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The wonderful world of haroset

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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?” (Exodus 14:11)

But for every kvetch, God provided miracles, and we were led into glorious freedom, enabling us to use our ingenuity, skills, traditions and collective memory to create a glorious celebration around this iconic episode in our history. Indeed, to kvetch about what we go without for eight days is to see the glass half empty.

During the seder, we eat matzah with haroset, the fruit and nut mixture that resembles the mortar that the ancient Hebrews used when they were 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 matzah – haroset is not mentioned in the Torah as one of the foods we are commanded to eat on Passover and didn’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.

READ: EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS PASSOVER STAPLE

“The name ‘haroset’ comes from the Hebrew word for clay (chres),” explains Oded Schwartz in the book, In Search of Plenty. “Haroset is a direct descendant of the Greco-Roman sweet and 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 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 the Egyptians would not know when 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 tapuach actually refers to the quince fruit, according to food historian Gil Marks, with others making the case for a citrus fruit.

Fig charoset CHOW HOUND PHOTO
Fig charoset CHOW HOUND PHOTO

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 a big batch and divide it among his neighbours.

Two recipes in Faye Levy’s 1,000 Jewish Recipes – her Yemenite haroset and haroset truffles – inspired me to create the pretty little Yemenite haroset truffles on the next page. They’re sweet, spicy and festive, so they really belong on the dessert table, but I like to serve them as part of the seder ritual (along with Ashkenazic 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 Ashkenazic 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 favourite. The Ashkenazic one won, of course. Old habits die hard.

“There is a wide variety of haroset recipes from every corner of the world were Jews have ever resided,” said Paula Shoyer in The New Passover Menu, in which she gives a recipe for banana haroset.

There are also lots of uses for leftover haroset. It can be spread on matzah for breakfast, eaten as a delicious snack or added to matzah brei. (Think about it: nuts and apples in your breakfast pancake – what could be bad?) It can also be frozen and used, after Passover, instead of applesauce in home-baked breads and cakes.


Yemenite haroset truffles

Coating:

  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted and finely ground

Truffles:

  • 1/3 cup (2 oz.) pitted dates
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz.) dried figs
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz.) raisins
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz.) dried apricots
  • 2½ tbsp. honey
  • 1½ tbsp. orange liqueur
  • 1½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/8 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/8 tsp. 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 over-grind, 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 three hours.
    3. Form mixture into balls 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Roll them in the ground almonds and place them in individual fluted foil, or paper candy cups to serve. Makes 20 to 24

Source: Cooking Jewish by Judy Bart Kancigor.


Ashkenazic haroset

  • 3 medium-sized 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 tbsp. sweet red wine
  • 3 tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. 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: this is best served the day it’s made, but it will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to three days (the nuts will soften after the first day). Makes 2 1/3 cups

Source: Cooking Jewish by Judy Bart Kancigor.


Banana haroset

  • 3 large ripe bananas
  • 2 cups ground walnuts, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp. sweet kosher wine
  • 2 apples, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
  • 1 cup walnut halves, toasted and chopped into 1/3-inch pieces

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, place the bananas, ground walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and wine. Process until the mixture comes together. Transfer to a small bowl. Add the apples and chopped walnuts, and stir to combine.

Adapted from The New Passover Menu by Paula Shoyer.