April 14, 2020

Hello Quarantined People, 

Ok, doing something slightly different this time. Not quite a drink, but something that is in line with some of the themes of this series of quarantine drinks - use what you have. Charoset is possibly one of the most versatile dishes I've come across. It really allows you to use what you have, and people have taken that to heart across space and time. Literally. 

Please excuse the religion and history lesson below, but I find this so interesting that I want to share it with you. (If you just want my grandmother's recipe and don't want to read all this nonsense, just drop to the bottom.) 

My history with charoset led me down this rabbit hole. My family is Persian-Jewish (Sephardic versus the Jewish folks descended from Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazi). I only mention this because there are some differences between these two groups of Jews, especially around food and charoset in particular. Indeed, we don't even call it charoset. We call it halegh. Growing up, this was really my favorite thing to eat during Passover, and to this day I look forward to Passover simply for my annual package of halegh from my grandmother. It's really that good. It's this paste made of nuts, fruit, sweet wine, pomegranate juice and spices. I'm not religious at all, but I think this is what manna from heaven tastes like. 

So fast forward a few years and I'm in college in Wisconsin going to my first Ashkenazi Passover. And they pass me this bowl of chopped apples, walnuts and cinnamon. I had no idea what this was and why it was on my seder plate. "That's charoset." "No it's not." "Yes, it is. What do you think charoset is?" 


So when I decided to share this recipe and demo in live on Instagram, I dug into why there was such a difference in something that is supposed to be a religiously-mandated food on a seder plate. 

It turns out that mandate...isn't so much a mandate. The Haggadah, the textbook of Passover, if you will, doesn't mention charoset. It's implied at best, but really it's an oral tradition that has permeated ever corner of the world that Passover is found. 

Each food on the seder plate is supposed to represent some part of the Passover story. Charoset has been included as a representation of the mortar the Jews used to build things for the Egyptians when they were slaves. (Interesting side note - one commentary I read on this said the fact that charoset is sweet and tasty tells you something about how there had to be something insidiously sweet about slavery and that should gives us something to think about). But still, even as an oral tradition, there is no recipe and no history as to why THESE ingredients that are common among the recipes even came into being. 

I kept digging and it turns out that there's this bit of the Old Testament called the Song of Songs that is a bit of an anomaly as far as bits of the Hebrew Bible go. The Song of Songs is a conversation between a man and a woman and apparently some spectators as they...well...discuss intimate things. I'm not making this up. Google it. Here are some excerpts:

"Then I went down to the walnut grove."
"Feed me with apples and with raisin-cakes; "
"Your cheeks are a bed of spices; "
"The scent of your breath is like apricots;"
"Your kisses are sweeter than wine; "
"The fig tree has ripened; "

Aside from making you blush (this is in the BIBLE), you'll notice some interesting ingredients. Also interesting - the Song of Songs is recited on (yep, you guessed it) Passover. The theory is that the recipe for charoset is secretly embedded in the Song of Songs. Mind. Blown. 

(More details here: https://theshalomcenter.org/node/1265)

Given that there are no measurements or preparation methods in the Song of Songs, what we have is a bunch of ingredients with which different cultures have gone in different directions. Each corner of the world seems to have taken the basics - nuts, spices, fruit and wine - and then just added whatever they had around them into the mix. Central and South American Jews have added coconut into the mix (that honestly sounds amazing.) You can find any number recipes representing any and all cultures. Apparently some Sephardics do 40 ingredients to represent the 40 years of wandering in the desert. I looked everywhere for that list and found 1. I'll put it at the a bottom. Here's a handy list of cultures and recipes:


 But the most important recipe, in my humble opinion, is my grandmothers:

It's very simple. Take all these things, throw them in a blender and hit it until you have a thick paste.

Pro tip - use less liquid to start and then add as you go to taste until you have both the taste and consistency you want. 

Pro tip 2 - use what you have and don't stress it if you're missing something. Use more of one nut or less of another. More raisins, less dates. Don't have pear, but have...apricot? Go for it. 

- A handful of each: pistachios, hazelnuts and walnuts (40g each give or take).

- 1/2 cup of raisins (70g)

- 3 dates

- 2 slices each of pears and apples (grams deliberately ommitted)

- A healthy pinch of cinnamon. 

- A splash of each: sweet wine, pomegranate juice and apple cider vinegar (start with an oz of each and then add more as you go).

--- blend until you have a thick, paste consistency. 

I like to put this on some matzah and top it off with some avocado. Because California. 


40 Ingredient Recipe:

1 to 5: five different varieties of apples
6 to 7: two different varieties of pears
8 to 10: three different varieties of grapes
11 to 12: two different varieties of dried figs
13: fresh ginger, grated
14: dates
15 to 18: dried apricots, dried peaches, dried cherries and dried prunes
19 to 21: red raisins, yellow raisins, currants
22 to 26: the following nuts - walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios and filberts [all dried roasted without any oils and unsalted]
27: pomegranate juice
28 to 35: the following spices – cinnamon as the dominant spice, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, fenugreek seeds, saffron, cloves and black peppers [all crushed]
36 to 39: white wine, red wine, rose wine, vinegar
40: starting with the late 1950s bananas were added as well

And they shape it into a Pyramid before serving.

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