Although I was not born Jewish, I did marry into a Jewish family. Now, over 20 years later, the culinary traditions of that religion feel as much like my own as those I share with my own family. One of my favorite of the Jewish traditions is making Charoset for Passover dinner, a task to which I have been assigned for some years now.
Charoset is a pasty mixture of fruit, nuts and wine that symbolizes both the mortar used by the Israelites to build the pyramids of the Egyptians and the sweetness of the freedom they would one day live to see. Charoset is eaten during the Passover ceremony, and later, spread between two motsah halves with a bit of horseradish, it makes Hillel’s sandwich. The Charoset we serve is a traditional Eastern European recipe. Sephardic versions may use dates or figs, mixed nuts and even fruit juice.
The Charoset recipe I use never varies, but every batch is unique. That’s because I’ve never actually written the recipe for Charoset down. It’s impossible really since the flavors evolve as you make it, and vary depending on the size and variety of apple you use in a given year. Thus, every year’s Charoset making is a bit of an adventure to see if I can get it as close to perfect as I can, or at least as good as it was last year.
I begin each year by assembling the tools of the task – an old wooden bowl (did Irene give it to me? Did I get it at a house sale? I don’t remember) and the old rocker-bottom metal cleaver I bought at an antique market. Although the bowl is very occasionally used for salad during the year, the chopper is never used for anything else but this one task, and never unless it is used with this bowl.
I then gather the ingredients – Apples (Fuji or gala with a granny smith or two), pecans (How many? I have no idea – at least a cup but not more than two cups), a bottle of Manichevitz wine (I used about 3/4 of the bottle) and some ground cinnamon (2 tbsp? 3 tbsp?…). maybe some brown sugar or honey if your apples aren’t sweet enough…
There is always one, and sometimes more than one phone call to my mother-in-law. How many apples? (5-6 seems about right ) Which wine again – elderberry or blackberry? (Blackberry) Do I peel the apples? (Yes)
I peel the apples, cut them into eights and toss them into the bowl, working quickly because I don’t want them to brown. Next, I toss the pecans on top, sprinkle some cinnamon and pour some wine over the lot. And then the fun really begins.
There is nothing, I tell you, more satisfying than the Fwick! Clunk! sound the cleaver makes as it slides through the apples and pecans and then bounces against the wooden bottom of the bowl, only to repeat itself again, again and again, interrupted only long enough to sweep across the bottom to gather up more apples into the center so the symphony of chopping can begin anew. Here – just listen to it and see what I mean –
How long to chop? Until the mixture is evenly chopped, almost but not quite mushy, but not chunky either. As the wine is absorbed, you keep adding more. You stop to taste, and add more cinnamon. Then more wine. Maybe some brown sugar or honey, but not too much, just a teaspoon or so. Then more chopping. Until it is perfect. Or as perfect as you can make it until tomorrow, when you bring it to your mother-in-law’s kitchen for the final taste test. There, you won’t mind at all if she tells you that you added too little cinnamon. Or didn’t chop long enough. Or need a little more wine. She will help you adjust it and she will always be right.
Each time you make Charoset, you remind yourself to stop and write down exactly what you are doing so that you get the quantities right once and for all. But then the Fwick! Clunck! begins, and you are lost in the sounds and a tradition that reminds you to savor this moment, and this task, and to just let what you are making be whatever it will be. And in that moment, you know that, perfect or not, it will be wonderful.
If you want a recipe for Charoset, here a few –