The Sweet Story of Charoset
Charoset, that aromatic ensemble of fruits, nuts, spices and wine, may be the tastiest traditional food on the Seder plate, but why it is there is a matter of debate. The Torah does not command us to eat it, and, in fact, never mentions charoset at all. Nor is there a blessing for it in the Haggadah. Yet its connection to Passover is ancient.
Charoset first comes up in the Mishnah, the authoritative transcription of oral laws written around 200 CE, when describing items on the Passover table: “unleavened bread and lettuce and charoset, even though the charoset is not a commandment.” David Arnow, author of Creating Lively Passover Seders, and others believe that charoset may have come to the Passover ritual through the influence of ancient Greek civilization. The Greeks held symposiums during which free men consumed large quantities of wine while discussing philosophical issues and “dipping” food in mixtures of pounded nuts and spices—key ingredients in charoset.
Talmudic sages, of course, sought religious reasons to explain the presence of charoset on the Seder table. The symbolic meaning most often mentioned is that charoset reminds us of the mortar Hebrew slaves used to build clay bricks. The fact that Hebrew for clay is charsis or ceres is frequently given as proof for this interpretation. In his 11th century Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides gives one of the first written recipes for charoset in which it is said to look like clay mixed with straw: Crush “dates, dried figs, or raisins and the like…add vinegar, and mix them with spices,” because, before being ground, spices are long and stringy like straw.
The clay interpretation saw its most extreme expression in 1862 when some 20 Jewish-American Union soldiers in an Ohio regiment put a brick on their Seder plate. One of them, Joseph Joel, recalled the experience in the March 30,1866, Jewish Messenger, a New York weekly. He writes that although stranded in the “wilds of West Virginia,” the men in his regiment were able to obtain matzos and Haggadahs and successfully foraged for a weed “whose bitterness…exceeded anything our forefathers enjoyed,” as well as lamb, chicken and eggs. But they could find no suitable ingredients for charoset. “So, we got a brick,” Joel wrote, “which rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purposes it was intended.”
Although the Union soldiers’ brick made an excellent stand-in, properly prepared charoset tastes sweet so that it can soften the harshness of maror, the bitter herb. Reasons for dipping charoset in maror are explained by Rabbi Akiva: According to this second century CE Talmudic scholar, charoset is a reminder of the Egyptian apple orchards where Hebrew women secretly made love to their husbands and bore children, thus defying the pharaoh’s ban on procreation. Akiva says that Israel was delivered from slavery in Egypt because of these “righteous women’s deeds.” His inspiration is the verse from the Song of Songs recited on the Sabbath of Passover week: “Under the apple trees, I roused you. It was there your mother conceived you.”
Another Talmudic Midrash adds a different twist. Egyptians, it says, found and tried to kill some of the newborn male babies, but the earth swallowed them. After the Egyptians left, the babies emerged from the ground like fresh green plants. Some believe this story represents how God brought forth the new generation that would grow in freedom; others say that the Midrash symbolizes spring rebirth out of apparent death.
These various Talmudic commentaries can be linked, says Jill Hammer, rabbi and director of spiritual education at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Charoset, she explains, is “a dual symbol of birth and death, freedom and oppression,” the remembrance of what binds “the Jewish story with the story of all living things…a kind of mortar after all.”
(enough for 10 persons)
1 cup shelled almonds, coarsely ground
1 cup shelled walnuts, coarsely ground
1 cup black raisins, coarsely ground
2 apples, peeled, coarsely chopped
2 ripe bananas, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 cups red wine
Mix everything together and serve.
Source: Sephardic Cooking by Copeland Marks
(makes three cups)
6 peeled apples, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup chopped almonds
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
grated rind of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons sweet red wine
Combine all, mixing thoroughly. Add wine as need. Blend to desiredtexture—some like it coarse and crunchy, others prefer it ground to a paste. Chill.
Source: The Jewish Holiday Kitchen by Joan Nathan
(makes about 3 cups)
1 cup walnuts
1 cup raisins
1 large apple, peeled and cored
1/2 cup red Passover wine.
Grind everything together to mix thoroughly but leaving some texture. Do not grind too smoothly.
Source: Sephardic Cooking by Copeland Marks
Curacao Charoset Balls (Garosa)
(makes 25 to 30 balls)
14 pitted dates
10 pitted prunes
8 figs, stems removed
cup golden raisins
cup cashew nuts
lemon, unpeeled and cut in chunks
cup sweet red wine
cup honey, or more as needed
2 tablespoons cinnamon to coat
Place dates, prunes, figs, raisins, nuts and lemon in food processor. Chop coarsely. Add the wine and cup honey. Process to chop finely. Mixture should be moist but firm enough to shape. Add a little extra honey if needed.
Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Toss in cinnamon to coat. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
Note: The mixture can be spooned into a serving dish and dusted with cinnamon before serving.
Source: “Celebrating Passover with dishes of Curacao,” from the Philadelphia Inquirer by Ethel Hofman and Myra Chanin
French Provencal Style
(about 8 cups)
1 pound chestnuts
1 cup blanched almonds
2 medium tart apples, cored and chopped
1 cup pitted dates
1 cup dried figs
1 cup raisins
1 to 3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1. Cut an X in the shell of chestnuts. Place in boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Drain. When able to handle, peel off shells.
2. Finely chop chestnuts and almonds. Add fruits and finely chop. Stir in enough wine vinegar to make a thick paste. Add ginger.
Source: Sefer Ha’Menuha, a work of the 13th century Provencal scholar, Rabbi Manoach, as cited in an article by Gil Marks in the Jewish Communications Network archives
(makes 10 side-dish servings)
2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 bananas, peeled and chopped
Juice and grated peel of 1/2 lemon
Juice and grated peel of 1/2 orange
15 dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup ground pistachios
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup sweet Passover wine
5 tablespoons matzo meal
In large bowl, combine apples, bananas, lemon juice and peel, orange juice and peel, dates and nuts; mix well. Add cinnamon, wine and matzo meal; blend thoroughly.
Source: “A Passover Seder With Israeli Flavor,” from the St. Louis Post Dispatch by Judy Zeidler
3 apples, sweet or tart
2 cups sweet wine
1/3 cup (50 g) pine nuts
2/3 cup (50 g) ground almonds
1/2 lb (250 g) dates, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup (100 g) yellow raisins or sultanas
4 oz. (100 g) prunes, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar or * cup (125 ml) honey or to taste
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Peel and core the apples and pears and cut them in small pieces. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water if it becomes too dry.
Variations: Other possible additions: chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.
Source: The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden
(makes about 2 cups)
2 Granny Smith apples
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup fresh mango, peeled and diced
1/2 cup chopped toasted pecans
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon Port or sweet wine
1. Peel, core, and dice the apples and sprinkle with the lemon juice.
2. Place all the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse once or twice just to break up. Let sit for the flavors to meld.
Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan
Surinam—Seven Fruit (Sephardic Style)
(makes 5 cups)
8 oz. unsweetened coconut
8 oz. chopped walnuts or grated almonds
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
8 oz. raisins
8 oz. dried apples
8 oz. dried prunes
8 oz. dried apricots
8 oz. dried pears
4 oz. cherry jam
sweet red wine
Combine everything except the jam and wine in a pot. Cover with water and simmer over low heat. Periodically, add small amounts of water to prevent sticking. Cook at least 90 minutes. When it is cohesive, stir in the jam and let stand until cool. Add enough sweet wine to be absorbed by the charoset and chill.