Perhaps more than any other food, charoset, the delicious fruit-and-nut paste eaten at the Passover seder, tells the story of the Diaspora, the wandering of the Jewish people. At my own seder this symbol of the mortar used by the Jews while enslaved in Egypt is one of the most popular dishes and certainly the most widely discussed. Each year I include at least five different versions, reflecting the countries in which Jews have lived as well as my own culinary wanderings. Our must-haves are date balls from Morocco, chestnut and pine-nut charosets from Venice, and, of course, the everyday apple-and-nut charosets of central and Eastern Europe, adapted with mango, pecans, and other newer ingredients in the United States.
Susan Weingarten, a senior researcher in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, has charted charoset’s course over the centuries and collected more than 60 different recipes for it. According to Weingarten, charoset appears first in the Mishnah tractate of Pesachim. “But it only describes charoset in terms of its function and symbolism, not its ingredients or taste,” she told me over lunch recently at the Diaspora Museum café in Tel Aviv. She showed me the citation: “They bring before [the leader of the Seder] unleavened bread [matzoh] and lettuce and the charoset.”
The only Passover foods mentioned in the Book of Exodus are pascal lamb, bitter herbs, and the matzoh. Most likely charoset became integral to the seder meal during the Greco-Roman period, when a fruited condiment was part of a feast with meat. Two Song of Songs verses, which were closely linked with spring and came to be read during the morning service on Passover, explain the charoset’s seasonal ingredients: “Under the apple-tree I awakened thee,” and “I went down into the garden of nuts.” Several of the shivat haminim, or seven species that are said to symbolize the close relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, are frequent additions to charoset, including dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranates.
At Qumran, close to the Dead Sea earlier this month, I saw a 2,000-year-old stone press in which dates were once heated and stomped on to extract honey, making a liquid charoset said to resemble the blood of the Egyptians. Often topped with crushed walnuts, this syrupy jam traveled to Babylonia and is made by Jews from Iraq to this day. “The Jerusalem Talmud in the fourth or fifth century has a discussion as to whether it should be thick like the clay for the bricks or runny like blood,” said Ms. Weingarten. “The Babylonian rabbis thought it should be date-based and thick.”
Years ago I learned to make date honey from the late David Sofaer, a Burma-born friend who lived in California. He showed me how to simmer dates in a heavy pot over a stove for hours and then put the mixture through a sieve. Today you can buy the result, called halek, at Middle Eastern grocery stores. Since biblical times, throughout the Mediterranean a portion of summer fruits like figs, raisins, and dates has always been set aside at harvest and dried on strings to be used for charoset. These fruits were pounded with a mortar and pestle or a manual chopper, often combined with spices like cinnamon, cardamom, or ginger, and some sweet wine or even vinegar.
In France from the 11th to 13th centuries, which coincided with the lifetime of Rashi, who said “that charoset should be sour for the suffering of the Jews and suggested using wine vinegar in the mix,” a geographical charoset divide developed, Weingarten told me. In the northern part of the country, leftover apples from the summer were the only fruits available. Thus, the Northern Ashkenazic charoset developed with apples, walnuts or almonds, and sweet wine, while in the south of France, Italy, and Spain recipes for charoset included more tropical fruits, like pomegranates, when they were available, as well as dates and fresh nuts, including chestnuts and pine nuts. It’s a split that has endured.
The process of making charoset also varies between regions and cultures. I have watched a Yemenite charoset being made at an absorption center outside Tel Aviv where the women, sitting outside on the courtyard floor, pounded their spices and nuts in a large brass mortar and pestle into a peppery mix with cloves. It was far removed from my mother’s charoset, made with cinnamon, apples, nuts, and sweet wine blended into a paste with the flick of a food processor button.
In Tel Aviv and even in Paris, I have found packaged versions of Moroccan charoset, with dates and nuts, sometimes rolled into sticky truffles served almost as a dessert, as they were at a Moroccan seder I attended in Washington, D.C. This version originally came from Spain and Portugal and traveled to North Africa with Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 and then, years later, with future generations who made their way to the United States and elsewhere.
At my seder next week I will include a charoset from the 13th century, a taste of the past, that I found with chestnuts, apples, and nuts. For most, I, like everybody else, will use the food processor. But, for the apple and nut charoset, which is always the most popular in my family, my son David, in his twenties, will chop the fruit in a beat-up wooden bowl as he has done every year since he was old enough to help. And that is the way we Jews carry on our traditions.
Moroccan Charoset Balls with Dates, Raisins, and Nuts
Adapted from Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan
2 cups pitted dates
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup walnuts
1-2 tablespoons sweet red Passover wine
Process the dates, raisins, and walnuts in a food processor until the mixture is finely chopped and begins to stick together. Add enough wine to make a sticky mass. Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Drop slightly rounded measuring teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto the lined sheet. Roll each mound with moistened palms into hazelnut-size balls. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or until firm.
Yield: approximately 60 balls or 3 1/2 cups
Luzzatto Family Venetian Charoset
Adapted from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen
1 1/2 cups chestnut paste
10 ounces dates, chopped
12 ounces figs, chopped
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup pine nuts
Grated rind of 1 orange
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup brandy
honey, to bind
Combine all ingredients, using just enough honey and brandy to make everything bind together.
Yield: 4 cups
Israeli Revisionist Charoset
Adapted from The Foods of Israel by Joan Nathan
2 cups raisins
1 cup pecans, toasted
1 cup blanched almonds, toasted
1 cup date paste (or 1 cup dried dates, chopped)
3 Granny Smith apples, cut into chunks
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet red wine, or to taste
1 – 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Using a food processor fitted with a steel blade, coarsely grind together the raisins and nuts, pulsing so as not to overprocess. Add the date paste, the apples, and the cinnamon and mix well. Add sweet wine and lemon juice to taste.
Yield: about 4 cups
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.