Tahini is no longer just found in bowls of hummus or in the sauce atop falafel: Chefs and bartenders across the District are taking cues from Middle Eastern cooking and experimenting with the sesame-seed paste in desserts and cocktails. It’s a natural fit, because tahini’s creamy texture and nutty taste perfectly complement such flavors as honey, vanilla and chocolate, and it can be used to make halvah, a fudge-like confection. Tahini can also be a healthier, vegan substitute for dairy or an allergy-friendly substitute for nut butters. If you’re still not sold on this sweet combination, sample it for yourself at these five spots.
This modern Israeli restaurant in Cleveland Park uses about 120 pounds of tahini a week, according to chef Ryan Moore. Some of that goes into desserts, like the halvah chocolate pot de crème. Moore works housemade halvah into a chocolate pot de crème base that’s boosted with tahini. The dish is topped with additional chunks of halvah, date molasses and Chantilly cream. “It’s one of the desserts I opened with and [that] will probably stay on the menu for quite a long time,” he says. For those who prefer to drink their dessert, Sababa offers a halvah hot chocolate. It’s a mix of milk, halvah simple syrup, chocolate tahini, cinnamon and star anise. 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. Pot de crème $8; hot chocolate: $5.
Tahini imported from Israel is perhaps what makes the fresh-spun hummus at Little Sesame so addictive. It’s also the base for sauces and dressings that top the various bowls and sandwiches at this downtown fast-casual spot. “It’s like a beautiful canvas to add different flavors to,” co-owner and chef Ronen Tenne says. The versatile paste can even provide creaminess, as it does in the dairy-free vanilla tahini soft serve. “The silken tofu and the tahini create the richness and viscosity that you get in soft serve,” co-owner and chef Nick Wiseman says. Top it with sesame crumble, cocoa nibs or halvah dust. 1828 L St. NW. $5.
Nari Kim, the co-bar manager at Maydan, says the idea of using tahini in desserts plays off a common theme. “I see a lot of similarities between nougat in a candy bar and halvah,” she explains. “It may be a foreign concept, but the taste is still a very familiar thing, because anyone who’s had a Snickers bar will understand.” Halvah was the inspiration for one of her cocktails: Halawa (the Arabic variant of halvah) is basically a creamy sesame margarita with aged tequila, tahini syrup, lime, orange liqueur and a dusting of crushed pistachios. 1346 Florida Ave. NW. $14.
At Robert Wiedmaier’s Mediterranean restaurant in Bethesda, tahini makes several appearances on the dessert menu. “We’ve probably done more desserts with tahini than entrees,” chef Brandon Shapiro says. The restaurant’s pumpkin spiced knafeh (a take on a Middle Eastern dessert made with syrup, sweet cheese, and shredded phyllo dough) sits atop maple pumpkin tahini, which is a combination of tahini, pumpkin puree, maple syrup and spices. The dark chocolate and halvah mousse bombe has a caramel chocolate halvah mousse center, surrounded by chocolate mousse and topped with crumbled chocolate halvah. 10223 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda. Pumpkins spiced knafeh: $12; mousse bombe: $12.
Tahini might seem like a curious ingredient to find in a Oaxacan kitchen, but chef Robert Aikens is quick to point out that sesame seeds are used frequently in Mexican cuisine, especially in salsas and moles. “I saw it as a way of still using Mexican flavors but just doing a slightly different twist on it,” he says. A special offered for a limited time, his raw peanut, coconut and cacao cake is laced with tahini. The middle layer of the three-layer no-bake dessert is a caramel made with maple syrup, vanilla, coconut oil and tahini, and the topping is a scoop of peanut tahini ice cream, caramelized bananas, and honey-roasted peanuts. 1250 Ninth St. NW. $9. Available the week of Jan. 20.