Anyone who’s ever been to a Passover seder looks forward to eating haroset, the sweet, chunky, wine-stained mixture of fruit and nuts. At least we do.
Haroset has been around in one form or another since biblical times. The word itself comes from the Hebrew “cheres” for clay, and the concoction is supposed to symbolize the mortar and bricks the ancient Israelites used to build pyramids when they were slaves in Egypt. At a seder, haroset is first tasted on a small piece of matzah and later, can be eaten with maror, the bitter herb (usually horseradish) that symbolizes the bitterness of slavery.
Although haroset is a ritual food that has a place of honor on every seder plate, there is no “official” recipe, which is why it comes in more varieties than canned macaroons. The traditional Ashkenazic (Eastern European) version include apples, walnuts, cinnamon and sweet red wine. Jews in the South use pecans as their nut of choice, while Jews from Suriname sprinkle a little coconut on top. (Yes, there are Jews in this South American country. Ellen’s old piano teacher Mrs. Fernandez fled to Suriname in World War II.) An Iranian version includes dates, figs and cardamom. Italian Jews like to use chestnuts, which they boil and ground to a paste, when making haroset. Modern Israeli haroset combines fruits grown in the country, like dates, oranges and almonds.
The basic ingredients of haroset are sometimes hard to come by. In 1862, the Jewish Messenger newspaper published an account of a seder put together by Union soldiers in Western Virginia. They couldn’t obtain the ingredients for haroset in the midst of the Civil War, so instead of something symbolizing bricks –they placed an actual brick on their makeshift seder plate.
We read about an unusual and messy Passover custom among Sephardic Jews (those whose families come from the Mediterranean area and North Africa). The seder leader dips his five fingertips into haroset and makes a wine-soaked hand print just under the mezuzah in the doorway. This represents of the part of the Passover story when the Israelites marked their homes so the Angel of Death would pass them over.
We both love to cook, and it is tempting to try a new recipe each year – like haroset with figs and port wine or another with oranges and ginger. But at our seders, the kids and most of the adults love the traditional Ashkenazi version – with lots of sweet Manischewitz wine. We’ve found that people just don’t want to pick the apricot out of a newfangled recipe. If you peek inside our refrigerators after the seder, you’ll find a big bowl of haroset, because for our families, the little symbolic taste is never enough.
We heap it on our matzah all week long. And tell ourselves that it makes the matzah taste waaaay better.
Happy Passover to all our friends, family and readers!