Never one to leave a recipe alone, I’ve long been on a quest for perfect haroset. Growing up in an Ashkenazi household, our Passover haroset was simple: diced apple, chopped walnuts, a sprinkle of cinnamon and a splash of kosher wine, preferably the ruby red and syrupy Malaga style. Meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelite slaves to build the great edifices of ancient Egypt, ours was thinner than I like, certainly not up to the task of holding stones together.
Although the ingredients in Ashkenazi haroset are mostly uniform through Eastern Europe, there are as many Sephardic variations as there are countries in which Jews lived. Over the years, I tried bits from many of them to make a haroset more to my liking. To make it a little more dense and mortar-like, I added dates. I experimented with pomegranate molasses, ground almonds and a variety of spices such as cardamom and even Chinese five-spice powder.
My friend Melanie told me years ago about the unique haroset she made that came from her husband René’s family. René is from Curaçao, one of several islands in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela. In Curaçao, the traditional haroset is a paste of highly sweetened dried fruit and nuts, rolled into balls, coated in cinnamon and often wrapped like candy. Making haroset was a beloved family project, with René shelling peanuts, Melanie running the food processor and their now grown children, Ilana and Alex, rolling the balls in cinnamon.
René’s ancestors came to Curaçao sometime in the early 18th century, via Amsterdam, after fleeing Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition. He and his family remain members of the Sephardic synagogue Mikvé Israel – Emanuel founded in Willemstad in 1651, whose current building was consecrated in 1732, making it the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
The Curaçao haroset balls are heavily peanut-based, which is historically intriguing. There are few other versions that use the peanut, a legume that Ashkenazim traditionally do not eat on Passover.* I’ve wondered if, as with Papiamentu, the official language spoken on Curaçao, which is an amalgam of many languages including the West African languages of the slaves brought to the island, the use of peanuts in this mixture also derived from the slaves from West Africa where peanuts are commonly used in cooking.
With children grown and René unable to join, Melanie and I decided to make her version of the Curaçao-style haroset balls together this year. Based on an early edition of Recipes from the Jewish Kitchens of Curaçao, Recipes Compiled by the Sisterhood of Mikvé Israel – Emanuel, a copy of which was given to her when she and René married, Melanie has since adapted the recipe to eliminate the brown sugar and candied fruit. We further adapted the recipe to make a more manageable batch size and to make the instructions easier for a non-Curaçaoan (or yiu di Korsou, child of Curacao, in Papiamentu).
We were the perfect team; I had only tasted this haroset once before at a seder at Melanie and René’s home, but hadn’t seen it made, and Melanie had never written down her adaptations and method. This year, we planned ahead and made them together to freeze. We weighed, whirred the fruits and nuts, mixed, sampled, adapted, I took notes, and we were able to not only quantify her home recipe, but we used some of the mixture to make some fruit and nut energy bars as well. This haroset is perfect. Chewy, peanutty, just sweet enough and scented with orange.
For me, making this haroset was a delicious and interesting activity, and I will likely make these again in my ongoing haroset explorations. For Melanie and her family, the making of these haroset balls is much more. It’s a palpable connection to René’s cultural roots and to the years of preparing them as a family.
*Most Sephardim do not observe the Ashkenazi prohibition on kitniyot (though literally meaning legumes, the term is more generally a classification of beans, legumes, corn and rice, which have historically been prohibited by Ashkenazi rabbis) during Passover. In December 2015, the Conservative movement rabbis voted to remove the ban on kitniyot for Conservative Ashkenazi Jews as well.