I grew up thinking all charoset recipes began with apples. There might be some variation in how many, or whether to include cinnamon, dates, or bananas, too, but as sure as the sun rises every morning, charoset—the delicious, spreadable mash that represents the mortar the Hebrew slaves used in ancient Egypt—began with apples and Manischewitz wine.
Here’s how I came by my “world view”: My Romanian mother met my Iraqi father in the Israeli army in 1948, and they moved to Los Angeles shortly after they got married. Far from the guidance of her mother and mother-in-law, my mother learned to cook for Passover by reading The New Settlement Cookbook and Love and Knishes, a popular, schtick-y Jewish cookbook of the time, and by picking up recipes at friends’ homes when we were invited to Seder. All her sources reflected Ashkenazic—that is, European Jewish—food traditions, the prevailing style of Jewish food in the United States that began with the great late-nineteenth century migrations of Eastern European Jews.
It wasn’t until I was working on The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen that I discovered that an entirely different and wondrous charoset tradition existed in my family. In one of our many food discussions, my paternal cousin Elan, who grew up three thousand miles away in Lancaster, PA, let drop that his family’s charoset didn’t come within a mile of an apple.
His mother, my father’s sister, used our Iraqi grandmother Rachel’s recipe—date syrup (silan) and toasted chopped pecans. A “little bit of heaven” is how Elan describes it, and boy, is he right.
Think of the earthy, spicy complexity of molasses and then add fruit, chocolate, honey, and coffee notes. That’s date syrup. And yes, you want to add it to your pantry staples.
It’s an extraction—dates soaked in water, then wrung through butter muslin—cooked down to a thick syrup. That’s how my Safta Rachel used to make it. Commercial silan is a late-twentieth century product that until recently was available only at Middle Eastern markets. It’s gaining favor and can be found at Whole Foods, health food stores, and the like. Be sure to check the ingredient list on the jar—ideally, there shouldn’t be anything besides dates and water. No surprise, the best ones are small-batch products, many from Israeli date-farm kibbutzim or Lebanese producers.
This charoset is so good and so easy to make: equal amounts date syrup and nuts stirred together and thickened with the “dust” that remains after finely chopping nuts (another reason not to buy pre-chopped nuts). What you get is crunchy deliciousness with a viscosity somewhere between a schmear and a pour.
- 3/4 cup (75 grams) pecans, toasted
- 3/4 cup (255 grams) silan (date syrup)
And there are so many tasty ways to repurpose it after the Seder. It’s divine for breakfast the next day with Greek yogurt, bananas, and/or strawberries, or with a schmear of unhulled tahini on matzah, a sort of Middle Eastern PB&J. For dessert, use it as an accompaniment with a hunk of toasted sponge cake, and maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and crumbled halvah… or forget the cake and have a sundae. Use the charoset as a filling in a chewy almond macaroon sandwich for a Passover-friendly, Iraqi-inspired macaron/alfajore. Stir in a little harissa, and Iraqi charoset becomes a hot-sweet-crunchy condiment for leftover chicken or brisket. Best keep a jar of the stuff handy on your kitchen counter, maybe even all year-round; you never know when you’re going to develop a craving.
Safta Rachel’s charoset got me thinking. Dates, not apples, would have been plentiful in her native homeland. Dates have been an important regional crop for so long they were exalted in the Bible as one of the seven key food species (silan is thought by many to be the honey in the “land of milk and”). Iraq—Babylon in ancient times—was home to Jews since the destruction of the second temple in the sixth century B.C.E. (and was until the mid-twentieth century). Could my Safta Rachel’s charoset recipe, which she carried with her when the family emigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s, be thousands of years old? That’s some timeless classic.
These days, two kinds of charoset grace our Seder table and tell the fuller story of our family’s journey. It feels like we’ve welcomed back a long-lost relative.
What's your favorite—or least favorite—item on the Passover table? Share with us in the comments!