Irmik helvası is basically the Turkish take on semolina desserts. Irmik helvası is sweetened semolina with notes of caramel and nuts, which is oftentimes spooned directly into serving plates. It’s definitely not a cake, it’s simpler, unfussy and has straightforward flavors.
Done right, the semolina isn’t mushy but delicately moist. This very common helva is perfect for whoever has a sweet tooth and is craving an almost-immediate sugar hit. I put less sugar in my irmik helvası than most Turkish home cooks would but it still is a pretty sweet dessert. You should savor it along with a cup of coffee or lots of black tea (çay). You only need a handful of ingredients and less than 15 minutes of hands-on time to make this traditional recipe so do try it!
Irmik helvası has a nostalgic feel that directly brings back childhood memories if you grew up in Turkey. It’s probably because it’s one of the few desserts actually made at home whereas Turkish people would go to special bakeries to get baklavas or milk-based custardy deserts (tavuk göğsü,…). They tend to leave the baking of more complicated desserts to experts whereas irmik helvası is really quick and easy to make yourself.
Don’t hesitate to go all out and serve it with ice cream. The combination of warm semolina and cold ice cream is seriously amazing! Irmik helvası and Maraş dondurması (elastic and stretchy ice cream flavored with salep and mastic) is a match made in heaven but you’ll only find this specialty in Turkish grocery stores. No worries though, you can substitute it with your preferred ice cream flavor. It will still be a fantastically indulgent and glorious dessert.
You can also see irmik desserts shaped as domes with semolina encasing ice cream (dondurmalı irmik helvası). In this case, you don’t get the warm semolina/cold ice cream contrast because everything is left to set in the freezer or fridge but it’s delicious! I should definitely try to make my own sometimes because I’m really starting to miss it.
STAY CLOSE TO THE PAN
Making irmik helvası is easy enough but you’ll need to stay attentive (and preferably near the stove). This isn’t one of your stick-in-the-oven-and-forget-about-it recipes. The almonds and then the semolina need to be cooked for just the right amount of time. They should turn golden but not brown. If the semolina burns, you won’t be able to get rid of the taste and you’ll have to start over. It’s a bit like making caramel. The cooking times I wrote down are indicative, it can all depend on the stove or the pan. So keep watch, and check if the colors are approximate to the ones in the photos. This should be a better indication than time.
Traditionally irmik helvası is made with pine nuts instead of chopped almonds but I like the firmness of almonds better. A lot of people will make it with walnuts because it’s cheaper. Don’t hesitate to make helva with pine nuts or any of your preferred nuts! Just keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. If I’m making helva for me and my husband, I usually don’t bother spooning it into ramekins before serving it. But I’ll admit it’s a better presentation than just scraping out the semolina on a plate with a spatula.
MAKE A WISH
I used to hate irmik helvası and here I am craving it! I didn’t grow up with desserts made with carbs (like rice pudding) and I found the idea of eating sweet semolina particularly disgusting. To me, semolina was made to accompany couscous and for that purpose only. I could never taste the helva’s caramelly and nutty nuances or appreciate melt-in-your-mouth feeling. I just found it overly sweet.
Even when I was living in Turkey I would only nibble a tiny piece of helva to be polite when a plate was handed over to me. And my mother-in-law used to make helva a lot! Basically, every time she wanted to make a wish/pray for our well-being (‘May he find a job.’, ‘May she graduates.’), she would make a big pot of helva and pray while mixing it a certain number of times. It was so considerate and kind-hearted, of course, I was going to take a bite but I never enjoyed it.
Then, I moved to France and after a couple of years I actually started missing irmik helvası. I missed the smell of semolina cooking in butter and the whole make-a-wish process so I started making it myself. It always makes me feel closer to my mother-in-law when I make some and I never miss to wish for her own happiness.
IRMIK AND HELVA
➝ What’s irmik? Irmik (semolina) looks like cornmeal but it actually is a type of flour made from durum wheat. It’s darker and coarser than all-purpose flour and feels a bit sandy when you touch it. There are different types of semolina according to granulometry; the fine one is used to make pasta from scratch while the medium one is used for desserts.
In Turkey, irmik is mostly used to make this dessert, that’s why you’ll always see a photo of helva on irmik packages in Turkish grocery stores. If you can’t get irmik from a Turkish grocery store, you’ll find semolina on the flour shelves in supermarkets or in Italian markets. I would suggest using medium semolina to make irmik helvası but fine semolina will work too.
➝ What’s helva (or halva)? Helva is a dessert or a confection that can be found in so many countries, from the Middle-East to India. In Turkey, helva mostly refers to this semolina-based dessert but there are other types of helva;
- Un helvası is a dessert made the same way as irmik helvası but it’s made with flour instead of semolina and is, therefore, more compact.
- Tahin helvası is a crumbly confection made with sesame seeds paste (tahini), sugar, water and nuts. Tahin helvası isn’t usually made at home but bought in a block and served in slices (sometimes for breakfast).
Looking for other quick dessert recipes? Here are some of my favorites:Print
Sweet and tender semolina is balanced with crispy nuts and caramel notes in this traditional Turkish dessert. Making irmik helvası is quicker and easier than it seems, so do try it!
- 170g sugar (1 cup)
- 425g water (1 ¾ cup)
- 1 tbsp frying oil
- 30g blanched almonds (¼ cup), chopped (or use pine nuts)
- 70g butter (2.5 oz), cubed + extra for the molds (if using)
- 170g irmik (1 cup), you can use medium semolina (fine semolina will work too)
- pinch of salt
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp raw shelled pistachios, blitzed into a powder (optional)
- First, you need to make the syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Stir once with a wooden spoon to help dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and keep simmering for 10 min.
- Heat the oil in a separate nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the almonds and cook, stirring often, until they turn golden, about 3 min.
- Add the butter to the nonstick pan and let it melt. Add the semolina and salt when the butter starts to sizzle. Sauté for 5 min stirring often (to prevent the semolina from burning) until the semolina has slightly browned and smells nutty.
- Take the nonstick pan off the heat and pour the hot syrup on the semolina mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon and cover the pan with a lid.
- Place the nonstick pan over low heat and cook for 10 min, or until all the syrup has been absorbed. Don’t hesitate to check and stir the helva near the end of the cooking time.
- Remove the lid, place paper towels or folded kitchen towel over the pan and replace the lid. Let the irmik helvası rest for 15 min.
- Stir the semolina, spoon onto serving plates and sprinkle cinnamon and pistachios on top.
For a ‘neater’ look, spoon the semolina into buttered ramekins just after it’s done cooking. Press the semolina until it’s compact and place the serving plates on top. Invert the ramekins onto the plates after 15 min.
- Serving Size: 1
- Calories: 697
- Fat: 31.5g
Keywords: no-bake dessert, turkish dessert, semolina dessert