Charoset, a Passover seder plate staple and a dish delightfully offsetting the bitter herbs, dates back millennia. Though its first mention in Jewish literature occured nearly 1,900 years ago in the Mishnah, scholars suggest that charoset may actually have Hellenistic origins, as elements of the seder — eating, drinking and dipping — mirror practices within the Greek culture of the time.
For Pittsburghers, charoset bears a cherished history. Both because of its ingredients and the manner in which it’s made, charoset functions not only as a paste-like substance symbolizing the mortar ancient enslaved Israelites employed in Egypt, but also as a sweet reminder of family and faraway places.
Etti Martel grew up in Jerusalem before moving to the United States more than a decade ago. Martel’s charoset, which is similar in style to that of her Kurdish grandmother’s, requires a process that begins with collecting heart-healthy snacks.
“I use all kinds of nuts — almonds, pecans, walnuts — and then I put them in a food processor,” said Martel.
After she low boils silan (date syrup) and adds “a little bit of water,” Martel adds the nut mixture. She then cooks it on a very low heat for about 45 minutes and allows “everything to blend.”
“Before you serve it, you have to mix it,” she said.
Martel maintained that as good as her charoset tastes, there’s an option to make it even better: For people who consume legumes during the holiday, “we add sesame seeds.”
Rabbi Oren Levy, who grew up in New Jersey before moving to Pittsburgh, similarly praised Kurdish cuisine.
When it comes to charoset, “I was taught by my father who was taught by his mother,” said Levy.
The generational practice of making charoset typically begins in the Levy house days before Passover when family members gather dates, then open the fruit and check for bugs, which ensures no one mistakenly consumes an insect and violates Jewish law.
The inspected dates are then soaked in water for 24 hours.
“The next day we mash the dates into a paste, while still (retaining) the water that was used to soak the dates,” he said. Levy then adds ground walnuts and ground almonds. “Occasionally, we add in a splash of red wine.”
Levy said the spread “stays good the whole Pesach and could even be frozen.” And as for the quality of his creation, the Squirrel Hill Sephardi isn’t shy about praise: “Anybody who has
it thinks it’s the best charoset they’ve ever had, including Ashkenazim. They readily drop the whole apple thing pretty quickly.”
Although she hasn’t adopted Kurdish culinary norms, Linda Joshowitz has been integrating regional tastes within her recipe. In recent years the Squirrel Hill resident has added dried mango or dried peach to her Passover plate staple.
“It tastes good,” she said. “Who doesn’t like the taste of the tropics in their charoset?”
Joshowitz typically makes about 16 ounces of charoset — complete with an apple, nut, cinnamon and wine base — weeks in advance and freezes it until the start of holiday. The amount is just fine, she explained.
While there are those who use charoset for all sorts of meals throughout Passover, “it’s really just for dipping,” said Joshowitz.
Avram Avishai, who during the year makes his own kosher beef bacon, goes whole hog over his charoset.
With cinnamon, red wine and red wine vinegar as key ingredients, Avishai’s charoset bears strong resemblance to the way his grandmother “would make it from the Ottoman empire.”
“It’s a family recipe that has been used for generations,” he said.
Because of allergies, Avishai “deviated a little bit” from tradition, and swapped out dates for raisins, and substituted macadamia nuts for walnuts.
Leading up to the holiday, Avishai will “make about a quart of it,” and use it to spread on different dishes throughout Passover.
Avishai is pleased with his holiday handiwork.
“It’s basically an amazing fruit and nut paste that looks like mortar,” he said. “It’s really good. If my pancreas would forgive me then I would eat it year-round.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.