Charoset holds together Passover

One of the most enduring symbols of the Passover Seder is charoset, a chopped mixture of fruit and nuts and, most often, sweet red wine. It is one of the six items on the Seder plate, resembling and symbolizing the mortar and mud that Hebrew slaves used in their labor in ancient Egypt. During the ceremony it is spread on matzo and combined with the maror (bitter herbs, often horseradish) to make a Hillel sandwich.

Every year at my family's Seder, we marvel once again as we taste the charoset (we pronounce it ha-ROH-ses, but some say ha-ROH-set). It's refreshing, delicious -- we wonder why we only make it once a year. Our family recipe is a familiar Ashkenazic one -- chopped apples, walnuts, honey, cinnamon and sweet red wine. Before the food processor, it was chopped in a wooden bowl using a curved two-bladed knife called a mezzaluna, but I think we may have used a pastry blender.

Other Jews have different family traditions, often inspired by Sephardic influences. Some add a different nut or other fresh fruits such as bananas, pomegranates or quinces, and often, dried fruits or a different spice. But there is no definitive recipe. Each variation leads to discussion and comment, like the Passover Seder itself.

To explore some of these charoset traditions, The Workman's Circle, an activist and cultural Jewish organization created a century ago by Jewish immigrants to New York City, sponsored a "charoset sampling from around the world" at their recent community Seder in New York, on March 21. About 275 people attended the event, which combined elements of Jewish tradition and Passover heritage with recent world events and commentary, along with food and multi-cultural music performances.

The charoset tasting was led by Jayne Cohen, author of "Jewish Holiday Cooking." She spoke about the symbolism of charoset, as "not just a metaphor to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but also as a metaphor for the Jewish people and a metaphor of the Diaspora -- with the diversity of the Jewish people reflected in the many varied recipes for charoset throughout the world."

Members were invited to submit their favorite family charoset recipes and some of those appear below. I also present two other charosets. One is from "Passover by Design" by Susie Fishbein. The other recipe comes from my lifelong friend, Linda Breiner-Cederbaum, who admits that at first glance, it's not the most beautiful thing on the table. "It's taupe," she said. "But unlike the chunky Ashkenazic type, it has no little apple pieces which fall off the matzo. It's spreadable." The recipe comes from her ancestors from Dvinsk, Latvia. The first person to make it in America was her great uncle Louie Oboler, who prepared it in secret upstairs in his Chicago flat; his brother, Linda's maternal grandfather Carl Oboler, lived downstairs. Linda's grandfather carried on the charoset tradition, but wouldn't divulge the recipe. Luckily, when Linda was in her late 20s, he showed her how to prepare the "super-secret" family charoset.

As with so many family recipes there are no exact amounts and my interpretation might not be hers. Linda often makes it with her mother, Bea Breiner, who will say, "arguing about the amounts of nuts or wine adds flavor to the charoset."

Linda Breiner-Cederbaum's Super-Secret Family Charoset

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Linda uses a combination of three nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, with almond the predominant flavor.

  • 1 cup blanched whole or slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts (brown skins rubbed off)
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into small pieces
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons sweet kosher red wine
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Honey, if desired

Put nuts and sugar in a food processor and pulse until finely ground but not oily. Transfer to a bowl. Put apples in food processor and process until nearly pureed. Return ground nuts to processor. Add 4 tablespoons wine and cinnamon; pulse until fairly smooth. Taste, adding more wine and some honey, if desired.

Makes about 3 cups.

-- Linda Breiner-Cederbaum

Ukrainian Charoset

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From Workman's Circle member Shelly Buchbinder. The recipe is from her mother, Brenda Buchbinder, a social worker, whose family came from the western part of Ukraine.

  • 2 to 3 unpeeled apples, cored and chopped
  • 1 cup mixed coarsely chopped walnuts and almonds
  • 3 tablespoons kosher purple grape juice or sweet kosher red wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Honey to taste

In a container with a tight lid, mix apples, nuts, grape juice and ginger. Drizzle with honey to taste. Turn upside down and shake. Refrigerate overnight.

Makes about 3 cups.

-- Shelly Buchbinder

Turkish Charoset

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Sweet and tart.

  • 1/2 cup pitted dates, halved
  • 1/2 cup dried figs, halved
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots
  • 1/4 cup dark raisins
  • 1/2 cup whole almonds or walnuts
  • 1 medium apple, peeled and cored
  • Grated zest from 1/2 orange
  • Sweet kosher wine to taste (about 1/4 cup)

Put dates, figs, apricots and raisins in food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add nuts, apple and orange zest; pulse to a smooth or chunky paste, as desired. Drizzle in wine to desired consistency.

Makes 2 cups.

-- Adapted from "Passover by Design" by Susie Fishbein, (Me'sorah, 2008).

Syrian Charoset

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This charoset is from Sara Lerman, who is employed by Workman's Circle as membership associate. It's from her Syrian friend whose family hails from Damascus. She noted that the ingredients should be finely chopped to a jam-like consistency. I used a food processor. You can double the recipe if you like.

  • 1/2 cup pitted dried plums, halved
  • 1/2 cup pitted dried dates, halved
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons sweet kosher red wine
  • 1 tablespoon honey, or to taste

Put dried plums, dates and walnuts in food processor and process until finely chopped. Add 5 tablespoons wine and the honey; process to a thick paste with a little texture. Taste, adding another tablespoon wine and more honey, if desired. Chill overnight before serving.

Makes 1 cup.

-- Sara Lerman

Israeli-Style Charoset

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From Workman's Circle member Ronit Pearl, an Israeli from the town of Ra'anana: "The kitchen was my mother's kingdom," she reflected. "No one was invited to interfere. But I guess I took a few recipes with me by merely observing my mother making them." Pearl likes to hand-chop her charoset but says that you can use a food processor, adding the apples last so they don't get too mushy. This recipe makes a large batch and can easily be halved.

  • 1 pound pitted dates, chopped
  • 1/2 pound (2 cups) walnuts, chopped
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
  • 1/2 cup sweet kosher red wine
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Taste, adding more wine or cinnamon, if you like.

Makes 6 cups.

-- Ronit Pearl

Miriam Rubin writes from Greene County; .


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