This Friday night, Jewish families around the world will sit down for the Passover Seder. Three or four hours later, they’ll actually start to eat. But before the main meal (shulchan orech), and after the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt (magid), the first real taste of food will be a sandwich (corach) made out of bitter herbs (maror), matzo, and charoset—a sweet condiment made out of ground apples and nuts.
The Seder Plate is laden with symbolism as well as food: The boiled egg and shankbone symbolize the sacrifices associated with the holiday; bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt; the parsley or celery accompanied by salt water bring to mind the start of spring, and also the tears shed by the Jews. While charoset is not mentioned in the Bible, the Talmud suggests that it is meant to resemble the mortar the Jews used while enslaved in Egypt—and also that its sweetness, which offsets the bitterness of the herbs, hints at a sweeter, slavery-free future. Some suggest that the ingredients are derived from the Songs of Songs, the most sensual of Biblical texts, which is traditionally chanted on Passover and which refers to walnuts, dates, and cinnamon. Alternative theories and traditions abound.
Passover may be less known for the food you eat than for the food you don’t: leavened bread and, for many, kitniyot, a category that includes rice and beans.* The holiday is about eating “poor man’s bread”; aside from the numerous variations on matzo—matzo brie, matzo farfel, matzo balls—there isn’t much to look forward to, food-wise. So any chance for culinary creativity is welcome.
The most common mistake with charoset is the attempt to make it look like something that it’s not. The best charoset looks like brown mush—because it is brown mush, with a smoothness that can only come from using a food processor. It’s difficult to make a food that is supposed to resemble mortar look appetizing. Instead, focus on the flavor. The trick to getting just the right amount of stickiness and sweetness is using jumbo Medjool dates. And charoset is one of the only good excuses for using the sickeningly sweet Manischewitz wine.
Everyone has their own twist on charoset; as the joke goes: two Jews, three opinions. Some people cook it, others finely chop all the ingredients. But Passover is about simple foods—so the simpler the better.
Yield: About 2 cups
Time: 10 minutes
1 cup walnuts
2 Fuji apples, peeled, cored, and cut into large chunks
12 jumbo Medjool dates, pitted
2 tablespoons sweet red wine, like Manischewitz
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Put the walnuts in a large skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring often, until fragrant and lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
2. Combine the nuts with the apples, dates, wine, and cinnamon in a food processor and process until smooth enough to spread with a knife, then serve. (Store leftover charoset in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
* This article originally referred to rice as a legume. While the Hebrew "kitniyot" translates as "legumes," the two categories are not identical.