I used to think holiday meals were sacrosanct. My grandma’s Passover turkey dinner became my mother’s Passover turkey dinner, then mine. There was something thrilling about the continuity, even for a person like me, who likes to invent and re-invent recipes. But after we discovered my daughter Gillian’s life-threatening allergies to fish and walnuts, our menu went through a complete overhaul (except for the turkey!).
Improvising suits me well, and fortunately my family liked the new foods, especially Stuffed Artichokes instead of Gefilte Fish and Honey-Soaked Chremslich made with Raisins and Pignoli Nuts, which everyone but my brother Jeff agrees is an improvement over my grandma’s version with walnuts.
The big problem was the Charosis. In my family we had been making it the same way since before I was born. The usual Ashkenazi Jewish: grated apples, Passover wine, crushed walnuts. I tried substituting with almonds. Big mistake! The texture was off, the taste wasn’t right and I realized that -- this is going to sound heretical -- grated apples mixed with Manischewitz just doesn’t appeal to me. Besides, it always turns an unpleasant looking brown.
None of us had ever really thought much about Charosis. It was always just that symbolic food lying like a lump on the Seder plate. We ate it on cue during the service and never regarded it as something that was supposed to be delicious.
But now the Charosis became important.
I did some reading. Oh! Those heady days of looking through card catalogues and food magazines before the Internet was around! I found some recipes that seemed interesting and decided to experiment, starting with a dish called Persian Haroset. Well, that sounded exotic and even had a glamorous spelling that didn’t seem so Old World. At least my ancestors’ Old World.
I made a batch.
I never make a recipe “as is” though. I added pistachio nuts to the almonds and put in a bit of cayenne pepper to balance the sweet cinnamon. I also included lots of orange peel and marmalade and added fresh chopped apple because Charosis without apple just didn’t seem authentic and besides, the original recipe, made with dried fruit only, seemed like it would be too pasty and dense. The recipe also listed cardamom, which is okay during Passover in Sephardic kitchens, but which Ashkenazi Jews consider kitniyot. So I divided the recipe in half and in one portion, substituted ginger. Both versions were terrific.
My kids were horrified and said they would rather eat real mortar. The Hazzan at our synagogue was distressed when I brought some in for the communal Seder. But it got great reviews from everyone else, except for my sister-in-law Eileen who hates anything peppery.
Here’s what I discovered. Because there was a new Haroset at the table, we paid more attention to it. What it stood for. And also how it tasted. And over the years, as my children got older they began to appreciate the mixture of flavors and textures of this “Persian” version. Last year they told me not to bother making any other kind and say they don’t remember ever objecting. I now double the recipe because we eat Haroset not just symbolically, but as a side dish with the turkey and during the week. Every year I make less and less of my family’s original recipe (last year it was only a token portion for Eileen). And also, I make one new Charosis recipe every year, just to see how it goes over. My Haroset with Pistachios and Pepper is the family favorite, but this Pear and Chestnut Charosis and Fig and Coconut Charosis get good grades too. Try some!