Making My Grandmother's Haroset for Passover Is a Chance to Reflect on All That She Has Taught Me
It's hard to know if haroset, the sweet Passover spread that appears on ritual Seder plates around the world, is as tasty as it seems or if the dish merely stands out among the shank bones, parsley, and horseradish that typically feature in the holiday ritual. Either way, every year it is the star of my family's Seder. Growing up, I always felt the eight days of Passover were different from the rest of the year. Perhaps it was the lush smells of springtime, the unusual holiday foods we stocked to meet Passover's strict dietary constraints of no grains or leavened breads, or the maniacal cleaning we undertake to rid the house of any crumbs.
During Passover, we tell the story of Jewish peoples liberation from slavery and the exodus from Egypt through a ritual feast called a Seder. The foods on the Seder plate symbolize parts of the story. Haroset (at the top right on the plate) symbolizes the mortar enslaved Israelites used when building Egyptian cities.
I don't quite know how the ritual of making haroset with Grandma Ruth began, but for decades we prepped the dish together, just the two of us. Grandma started by deftly peeling and coring apples. She deputized me to chop them, along with walnuts. We used her old-fashioned wooden chopping bowl and hochmesser (a mezzaluna blade), which gave me license to pulverize the nuts and fruit with all my might. She sprinkled cinnamon, saying "you can never use too much," and poured Manischewitz wine into the bowl. We mixed it together, tasting spoonfuls. There was no recipe, just the taste-memories of generations before her.
Get the Recipe: Grandma Ruth's Passover Haroset
Grandma Ruth's raison d'être is feeding loved ones. In her kitchen, I watched in awe as she tasted everything for proper spicing, even raw meat. When I was 9 or 10, I followed her around to record her recipe as she baked my favorite dessert, apple strudel. I asked her all sorts of questions while she cooked, but mostly we talked about her family.
Grandma Ruth was born in Shumsk, Poland (now Ukraine), in 1928. She, her mother, and her siblings were deported during World War II and left to survive for five years in the vast steppes of the Soviet Union when she was just 11. Only after returning to Europe, where she lived in displaced persons camps in Austria, did she begin to learn to cook. Her education continued when she and her family settled as refugees in Lynn, MA. The flavors of her home shtetl (or town) in Poland became central to the narrative she shared with me about her life before the war and our family's heritage.
These days, when I spend Passover apart from Grandma Ruth and my family, I make haroset in the wooden chopping bowl she gifted me. I taste as I go, adding honey and lemon juice only when my apples aren't tart enough or the wine sweet enough. My version includes prunes, a common ingredient in Eastern European Jewish cooking, which I feel enhance the flavor and texture.
Just as I stood beside Grandma Ruth, my niece and nephews now prepare the haroset with my mother. That's the thing about family traditions: They evolve. However, my sisters and I still fight over who gets to take home leftover haroset, so not everything changes.