It’s funny how the moment Purim reaches its conclusion, the switch to Pesach is immediate. Plans shift into high gear.
Nonetheless, it’s probably too early to start discussing specific components of the seder, such as charoset. Or, is it? After all, Ben and Jerry’s have even developed a charoset flavored ice cream for Passover. Personally, I fall on the Haagen Dazs, but I’ll grant Ben and Jerry’s the creative playfulness of eliding a Jewish seder dish into an ice cream flavor. I should say, I have never tasted it and have no clue whether it’s any good, nor is it likely kosher for Passover. But the gesture is noted with humor and appreciation.
Because I feel that somehow charoset flies under the radar. Matzah gets all the attention. The Seder dinner menu does too, not to mention the Haggadah’s discussion of the formation of the Jewish people, of struggle and freedom, and of the many accompanying words of Torah. Oh yes, and the four glasses of wine, the ritual that punctuates the seder evening and serves as one of the organizational markers of the night — now that’s a pretty nice Jewish tradition right there.
What I love about the charoset dish, the sweet fruity concoction symbolizing the mortar caked on the bricks by Jewish slaves in Egypt, is that more than any other dish, this one seems to reflect the culture of the hosts of the seder.
Is charoset constituted of raw shredded apples, nuts, red wine and, perhaps for some, a touch of ginger (ingber as my Hungarian grandmother called it) or sugar? Then the charoset is of the classic Ashkenaz tradition.
Is it made of dried fruits? Simmered on the stove? Formed into bonbons? Adorned in rose petals? Involves cardamom? Then you know that it hails from the Sephardic tradition.
Within what we generally refer to as the Sephardic tradition, there are so many regional recipes, ranging from Turkish (I bet they use apricots), Moroccan, Iraqi, Persian, Syrian, Kurdish, Italian, Greek, Yemenite, Egyptian and maybe more. Each region and each culture, depending on the produce that was available to the community, developed a sweet paste or concoction unique to its culture that made the cut of resembling mortar.
Unlike with the recent sufganiya and hamantashen craze, of upstaging the classic flavors with new gimmicky ones (I admit some are delicious while some are so contrived and over the top), when it comes to charoset, you can legitimately have a “Charoset Tasting Bar” with endless flavors and combinations.
In my family, my father uses an heirloom charoset recipe he learned to prepare from his grandmother Minnie Harris. As it is for each family, for us it is the “holy grail” of charoset dishes.
As a little boy, year after year, he stood as her assistant, internalizing how to prepare it just so — there was no actual recipe, of course! To this day he has continued that tradition with some of my siblings. Pesach roles are laden with so much sentiment, and in our family one such role is the charoset making.
Likewise, the matter of maror making, another role my father has commandeered in order to ensure that the final product is sealed as tightly as possible, guaranteeing that the strength of the root is not diminished by the slightest factor (also guaranteeing that we are all on fire at the seder). Let’s just say it’s not the quietest part of the evening when the maror is consumed, and let’s just say that if anyone had a smidge of an oncoming cold, after the maror no trace can be found!
So, yes. In a sense, charoset is one of the iconic dishes of the seder. Granted, seder night is all about the matza and the collective of the seder plate, but it’s pretty interesting how personal the charoset dish can be. Based on the custom of that dish alone, the identity and culture of the chef is revealed. To be sure, this is a nice conversation piece, but more deeply, with one dish, charoset links the seder to the host’s family ancestors and history,
Anyway, another thing I love about charoset is how it becomes the Pesach “everydish” of the holiday. Its endless permutations amuse me. Starving for breakfast? Oh, there’s charoset! The perfect dollop to your yogurt. (We make a lot of the stuff in my parents home). Nowadays, with all the paleo breakfast talk and energy-bite culture, here is charoset, doing that all along. Staring at the fridge for a late afternoon pick-me up? Charoset! Ran out of jam? Spread charoset on matzah in its place. Want to fill out the dessert cookie platter a bit? You’ve got yourself some charoset bonbons or parfaits. Running low on compote? Use some charoset as a base, adding in more fresh fruit. A snack for a day trip? Charoset sealed away in little disposable transferable lidded cups. Seder favors for your guests? How about individual jars of homemade charoset “jam” or “chutneys”? It may not be matzah caramel brittle, but it’s pretty darn good and most especially, very personal.
Charoset may resemble mortar, but kind of like the manna, you can make charoset be whatever you want it to be.
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