Photo by Judith Hausman
The Jewish holiday of Passover is celebrated with a ritual meal called a seder. A number of foods are part of the service, which is read aloud at the table. Much like Thanksgiving, there are also certain dishes that are part of the actual dinner that you just have to have—and they must be just like Grandma’s. Somehow we don’t want trendy when the family gathers so rarely for a special meal, do we?
Our family does not follow kosher dietary rules, which gives us quite a lot of latitude. Nevertheless, when I have tried a number of times to introduce different dishes into our family seder, it never works. Other than switching to good wine from the old-time, horridly sweet, Concord-grape wines, the biggest change we’ve made is to offer small gefilte fish balls (made from a mix of white fish) as hors d’oeuvres rather than as a whole course because most of us don’t really like them anyway. I’ve even tried to introduce traditions from other Jewish cultures, such as Italian or North African dishes. Nope! It’s gotta be the same-as-always German-Eastern European palate of flavors we grew up with.
After Passover, leftovers of both versions of charoset can be folded into a basic muffin recipe for a nice breakfast item. You might want to drain excess liquid from Grandma’s version first.
At our meal, we must have feather-light matzoh (or matzo or matzah) balls in clear chicken soup. We usually have tender beef brisket (but roasted salmon or leg of lamb are acceptable as well), and often piles of asparagus and a certain sliced potato dish are included. In addition to any fancy (and they must be flourless) cakes for dessert, there are always coconut macaroons in both chocolate and vanilla.
One of the best-loved ritual dishes is a fruit-based condiment called charoset (or haroset). It symbolizes the mortar or mud the slaves used in Egypt to build the pyramids, but it also encompasses the sweetness of hope for the future that a spring holiday brings. The fresh herbs that are part of the service carry the same symbolism. In fact, they are about all we have growing locally around here in late March or April.
Here’s the Grandma version of charoset, which we all love and eat only for this holiday:
Dice some apples into quite small pieces. (I can still pull some local ones from cold storage.) Chop some walnuts so the proportion is about 1/3 nuts to 2/3 apples. Mix and moisten with red wine. Some people add cinnamon and/or sugar, too. Also, some people like the mix very mortar-like, which is easy to achieve in a food processor.
I’ll also pass along the Sephardic version of charoset, from the Jewish cultures of Spain and the Mediterranean. I love it because it’s made with mostly dried fruits, but I’m the only one in my family who eats it this way:
Chop a mix of almonds and dried fruits, such as apricots, dates and figs. Moisten the pasty mix with a little lemon or orange juice and a little red wine or port. Some people like to add the grated lemon or orange rind, as well, or even the whole orange, chopped.
You should allow either of these to mellow a little before serving. We eat them with matzoh, the cracker-like unleavened bread, which symbolizes how quickly the slaves had to prepare when it was time to flee. They couldn’t even wait for their bread to rise!