Updated: Feb 28
A wine-free, no-added-sugar spin on an essential element of the Seder table.
For the printable recipe click here.
Several years ago my family participated in a Seder dinner for the first time, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover. It was such an incredible, memorable, and meaningful experience that last year we started the tradition of Passover Seder in our own home.
The Seder dinner is composed of symbolic foods that correspond with different aspects of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt.
Charoset, a sweet, apple-based mixture of fruit and nuts, is one of them.
According to Chabad.org, the word charoset actually contains the Hebrew word for clay, evoking the clay the Israelites were required to use for making bricks and mortar when they were enslaved by the Egyptians. While there are many regional variations on the ingredients and consistency of charoset, it is often ground up into somewhat of a paste to resemble mortar or clay. So in this way, the charoset is a reminder of oppression.
However, the apples used in charoset are said to represent the apple trees under which Israelite women would give birth. Tradition details that an angel would come to attend to the babies born under these trees. Then, when the Egyptians would come to kill the babies, the earth would swallow up the newborns to protect them. The babies would then grow out from the ground and return to their homes safely. This miracle gave hope for a future of redemption and freedom. Thus, the charoset has a sort of dual symbolism: both the bondage of slavery and the promise of emancipation and homecoming.
A quick internet search will generally yield two main classifications of charoset: Ashkenazi charoset and Sephardic charoset. This may be a bit of an oversimplification, but in general, Ashkenazi refers to Jews descending from Germany or the northern arc of Central and Eastern Europe. Sephardic Jews, on the other hand, descend from Spain and may be spread throughout the southern swoop that starts with the Iberian peninsula and moves through Africa to the Middle East.
Most Ashkenaszi charoset recipes I have come across are a fairly straightforward combination of chopped apples, walnuts, sugar (usually honey), sweet wine, and cinnamon. Brown sugar, orange juice or zest, and lemon zest are common additions. Many of these recipes call for chunkier, almost fruit-salad consistencies and tend to be wetter and less make-ahead-friendly in general.
Sephardic charosets tend to rely more heavily on dried fruits and a wider variety of nuts and spices. As you can imagine, there is a lot of variety represented regionally from Spain to Central Asia, so you may find recipes containing anything from golden raisins to almonds to figs to nutmeg to apricots to ginger to prunes. The Sephardic varieties tend to be thicker and darker in color, and in general more reminiscent of mortar or clay.
A hybrid approach
The Five Monsters version employs lots of fresh apples, cooked down with cinnamon and dried fruits and then pulsed several times in the food processor with toasted walnuts to create a thick but very spreadable condiment, perfect for your Seder table.
This mixture may not be as classically beautiful as some of the chunkier Ashkenazi versions, but in this rare case, looking more like mortar seems like not such a bad thing. Plus, it's super-delicious, more shelf stable, and more functional--in the course of the Seder dinner, bitter herbs are dipped into the charoset and may also be made into a Hillel sandwich (bitter fresh herbs and charoset sandwiched between two pieces of matzah).
While I like my charoset spreadable, I do not process the mixture till completely smooth because I do enjoy a little visual and textural contrast. I love biting down on little nuggets of soft fruit or crunchy toasted walnut.
For best flavor, I use a mixture of apple varieties based on what's available at my local store, potentially including anything from Jazz to Kanzi to Opal to Ambrosia to Gala to Fuji to Honeycrisp. The sweeter the apples, the sweeter the charoset. For a more tart charoset, include granny smith apples and/or a splash of lemon juice. I do not like red delicious apples for this because they have a tougher skin and mealier flesh.
Since this is a Whole30 version, this healthy charoset recipe contains no alcohol or added sugars. Apple juice stands in for both wine and honey, performing the dual duties of hydrating the dried fruits and sweetening the mixture. If desired, you could replace some or all of the apple juice with grape juice as a nod to the wine, but I prefer the apple juice.
While I probably wouldn't recommend doing a Whole30 during Passover (the matzah would be a challenge if you're following Whole30 to the letter), one of the best things about this more healthful spin on charoset is that it is so versatile and freezes beautifully. In fact, it may be even tastier after freezing! This means that you could make it for Passover, store some in the fridge, and stash the rest in the freezer to pull out for your next Whole30. Or make it on your Whole30 and freeze it till Passover time--that's an easy way to get a leg up on Seder prep!
Monster Daddy loves to dip celery in the charoset for a yummy, crunchy Whole30 snack. You could even dip sliced cucumbers or strips of sweet red peppers. The monsters and I adore this charoset (pre- or post-Whole30) as a filling for paleo crepes or homemade gluten-free toaster pastries. Even keeping a jar of charoset in the fridge and grabbing a spoonful every now and then makes a great sweet treat for when you want a small portion of dessert without pounds of sugar.
Whether you are celebrating your first Seder or you've enjoyed many a holiday meal with charoset, this is one delicious way to honor the tradition!
As a final thought for anyone who might be curious, I am not Jewish, nor an expert on Jewish traditions. As a Christian, the Exodus is part of my faith tradition as well, which is why my family elects to participate in a Seder dinner. Because of my faith, I always strive to be respectful of all people, regardless of our differences in faith or anything else. So if you are Jewish and reading this, please forgive any cultural ignorance on my part and know that my intent is always accuracy, honor, and respect.
Here's what you'll need:
2 lbs apples, preferably a mix of varieties
14 pitted Deglet Noor dates
4 oz raisins
32 oz apple juice, preferably unfiltered
½ tsp salt
1 T ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves, optional
8 oz walnuts
Here's what you'll do:
Core and coarsely chop–but do not peel–the apples and add to a medium-large pot or Dutch oven.
Coarsely chop the dates to make sure there are no hidden pits, and add them to the pot along with the raisins, juice, salt, cinnamon, and cloves, if using.
Stir to combine, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to med-low. Cook for 30-45 minutes or until all the fruit is softened.
Remove the lid, increase the heat to medium-high, and simmer until the liquid is almost completely reduced down, stirring occasionally (and more frequently toward the end), about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, coarsely chop the walnuts and toast till golden and fragrant, making sure not to scorch.
Allow the walnuts and the apple mixture to cool for at least 5 minutes, transfer both to the food processor, and pulse several times to chop and combine, but do not puree completely.
Transfer the mixture to airtight containers and allow to cool completely before storing in the fridge or freezer.
For the printable recipe click here.