Let’s face it. There was an awful lot of kvetching as Moses led our ancestors out of Egypt. The Israelites whined about the food – “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). They whined about the lack of water. And tell me if this doesn’t sound like Jerry Seinfeld: “So there weren’t enough graves in Egypt, you had to bring us out here to die in the wilderness?”
But for every kvetch, G-d provided miracles, and we were led into glorious freedom, enabling us to use our ingenuity, skill, traditions, and collective memory, to create a glorious celebration around this iconic episode in our history. To kvetch about what we do without for those eight days is to see the glass half empty.
During the Seder, we eat matzoh with haroset, the fruit-nut mixture resembling, in color and texture, the mortar the ancient Hebrews used as slaves in Egypt, and combine it with bitter herbs, to remember the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. Yet, unlike the roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and matzo, haroset is not mentioned in the Torah as one of the foods we are commanded to eat on Passover, and doesn’t show up as part of the Seder until hundreds of years later in the Mishnah. While the Mishnah mentions placing unleavened bread, lettuce and haroset on the Passover table, it is referred to as a type of appetizer, leading to much debate about its inclusion in the ritual proper.
“The name ‘haroset’ comes from the Hebrew word for clay (chres),” explains Oded Schwartz in “In Search of Plenty” (Culture Concepts). “Haroset is a direct descendent of the Greco-Roman sweet-sour sauces which were served at the beginning of a feast as a dip for raw bitter salad herbs. They were eaten to refresh the palate and tantalize the appetite…and were probably adopted in Israel under the Greek and Roman occupation.”
We tend to think of haroset as a strictly Passover tradition, but it wasn’t always so. “Haroset was probably eaten throughout the year, as the Mishnah specifies that flour is not allowed just in a Pesach haroset,” notes Schwartz, “There is no set rule about which fruit should be used, but the tradition is to use fruit which is associated with the land of Israel: dates, figs, raisins and pomegranates.”
Haroset also symbolizes hope and faith, and most recipes call for apples, according to “Jewish Soul Food” (Brandeis University Press) by Carol Ungar. “The apple, which is called tapuach in Hebrew, recalls the tree beneath which the Israelite slave women birthed their babies,” she notes. Giving birth in the orchards muffled their cries of pain so that the Egyptians would not know that a male child was born.
As apples in biblical times only grew wild, and were difficult to cultivate in tropical climates, many scholars believe that the tapuach was the quince, according to food historian Gil Marks, with others making a case for a citrus fruit.
Even the spices used in the mixture are symbolic, suggests Ungar. “Cinnamon and ginger, which are hard spices until ground, are added to the mixture to recall the straw pieces the Egyptian taskmasters forced Hebrew slaves to use for making bricks after they stopped supplying them with clay.”
The impoverished shtetl residents of Eastern Europe could hardly afford the expensive fruits and nuts with which to make haroset, she adds, so the town’s wealthiest citizen would make up a big batch and divide it among his neighbors.
Joan Nathan tells an interesting story about an improvised Seder in “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf) gleaned from the Civil War memories of J.A. Joel written in 1866 in the “Jewish Messenger”: “The necessaries for the choroutzes [sic] we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.”
Two recipes in Faye Levy’s “1,000 Jewish Recipes” (IDG) – her Yemenite Haroset and Haroset Truffles – inspired me to create the pretty little Yemenite Haroset Truffles shown here. Sweet, spicy, and festive, they really belong on the dessert table, but I like to serve them as part of the Seder ritual, along with Ashkenazi haroset, of course, where they won’t get lost amidst that ostentatious display of sponge cakes, tortes, cookies, and pastries. (Ah, yes, poor us. No bread for a week. Thus we remember the sufferings of our ancestors!)
Every country makes its own combination of local fruits and nuts, and one year, bored with the Ashkenazi haroset we were all used to (and probably having way too much time on my hands), I made a variety of them and had everyone vote for their favorite. Guess which won? The Ashkenazi, of course! Old habits die hard.
What to do with leftover haroset, should you actually have any? (Or maybe you forgot to toast your nuts!) Spread it on matzo for breakfast or a delicious snack, or add some to your matzo brei. Think about it: nuts and apples in your breakfast pancake – what could be bad? Or freeze it, and after Passover try haroset instead of applesauce in home-baked breads and cakes.
Makes 20 to 24
For the coating
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted and finely ground
For the truffles
1/3 cup (2 ounces) pitted dates
1/3 cup (2 ounces) dried figs
1/3 cup (2 ounces) raisins
1/3 cup (2 ounces) dried apricots
2 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup toasted coarsely chopped pecans
3/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1 Coating: In a food processor grind almonds until fine. (Do not overgrind or you will get almond butter.) Remove from processor and set aside. No need to clean processor.
2 Combine dried fruit, honey, orange liqueur and spices in food processor and pulse until smooth. Add pecans and slivered almonds, and process until well combined. Refrigerate, covered, until firm, at least 3 hours.
3 Form mixture into balls 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll them in the ground almonds, and place them in individual fluted foil or paper candy cups to serve
Walnuts are traditional, but use any nuts you like, such as almonds as shown here. While both walnuts and almonds are mentioned in the Bible, I break with tradition and take my cue from my Atlanta cousins, and use pecans. Whichever nut you choose – in fact, no matter which haroset recipe you use – please, please, toast thy nuts! (Haroset recipes rarely if ever include this instruction, but trust me, you won’t believe the difference!)
3 medium-size crisp sweet or tart apples, or a combination, peeled, cored and cut into eighths
1 cup pecans or walnuts or almonds, or a combination, toasted
2 tablespoons sweet red wine
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 Place apples in a food processor and process until chopped. Transfer them to a mixing bowl.
2 Place pecans in food processor and chop them. Add them to apples, and stir in wine, honey, and cinnamon.
Note: Best served the day it’s made, but it will keep, covered, in refrigerator for up to 3 days (the nuts will soften after the first day). Makes 2 1/3 cups
Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.