Perhaps no ritual food demonstrates the scope of the international Jewish experience as much as haroset, the seder plate staple said to symbolize the mortar used by Jews in Egypt to build the pyramids.
With everything from bananas to apples to date syrup as ingredients, it’s haroset’s chameleon-like ability to represent Jews of all backgrounds that appeals to Dawn Kepler, director of Building Jewish Bridges, an organization that serves interfaith couples and families in the Bay Area. The Oakland resident is fascinated by the “biological connection for how we use food ritually.”
To Kepler, just knowing the recipe is not enough. The smell and taste of food, the agricultural and geographic selections involved in a dish and its formal or informal ritualistic use in the Jewish experience creates memory and meaning. She has put on several workshops to help others understand the meaning behind Jewish food, the most recent being a Passover class at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.
Building Jewish Bridges has also hosted a haroset tasting to help widen exposure to the breadth of Jewish food and observances. The wide range of haroset styles and recipes helps participants understand how Jews around the world have interpreted this ritual food.
The concept of haroset is ancient, going back to Greco-Roman times, when it was customary to eat greens with a dip. Originally, the karpas was dipped in the haroset as well as the maror. Nowadays, most traditions use the haroset with just the bitter herbs and for the Hillel sandwich.
Versions of haroset over time have included bits of ground brick or stone, taking the dip’s connection to mortar a bit too far. More palatable versions try to emulate the look (but hopefully not the taste) of Nile mud and others include up to 40 fruits inspired by the “Song of Songs.”
I have seen recipes for haroset that include pecans (especially from the American South), avocado (one called a California Haroset), banana (in harosets from Israel and the Caribbean), chestnuts (in an Italian recipe) and pretty much every nut or dried fruit, as well as many different spice combinations.
Kepler suggests having children help shape the haroset into a pyramid, reinforcing its connection to the Jews’ time in Egypt. Below are a few of the haroset recipes she has collected. I’ve adapted one of her recipes to create Haroset Truffles, which are an attractive way to serve individual portions for the seder and make a nice sweet dessert.
Also included is a haroset recipe from Oakland food writer Dianne Jacob, whose family lived in Iraq before immigrating to India and later to Shanghai, where they lived for generations. Originally, the recipe called for pitted dates to be cooked and then strained into a syrup. Jacob simplifies things by starting with the date syrup. She always makes her haroset with walnuts, but I like it with almonds, too.
San Francisco resident Jonathan Hirshon’s passion is researching Jewish culinary history and food ways. He has created several of his own harosets, as well as researched many others, including the Ashkenazi version here.
I like to serve several kinds of haroset at my seders so there is always something familiar and something exotic for my guests. Feel free to adapt the following recipes to reflect the taste, texture and ingredients you prefer.
Dawn Kepler’s Greek Haroset
1 large orange, peeled
11⁄4 cups pitted dates, finely chopped
1 cup raisins, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup sweet grape wine
1⁄2 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup almonds, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup pine nuts
Cut the orange into 1⁄4 -inch pieces. Remove the seeds. Add chopped dates and raisins and mash together into a paste. Stir in the wine and chopped nuts. This can be made a few days before Passover; it ages very well.
Haroset Truffle variation: Place 1 cup raisins, 11⁄4 cups pitted dates, 1⁄2 cup walnuts and 1 cup blanched and slivered almonds in a food processor with 1⁄2 cup of sweet grape wine, pulse until the mixture forms a thick paste, dribbling in more wine if needed. Lightly oil hands and scoop out a heaping tablespoon and roll into a ball. Repeat. Makes about 24 truffles. Roll in ground cinnamon just before serving, if desired.
Dawn Kepler’s Traditional Ashkenazi Apple Haroset
2 tart medium apples, such as Granny Smith
2 sweet medium apples, such as Gala
1⁄2 cup chopped almonds
1⁄4 cup sweet grape wine
1⁄4 cup dry wine
1 Tbs. ground cinnamon
Peel, core and shred apples. Add in all other ingredients. Allow to sit for 3 to 6 hours, until flavors have blended.
Dianne Jacob’s Date
Syrup and Nuts Haroset
1 cup date syrup
3⁄4 cup chopped walnuts
Combine date syrup and nuts.
2 Pink Lady or Granny Smith apples
4 Cameo apples (or 2 Red Delicious apples
and 2 Golden Delicious apples)
2 Tbs. lemon juice
11⁄2 cups chopped, toasted pecans
11⁄2 cups walnut halves
1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon, or to taste
2 Tbs. honey, or to taste
1 tsp. brown sugar, or to taste
4 Tbs. port or sweet grape wine
Peel, core and dice apples. Sprinkle with lemon juice and mix thoroughly. Place apples with nuts, cinnamon, honey, brown sugar and port in a food processor. Pulse just to break up –– it should not be a paste. Let sit for a few hours for flavors to meld.