There are 10 or so things in my kitchen that I can’t do without. Olive oil and lemons. Red wine vinegar and tomatoes in season. Coffee to start the day. Wine, bread, cheese and chocolate to end it. Tahini is there, too, ready to drizzle on toast or whisk into a sauce or dressing.
For me and everyone else who grew up in the Mideast, tahini is as loved and revered a staple as olive oil or wine. And, as with oil and wine, the variables for making exceptional tahini are wide and many.
Unlike Greek or Cypriot tahini, which I find claggy and bitter, tahini from the Middle East is creamy enough to pour over porridge, nutty enough to spread on toast, and smooth enough to eat by the spoon. Its color can range from a light beige to a very deep red, depending on how long the seeds are roasted. It will still separate when it’s left to sit, yes, with the oil rising to the top, but it comes together very smoothly when stirred.
You can make your own tahini, with roasted sesame seeds, lemon juice, water, garlic and salt. Or you can seek out a good version in a Middle Eastern store on online. Look for Al Arz from Israel, Al Taj from Lebanon or Al-Jamal from Palestine.
Sweet things welcome the creamy nuttiness of tahini. As well as baking tahini cookies and cakes, I like to make halvah-studded brownies with tahini swirled through the batter before it goes in the oven. Good tahini is also delicious as is, drizzled over ice cream.
If what you think of as tahini is not creamy, nutty and delicious enough to eat directly from the jar, then you’re missing a trick. Go seek it out.
Sesame, Date and Banana Cake
3 tablespoons tahini
1/3 cup orange juice (from 1 large orange)
5 ounces (about 8) medjool dates, pitted and quartered
2 to 3 very ripe peeled bananas (8 ounces), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 3/4-inch pieces, plus extra for the pan
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
Tahini cream-cheese icing:
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cream cheese, preferably room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon mascarpone cheese, preferably room temperature
3 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar (soft sugar)
3 1/2 tablespoons tahini
1 ripe peeled banana, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1 tablespoon demerara or raw cane sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons date syrup, for drizzling (available in Middle Eastern stores)
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8-inch springform cake pan with butter, and line the base and sides with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk together tahini and orange juice, and then stir in dates, bananas and sesame seeds, separating the date and banana pieces as you add them so they don’t clump together. Set aside.
Put butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, and mix on medium-high speed for 2 to 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt, then add to batter and mix on low speed for about 30 seconds, just to combine. Add tahini-date mixture with the speed still on low and mix until blended, then spoon the batter into the cake pan and smooth the top.
Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown. Without removing it from the oven, carefully cover the cake loosely with aluminum foil. Bake 25 to 30 minutes longer, or until cake is cooked through and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool in the pan on a wire rack.
While the cake is baking, make the icing: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk for 1 to 2 minutes, on medium speed, until combined and airy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed to mix thoroughly. Set aside until cake has cooled.
Make the caramelized bananas: Heat broiler on its highest setting, with a rack placed about 4 inches beneath the heat source. Arrange banana slices closely together on a small baking pan and sprinkle generously with sugar. Broil bananas for 2 to 3 minutes, until sugar has melted and caramelized. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Remove the cake from the pan and transfer to a plate. Spread icing generously over the top. Arrange caramelized bananas on top, then drizzle with date syrup.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Oat and Tahini Cookies
5 1/2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup packed dark-brown sugar (soft sugar)
1/2 cup granulated or superfine sugar (caster sugar)
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup tahini
1/3 cup all-purpose flour (plain flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats, pulsed a few times in a food processor to roughly chop
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest (from half a small orange)
1 scant cup raw hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon toasted white sesame seeds
3 1/2 ounces plain halvah, broken into about 20 pieces
2 ounces dark chocolate, roughly chopped (about 1/3 cup)
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Beat butter and both sugars with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Add egg, vanilla and 1 1/2 tablespoons water and continue beating until combined, then blend in the tahini. (You may need to stop the machine and scrape down the sides with a spatula a few times to help it combine.)
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, oats, orange zest, hazelnuts and sesame seeds. Add to mixer bowl and mix on low speed until well blended.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Form 20 rough balls of dough (they should be about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide) and arrange on the pans, spaced about 1 1/2 inches apart.
Bake for 8 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through, and then remove from the oven while the cookies are not quite cooked. Place a piece of halvah in the middle of each cookie and return to the oven for another 5 minutes, or until cookies are golden-brown around the edges and the halvah has started to melt. Remove from oven and set aside to cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Place chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl and place over a pot of simmering water, taking care that the base of the bowl is not touching the water. Stir occasionally until melted. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Transfer the cookies back to one of the baking sheets so they fit snugly together. Using a teaspoon, drizzle the melted chocolate over the cookies to create thin stripes (or zigzags) all in the same direction. Set aside for the chocolate to harden, then serve.
Yield: 20 cookies