Last winter I had the good fortune of spending a week traversing the cities, deserts, ports, and verdant fields of Israel in the company of 20-plus fellow food-obsessed chefs and food writers; culinary heavyweights Jonathan Waxman, Ruth Reichl, Jenn Louis, Nancy Silverton, and Marc Murphy were among them. We were on a spiritual pilgrimage of a new kind: to uncover and understand what is arguably the most complex convergence of food cultures in the world. Together we visited farms, home and restaurant kitchens, morning markets, wineries, food incubators, renowned dining rooms, and late-night food stalls. We were eager to taste and to learn how a land so fraught by ages of conflict (yet still so new in its independent history) can preserve its ancient foodways with such passion and purpose.
We were a ravenous bunch, consuming, questioning, and squealing with glee at every flavorful find. In fact, our discoveries felt so plentiful that after a while I lost count, even with the pages of notes and flurry of photos I took each day. Despite our feeding frenzy, there were several distinct moments of clarity and revelation, when I tasted something so utterly satisfying that it is now and forever burned into my sense memory. One such instance took place at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, known to the locals as Shuk HaCarmel. We spent the morning guided through stalls and stands by author Adeena Sussman, whose new Israeli cookbook Sababa was inspired by the vendors and foods of the market. Toward the end of the tour we stopped at a beautiful display of molds for halvah, the dense sweet that in the Middle East is often made of pressed sesame paste (tahini) and sugar then swirled or sprinkled with anything from dark chocolate to nuts to rose oil. The shopkeeper placed a piece of his favorite in my hand, and as soon as it dissolved in my mouth I knew it would be my favorite, too.
Bright, tart lemon zest (not juice) added the most fragrant, floral note to the otherwise dense, earthy dessert. Dark, just-bitter cacao nibs balanced out what otherwise would have been a cloying sweetness. It was a masterful combination, one I knew I needed to bring back to my kitchen.
Of course I bought a large slab and have been nibbling on it ever since (Pro tip: Halvah will keep, well wrapped, in a cool, dark spot in your pantry for over a year!). In addition, the trinity of lemon zest, tahini, and cacao nibs has been making its way into my sweets and baking repertoire ever since, from morning pancakes to the perfect ice cream topping—and these unassuming, irresistible Lemon-Tahini Cookies. They may just be the ideal holiday gift for everyone on your list this year, no matter your culture or creed. After all, deliciousness knows no bounds.