Tomorrow (Monday) begins the festival of Pesah (Passover) which commemorates the Biblical Exodus from Egypt. Among the symbolic foods eaten during the Seder meal is charoset, representing the bricks and mortar mixed by the Children of Israel to build their homes when they were slaves in Egypt. Many recipes use apples, but for FOOD 52 Amelia Saltsman recreates her Iraqi grandmother's date Charoset. Particularly useful are her tips for what to eat with leftover date Charoset.
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.
Safta Rachel's Iraqi Charoset
Think of the earthy, spicy complexity of molasses and then add fruit, chocolate, honey, and coffee notes.
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.
Makes about 1 cup (12 servings)
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.
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WISHING ALL POINT OF NO RETURN READERS HAG PESAH KASHER VE'SAMEAH!