her 80s.

    Thanks for dropping by Sandie. It's great to see you here!

  7. Mmmm, yummo Lisa! Will definitely be giving these a whirl. And, who knows, maybe Auntie Betty was onto something. Might give it a go myself (he he)!
    Andra x

    1. Yep they are yum alright. I just finished the last one tonight. They keep really well in an air-tight container. Just take it easy with those Aunty Betty Breakfasts okay? Hey you've just given me an idea. Next time I make these I might replace the brandy with whisky in honour of Aunty Betty!

  8. Hi Lisa, I've just discovered your blog :) I loved this post of yours! There's just so much Greek vegetarian food, and even vegan too, that people aren't really aware of. When I first went vegan my aunt had asked what I'd be eating and I said "what sort of yum things do you eat when you're fasting?" :) So much of the Greek foods I grew up with were plants!

    1. Yes, the fasting is a way for them to understand isn't it! When I was in Greece last year my relatives just felt sorry for me, "hortofagos, you poor girl". I love that hortofagos literally means "grass eater". And so much of their food, even when not fasting, is vegetarian anyway!

  9. Hi Lisa, stumbled upon your blog from Ohmyveggies... I'm an Indian girl and vegetarian/eggetarian. So I love searching for new recipes which are mostly non-Indian and give a new twist to whatever I make/collect as recipes to make later. Did you know there is an Indian sweet/dessert called Halwa? And sweet shops in North India are called Halwayis (people who make sweets/desserts). I think this greek food came down across to India during the time of Alexander?! Or did it go to Greece from across the Middle East? Anyways, I'm obsessed with food blogs like you said and have already added this blog to my list. I'm thinking of starting a blog but maybe in the future, not right now. I've always had the feeling that there was little vegetarian in Greek food except for falafel and feta cheese and olives... :) This blog ends that belief with happiness... Ok, this comment has become too long, I'll be around visiting and if I make any, hope I get back with good results to let you know.

    Cheers, Vandana.

    1. Hi Vandana, so glad you found me! Yes, I have heard of the Indian sweet Halwa and I believe many Middle Eastern and African countries have their own versions of Halva. Sometimes it is made like a cake with flour, other halvas are dense sweets made with sesame paste and nuts. I don't know who started the whole halva phenomenon but I'm glad they did! I love both the cake and sesame-based versions :)

      I am thrilled that you are interested in exploring the vegetarian options of Greek cuisine :) I hope you enjoy reading the blog and trying some of the recipes. Hope to see you here again soon!

  10. Hi Lisa, I was totally intrigued by your Greek dukkah-encrusted courgette fries in the Guardian this morning. I decided to take a look at your website and nearly dropped my frappe when I read you're a fellow Aussie who grew up in my childhood neighborhood. We lived on Melanie Crt just off Ferntree Gully Rd. before moving to Greece. Anyway, I love your website, your vegan versions of traditional Greek dishes are inspiring and I was fascinated by the piece on your family home in Limnos (which was actually first on our list of holiday destinations this year but there was a last minute change of plans) Can't wait to see the expressions on my family's faces when I serve them the courgette fries ! Have a lovely holiday!! Anna

    1. Hi Anna! Oh wow, another Greek-Australian from my childhood neighbourhood! You must visit Limnos one day. Now that you live in Greece it's like taking a train from Mount Waverley into the city!

      I'm really excited that you found my recipe in the Guardian. I've been trying to get hold of a copy here in Limnos but it's been rather difficult - not surprisingly! I hope you do make the zucchini fries. They're pretty yummy!


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