Dates, Nuts and Hard Labor

Bursting with flavor, smooth in texture, this 'ethnic' haroset may well steal the show at the Passover seder.

Last Passover, after I published some not entirely traditional recipes for haroset in this column, my colleague David approached me at work. "I don't understand anything about this," he began, "but my wife read the article and she says to tell you that the recipes you published are Ashkenazi" (the end of the sentence was accompanied by a gesture signifying both scorn and dismissal).

He continued by describing his wife's haroset, which - needless to say - trumps any other haroset and contains only dates (and nuts), without any sugar, lemon, spices or other additions. Before I had time to think of an answer, he said: "She has also sent you a sample." He went over to his backpack, took out a small glass jar containing a dark-brown, almost black, substance, and placed it on the desk.

Let me first say that Gloria Spielman's haroset was truly wonderful, most likely the best I ever tasted. The thick, dense (but not too dense) texture was absolutely smooth (apart from small pieces of walnuts, very fresh and crunchy, which complemented the haroset), extremely pleasant on the palate, and above all rich in a plethora of flavors and sub-flavors that were easy to discern, just like in a fine wine.

It was clear that a great deal of knowledge, love, tradition and experience had been invested in that haroset, which was both traditional and unusual. Of course I asked about the recipe, its ethnicity and any other details. Here is what Gloria told me.

"I learned how to make this haroset [which she called halech] from my mother, who is Indian, born of a Persian family." Spielman adds that this is the recipe traditionally used in her mother's community, although she is not sure whether its origin is purely Persian- Indian, or whether the same haroset was also prepared by the "Iraqi" community of Jews in India. In any case, she adds, "Most people don't bother to make it today because it involves a lot of work and time."

"I use packages of pitted dates and soak them overnight. The next day, I mix the dates (hands are best!) by squeezing them in the water until I have a date-and-water mush. I then take a handful of dates, put them in the middle of a cloth [muslin cloth or old-fashioned diapers] and squeeze until date juice emerges from the cloth. I squeeze the date juice into a pan and place the leftover dates in the cloth into a bowl. After I've squeezed all the dates once, I add water to the dates in the bowl and repeat the procedure. It's hard to get a third squeezing. It all depends on the dates and the muscles of the person doing the squeezing. The liquid in the pan should only be date juice, without any small bits of dates."

Spielman then cooks the liquid in a heavy pan (otherwise the haroset will burn), over a very low flame for about 10 hours. "Once it starts to boil," she notes, "a light brown foam appears on the top. I skim it off and put it on a plate. The kids like dipping their fingers into it."

The end result is pure date syrup, without added sugar or lemon, and it "keeps for years if made and stored properly - like wine," in sterilized jars and in a cool place. This is the base for the haroset. "Some people make it during the intermediate days of Pesach, when their kitchen is kosher for the holiday, and keep it for the following year."

For this basic ingredient to become haroset, all you have to do is add walnuts. This year, you can adopt Spielman's method for crushing them: "Put the nuts in a plastic bag. Tie it tightly. Put the bag into several other bags. Take three boys, throw the bag on the floor, and tell the boys to jump on it until the walnuts are sufficiently crushed. I guess a more conventional method would be to use a blender - but this is more fun!"

Indian-Persian date haroset

The preparations entail advance planning, hard labor (squeezing dates through a cloth diaper) and cooking for about 10 hours, but the result is wonderful and rewarding and could well steal the show around the seder table. Recommended for serious Passover enthusiasts. The following makes about 1.5 kilos of haroset.

2 kilos of pitted dates (4 packages of 500 grams each)

5 liters water

500 grams chopped walnuts

Place the dates in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak overnight (the longer they soak, the easier it will be to work with them).

Using your hands, knead the dates in the water until you have a rather thin mush - the process resembles working with mortar, which is where the whole business of haroset came from in the first place. Take a very large pot with a thick bottom, and place it under a wide pasta colander with large holes. Line the colander with a clean, rather coarsely woven cloth diaper.

Put several generous dollops of the date mixture into the cloth. Fold the edges inward and squeeze the date mixture through it, slowly at first, to ensure that the juice flows into the pot and the solids remain in the cloth. Squeeze the remaining solids as hard as you can, in order to extract as much juice as possible. (And in the context of Passover, you have been warned: This is hard labor.)

Transfer the solids that remain in the cloth to a separate bowl. Continue to squeeze the remaining date batter until you have a pot full of pure, thin date juice, without any bits of date solids in it. Those with superhuman strength and patience, as well as particularly stingy people, can once more add water to the solids that remain in the pot after the squeezing, knead them and squeeze them again through the diaper to extract more date juice. The irreparably wasteful or lazy people who feel like they are on the verge of a breakdown will simply discard the solids.

Bring the watery juice almost to a boil, skim off the brown foam that collects on the surface and simmer on a low flame until the liquid turns into a very thick syrup, with the texture of jam. The cooking will take eight to 12 hours, depending on the height of the flame under the pot and on how watery the juice is to begin with. The final hours of simmering require supervision and occasional stirring, as well as lowering the flame as much as possible so the syrup will not burn.

To store the syrup for future use, transfer it to sterilized jars with tight lids, and keep in a cool place (if the jars are tightly closed, the syrup will keep for several years).

To turn the syrup into haroset, mix with the chopped nuts and transfer to a sterilized jar.