Food often tops our list of guilty pleasures, but it’s hard to think of famous writers indulging in the gratuitous and occasionally sordid ways we do. When I was in college, part of my late-night routine was to buy a huge bag of Tostitos with lime, eat the whole thing while writing a paper and—in one final profligacy—scrape the fake citrus-flavored salt out of the corners of the bag. Trying to imagine Camus doing that just feels wrong.
But there’s probably a kernel of truth to it, if Jean-Paul Sartre’s letters are anything to go by. Sartre had his cravings too, and while he was fighting with the French army during World War II, his letters to Simone de Beauvoir repeatedly mention the same thing. He demands halva.
In between discussions of Weltanschauung and his work on Being and Nothingness, Sartre can’t stop talking about halva. “Don’t forget,” he reminds de Beauvoir in 1939, when asking her to send two boxes. Then, in a following letter: disaster. “I was in an excellent mood today, and then I got your books (the Romains) but no halva. Is there another package?”
But when Sartre does receive halva, multiple times over the next few years, his joy is palpable. “The halva arrived in good order … Thank you very much, my little sweet. We ate the whole box at lunch.” And later: “I gave the halva to Pieter, who carried on about it so, that I bawled him out. At this very moment he’s eating a big chunk with great satisfaction.”
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There are dozens of types of halva, and its ingredients depend on where you are. In South Asia, it’s traditionally made with semolina; in Ukraine, use sunflower seeds. But the kind Sartre wanted comes in bars or blocks, like the sesame-based sort you find around the Mediterranean.
This halva gets a bit of lightness from egg whites, and a bit of flavor with cinnamon and vanilla. Nuts are common in halva, but for individually wrapped bars like Sartre’s, a sprinkling of almonds to coat was a treat. As he wrote, “It’s scrumptious and the almonds seem to add a certain something.”
(Adapted from Yasmin Lozada-Hissom’s recipe in The Denver Post)
2 cups honey
1 1/2 cups tahini, well stirred
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 egg whites
3/4 cup toasted, coarsely chopped almonds (plus extra for sprinkling)
1. Line a loaf pan (9×5 or 8×4) with cooking parchment, allowing extra to hang over the sides.
2. Put honey in a small saucepan. On a low setting, heat honey, stirring occasionally, until a candy thermometer reads 240°F. Remove from heat.
3. While honey is heating, mix tahini, vanilla, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Put egg whites in a medium bowl; with a handheld electric mixer, beat until soft peaks form. (If you have a standing mixer, you can beat the egg whites in the mixing bowl with the whisk attachment.)
4. Add tahini mixture to egg whites and fold gently to combine. In a small stream, gradually add honey and stir 6 to 8 minutes, until the mixture stiffens slightly. Stir in chopped almonds.
5. Scrape mixture into prepared pan. Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight until firm, 24 to 36 hours. Remove halva from pan and cut into pieces (if it’s still too soft, you can pop it in the freezer for an hour or so to set). Sprinkle bars with chopped almonds and snack away.