Charoset

Italian Charoset for Passover

In dessert, Piemonte by Frank25 Comments

It may come as a surprise, but Italy has a long tradition of Jewish cookery. Jews have been living in Rome since ancient times. Jewish communities have long existed in other cities, perhaps most famously Venice, and even in small towns like Pitigliano in Tuscany, known as “the Little Jerusalem”. These communities produced a rich culinary tradition exemplified in many dishes still enjoyed today, including the world-famous carciofi alla giudia.

Charoset, one of the six symbolic foods included in a Passover seder plate, isn’t as famous but it’s well worth getting to know. Cyberfriend Alessandra Rovati from Dinner in Venice explains:

Charoset is one of the symbolic foods that we eat during our Passover seder: its name comes from the Hebrew word cheres (חרס), which means “clay.” Charoset is a dense fruit paste that represents the mortar used by the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt to make bricks. Because Passover celebrates freedom, a small amount of charoset is placed on the seder plate as a reminder that we were once slaves and we should not take our freedom for granted.

Even for those of us who are not celebrating Passover, Charoset makes for an unusual but toothsome way to end a meal.

Italian recipes for Charoset vary enormously from region to region and even family to family. Alessandra offer us three versions. One is from her native Padova, one from Livorno and a simpler, uncooked version from Acqui Piemonte. This is my take on the third.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6 as dessert, more as part of a seder plate

  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) blanched almonds
  • 1oog (3-1/2 oz) or about 12 pitted dates
  • 2 pieces of matzoh, crumbled (about 50g)
  • 200 ml (1 cup) or so Marsala or other sweet wine
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • Cinnamon powder, to taste

Directions

Add the dates and (if whole) the almonds to a food processor and, using the pulse function, chop them roughly. Then add the matzoh. Process again, using the pulse function, until you have a rough, granola-like mixture. (If your blanched almonds have already been slivered or sliced, add them with the matzoh rather than the dates.)

Transfer the mixture to a bowl, and combine with the sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. Then add the Marsala slowly, mixing it with the mixture until it reaches a mortar-like consistency. Let rest for at least 30 minutes.

Spoon the charoset into serving bowl and, if you like, sprinkle some more cinnamon on top.

Chaloset

Notes on Charoset

Although none of the recipes I’ve seen call for it, I found that a rest before serving is quite useful, at least for this uncooked version of Charoset. The taste of the wine is quite overpowering at first, and it mellows nicely after a rest. The rest also allows the matzoh to soften a bit.

The other recipes in Alessandra’s post are more elaborate than this one. The Charoset from her native Padova includes apples, dates, apricots, raisins, bananas and oranges, along with walnuts and chestnuts, scented with cinnamon and cloves. You process everything together and simmer for 15-20 minutes, and thin the mixture out a bit with sweet wine. The Livornese version includes apples, pears, dates, figs and prunes, along with almonds, pine nuts and pistachios. These are all chopped rather than ground or processed. They are then simmered with a bit of water, flavored with sugar, cinnamon and cloves.

In other recipes I’ve seen, you use matzoh meal, rather than matzoh, adding it only at the end, enough to thicken the mixture to your liking. Those who prefer a non-alcoholic version of this dish can substitute grape juice for the wine. If you can’t find matzoh where you live and don’t mind violating one of the primary Passover food rules, you could substitute breadcrumbs. And to pile heresy on heresy, I personally think a dollop of whipped cream would make a lovely topping for Charoset.

Charoset also varies a lot in texture. Some versions are close to fine paste, suitable for spreading on matzoh or regular bread, while others are quite rough, with a texture like granola. I did try a finely ground version of this Charoset—as pictured below—and though the flavor was nice, I preferred the more interesting texture of the roughly ground version.

Chaloset (fine)

Jewish Communities in Italy

As mentioned, Jews have lived in Italy from the days of the Roman Republic, in the first centuries BCE. That presence grew during the late Middle Ages, when Italy presented a relatively tolerant environment as compared with other European countries. A good number of Jews settled in Italy after the mass exiles from Spain in the wake of the Reconquista in the late 15th Century.

This article ably outlines the complicated ups and down of Jewish life in Italy over the years. To make a long story short, by the 20th century the principal Jewish communities in Italy had settled in Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Then came the second world war and the extermination of about 15% of Italy’s Jewish population, marking the end of many Jewish communities like the one in Pitigliano. Only about 45,000 Jews live in Italy today.

Italian Jews developed their own very distinct but yet very Italian cuisine. I’ve mentioned carciofi alla giudia. I’ve featured two other Jewish Italian recipes on this blog: Riso con l’uvetta (Rice with Raisins) and pollo fritto per Chanukà (Hanukah Fried Chicken). And for an in-depth look at Italian Jewish cookery, I know of no better source than The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews by Edda Servi Machlin. The daughter of Pitigliano’s rabbi who became a partisan during WWII, Machlin emigrated in 1958 to the US, where she taught Italian Jewish cookery. Sadly, I believe the book is now out of print, but you can purchase an old copy on amazon.com.

Charoset and Italian Passover

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: Serves 4-6 as dessert, more as part of a seder plate

Charoset and Italian Passover

Ingredients

  • 100g (3-1/2 oz) blanched almonds
  • 1oog (3-1/2 oz) or about 12 pitted dates
  • 2 pieces of matzoh, crumbled (about 50g)
  • 200 ml (1 cup) or so Marsala or other sweet wine
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • Cinnamon powder, to taste

Directions

  1. Add the dates and (if whole) the almonds to a food processor and, using the pulse function, chop them roughly. Then add the matzoh. Process again, using the pulse function, until you have a rough, granola-like mixture. (If your blanched almonds have already been slivered or sliced, add them with the matzoh rather than the dates.)
  2. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, and combine with the sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. Then add the Marsala slowly, mixing it with the mixture until it reaches a mortar-like consistency. Let rest for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Spoon the charoset into serving bowl and, if you like, sprinkle some more cinnamon on top.
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Comments

  1. What a fantastic dessert! I´ve never heard of it so far, so I´m particularly intrigued, the only Jewish-Italian reipe I knew to date was Jewish style fried artichokes (making those over the holidays). Love your recipes!

    1. Author

      And thank you for the tip Simona. I’ll have to look out for that book next time I’m over there.

  2. An informative post and I am certain a delicious charoset. Again, it seems as though we are on the same wave length Frank. I have forwarded this recipe to some of my friends to incorporate into their seder.

  3. questa ricetta per me è un’assoluta novità, non ne avevo mai sentito parlare, grazie Frank ! Buona Pasqua a te e ai tuoi cari, un abbraccio

  4. As always, a very informative post. Thank you, and the charoset looks like something I would like to try.

  5. Ciao Frank. Thank you for sharing this tasty recipe. Actually I did not know it. I will certainly try it because I love almonds and dates. Buona Pasqua

  6. Hello Frank. Great post as usual. If you’re interested in another book, Joyce Goldstein has a wonderful book in Italian Jewish Cuisine, called Cucina Ebraica. The recipes are fabulous.

  7. this marsala makes this hairiest really special. I have made it few time following Claudia Roden’s model (haroset from Italy in her Jewish Book), generally leaving the dried fruits in big pieces…. it is pretty scrumptuous on vanilla ice cream or even greek yogurt

    + thanks for telling us about the lovely Edda Machlin’s book: like David, I have bought it too and I have already cooked a couple of really good things from it + excellent read. thanks again
    s

  8. Fantastic recipe Frank! Greece also had a large Jewish community, especially in the north, at Thessaloniki. During WW2 however, many were sent to the extermination camps:( Today it’s not as large as it used to be. That’s why the Holocaust museum of Greece is located in Thesssaloniki to commemorate this tragedy.
    Horrible stuff.
    As for the recipe, it makes for a great dessert, that’s also quite healthy And filling! We both love cinnamon, so we’re gonna love this one!
    Thanx so much for the beautiful article and the yummy treat.
    Mirella and Panos

  9. Thanks to you – in a comment you wrote on Stefano’s blog regarding the rice with raisins – I now have the book on traditional Italian Jewish cooking. It is great to have these traditions to share dusting the holidays.

  10. Buon sabato, Frank! I learn so much every time I read one of your posts. I certainly can empathize with the Jews — we had to leave our home because of decisions made by others. Once in America, I didn’t learn my Italian history. It is great getting these snippets of history along with the history of the dishes. When we visited Rome a few years ago we stayed in the Jewish Ghetto. I’ve pinned the recipe to make next year.

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