The best charoset is made by a Catholic woman who crosses herself instinctively when she passes by any church. Because you just never know. Growing up with the stern assurance that God is always watching has a way of sticking to your psyche.
This woman knows what it takes to make the celebratory sweet dish enjoyed by millions of Jews on this important holiday commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is one filled with rituals and symbolic foods and charoset, a sticky combination of dried fruit, apples, and matzoh, takes center stage in representing the mortar used by the slaves in Egypt.
She knows this, and has the patience and precision to, not just chop the apples, dates, and dried figs that go into the dish, but to mince them with microscopic, surgical precision, and, although not a mathematician by trade, she astutely calculates the proportions of dry ingredients with wet, incorporating the crispy matzoh with the cloying Manischewitz wine to produce the perfect blend of crunch with mush, tart with sweet. The end result has flavors of Biblical proportions.
Moses would be impressed.
I’ve actually never had her original charoset. I’ve sampled, through the years, her son’s, who is the man I married twenty years ago. He comes from a long, enduring line of devout Latin Catholics that was interrupted by the inquisitorial mind of one man who was studying to become a priest, and, unfulfilled by the answers he received from them, converted to Judaism.
This man went on to marry that woman, the charoset woman, whom must have loved him very much, because she, too, came from an extensive line of Catholics, and yet, together they built, not only an almost-completely Jewish home, but a Zionist home, sending all three of their sons to study in Israel. The youngest of these, the one I married, went on to stay there, living on a kibbutz and becoming an Officer in the Israeli Army.
Theirs was a life filled with colorful contradictions; the yin-yang of an enduring marriage woven from a kaleidoscope of beliefs and traditions that shines brightly in this family’s lexicon. The charoset my mother-in-law learned to make could easily represent the glue that bound them together, allowing each member the opportunity to explore, not only their religious identity, but their curiosity for the world, explaining why they ended up living in Mexico, Africa, Germany, Israel and the United States.
My mother-in-law lives meagerly in a small apartment in her hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Her children have long moved away and her husband, my father-in-law, passed away many years ago. She no longer feels the need to orchestrate an entire Passover meal. Which is why I am even more grateful she appeased that youngest son of hers, the one who was born inquisitive like his father, the one that grew up to become my husband, and showed him the culinary secret of a Catholic woman, who for the sake of her family and the importance of tradition, helped build an enduring and loving Jewish home. One charoset spoonful at a time.
10 ounces (1 2/3 cups) dried figs, diced very fine
12 ounces (2 cups) dried dates, preferably Majul, diced very fine
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced very fine
3 sheets matzoh
1 ¼ cups kosher sweet red Concord grape Manischewitz wine
In a bowl, combine figs, dates, and apple. Mix well. With your hands, crumble matzoh into the fruit mixture. Mix well. Add half the wine and blend with your hands. Add remaining wine and blend. Refrigerate until serving time.
Makes about 4 cups.
*Note: make this as close to time as consumption as possible, otherwise the matzoh will look its crunch!
The first person I met who wore bright, short silk scarves tied tightly around her tan neck was Signora DiLeo. She also pulled off elegant button-down blouses with jeans and loafers flawlessly. It was back in the 80’s, when I was a teenager trying hard to navigate through the many ridiculous messages thrown my way about beauty. Aside from big hair and bigger shoulder pads, that included electric blue mascara, Sassoon jeans (worn two sizes too small), and miniskirts, the shorter the better. When I walked into my 6th period class of Italiano 1, however, and saw Signora DiLeo’s effortless elegance and class, I knew everything Seventeen Magazine was screaming at me to do was wrong.
Signora DiLeo’s room was in the farthest corner of the second floor of my high school’s sprawled out campus, away from the main traffic of noise: girls crying over latest heartbreaks, boys playing basketball well past break time, teachers exchanging pleasantries on their way to the copy room. We heard none of that in her hidden alcove. We were privy only to Signora DiLeo’s singsong voice as she conjugated verbs.
Eventually, we arrived at the verb “eat” and Signora DiLeo’s friendly hazel eyes brightened.
“Questa settimana impareremo sui cibi italiani!” She announced, her words gliding quickly and comfortably in her native tongue.
“To eat: mangiare!” She proclaimed, gesticulating with her slender hand.
We all understood this much Italian and even the boys in the back, the ones that were always joking around and being disruptive, suddenly grew attentive at the subject of food, which really sounds quite beautiful in Italian.
For that week we learned to conjugate the verb “to eat”:
Lui, lei mangia
We learned how to order food in Italian: antipasto, primo, secondi, and of course, dolce. We learned about pasta: agnolotti , bucatini, conchiglie, and pappardelle, to name a few. When we were delirious and dumbfounded by those options, we learned about the sauces: arrabiata, bolognese, burro e salvia, fra diavolo, marinara, ragú, puttanesca.
“And then, of course, there’s pomodoro, tomato sauce,” Signora DiLeo whispered. “The best sauce. Simple.”
She raised her chin and closed her eyes for a second, falling back into a happy memory that I assumed included this sauce.
“Tomato, onion, garlic, olive oil, a pinch of salt, a pinch of sugar, and of course, time,” she told us, her eyes still closed. “È davvero così semplice. Le cose migliori della vita sono le cose più semplici. The best things in life are the most simple things.”
She translated the last part, for good measure. This was a lesson she didn’t want us to miss.
When Friday came around, we got a taste of Signora DiLeo’s cooking as well as her wisdom. The hallway leading to her room was enveloped in a luring scent of onions and garlic simmering in olive oil, making the whole school wish they had signed up for Italianio 1. Signora DiLeo stood in the front of the classroom, her stylish outfit covered up by a spotless white apron with the Italian flag flanked across the front and, just to hone in on the point, the proclamation, Italia!, scrawled underneath it in vibrant red. She was stirring sizzling onions over a portable burner that had magically appeared in the front of her room.
Signora DiLeo explained the steps involved on how to make the easiest of all Italian culinary treasures: salsa di pomodoro, pronouncing each ingredient carefully as she added it: olio d’oliva, cipolla, aglio, pomodoro, una presa di sale , una presa di zucchero.
When she was done, she pulled out bowls that she filled with spaghetti and ladled up pomodoro sauce for us to eat. I’m not sure where or how she made spaghetti, but I do remember the sauce. The sauce was memorable. The sauce was magic. The sauce was elegant, classy, and sophisticated, just like Signora DiLeo.
1 28-ounce can of tomatoes (if you find San Marzano tomatoes, use those!)
½ teaspoon sugar
salt, to taste
In a medium saucepan, heat up olive oil and sauté onions and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring every so often for 10-15 minutes. The onions should get a caramelized look to them.
Add remaining ingredients, raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cook, partially covered, for 45 minutes-1 hour, stirring once in a while, crushing up tomatoes with back of a wooden spoon.
When sauce is done, you can add fresh basil (3-4 leaves, torn) and/or ¼ cup heavy cream.
PLANTATION- Between 7 and 8 o’clock on the night of January 27, 2015, a local teenager was spotted eating large quantities of fresh vegetables.
A number of witnesses said that many of the veggies seemed to come from the food category said teenager has adamantly rejected her whole life.
“It’s like I don’t even know her,” her stunned younger brother announced.
The parents of the teen were also flabbergasted.
“It was astonishing, and a little bit frightening,” the mother, Alona Martinez, said. “A lifetime of begging her to eat vegetables with no luck and now, in one sitting, she enjoys them all!”
The teen’s father was not in Plantation at the time of the event as he was busy traveling around Asia for work, but he managed to send in a message on WhatsApp upon hearing the news.
“I’m so proud of my little girl. I knew she had it in her!”
Food experts suggest such voracious and uncharacteristic enthusiasm towards cabbage, zucchini, carrots and green beans can only be attributed to the irresistible format in which they were prepared: a heavenly rendition of minestrone soup.
Close monitoring suggests that children apprehensive to eating plain vegetables may reconsider their stance when such food items are simmered in a hearty beef broth and sprinkled with fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The ditalini pasta doesn’t hurt, either, experts concur.
“I’m a chef and a mom,” a local Plantation resident who prefers to remain anonymous (because she may or may not be the teen’s mother) stated, “and I’ve never seen such an impressive turnaround in attitude towards vegetables. That’s one miracle minestrone!”
The teenager doesn’t see her newfound love of veggies as anything newsworthy. She took a few seconds out of her busy texting schedule to share her succinct assessment of the situation:
“Finally, Mom made vegetables taste good.”
When asked if she had anything else to say, she smiled and returned her attention to her buzzing phone, but first, she added:
There are many wonderful things about having family members live in Germany.
There’s the traveling to Germany part (thanking hubby for his zillions of frequent flyer miles.)
There’s the adventure of a new language (I really didn’t get past “nein,” sorry!)
There’s the instant bonding cousins who’ve never met have while careening down snow-coated hills.
There’s the snow-coated hills. We hail from Venezuela and South Florida, this, and any other winter-related activity (including scraping ice off car windshields) spawns enthusiasm/excitement.
And then there are the waffles.
Waffles are hard-core Christmas street food in Germany. They sort of became a thing there in the 18th Century. I know Belgium has an international reputation as waffle masters, but, believe me, the Germans know what they are doing with their waffles, and it doesn’t matter if there is a blizzard, ice, or below freezing temperatures, waffle stands are out there making waffles non-stop. If they pour waffle batter, they will [and do] come!
My children (and my first child, my husband) can’t resist anything chocolate, so they got their waffles bathed in chocolate syrup. I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to Sandwaffeln, which, unlike American waffles, are enjoyed in Germany for Kaffeetrinkin (afternoon cake and coffee), so I got mine with just a light sprinkling of powdered sugar. I also passed on the coffee and headed straight for another German winter favorite: glühwein, a hot brew of spices, sugar, citrus, wine, and booze served in a festive mug designed just for that year.
Either way works wonders for the soul, especially a very weather-wimpy tropical soul who was instantly revitalized sitting on a frozen German bench, gobbling warm dough while alternating with sips of hot mulled wine.
I know I’m a bit old to be writing you this letter, but no one around here listens, so I’m hoping I’ll have more luck with you.
2014 has been fine. However, as I like to tell my daughter, there is always room for improvement. I don’t end up telling this to her, I end up telling this to the lovely oil painting I have of an exasperated woman, the one where she is resting her head in her hands in complete resignation (can so relate!) That fine artwork hangs in my living room right behind my daughter, above an electrical outlet.
The outlet is what lures my daughter there regularly, charging a phone or a computer or both. Fingers are quickly composing a witty text, eyeballs nervously checking social status on Instagram (I need more likes on that picture!!!) or maybe she’s perusing Facebook, just biding time until it is 9:00pm and she can tune into the season premier of PLL.
That’s Pretty Little Liars, Santa. Come on, get with it.
Look, I’m not going to ask you for the big stuff.
I’m not going to ask you for a larger house.
With an infinity pool.
Perhaps an ocean view.
That would be outrageously abusive of me.
But maybe, could you do something about the stovetop?
The thing is, it’s electric.
And yes, fancy shmancy electric, seriously high-end German electric, with an eco-friendly Ceran glass surface that claims to heat up faster than you can say omelet, with double and triple size elements that make the whole thing have more rings on it than the Olympic emblem.
By the way, Santa, I don’t know how savvy you are in the kitchen, but, if the brochure tells you it heats up faster than you can say omelet, the brochure is lying to you. Or you aren’t reading the German properly. Something.
I could walk over to my neighbor’s house, make an omelet there, clean up, come back home, and then my skillet would be ready.
I’ve learned to roll with this electric stovetop situation ever since I moved to the Florida ‘burbs a kazillion years ago, but my children don’t get a break, I am constantly kvetching about this. You know about kvetching, Santa, you must have some complaining to do as well, say, when the elves slack off or that darn chimney somehow becomes more narrow.
I fill their heads with stories about the perfectly simmered black beans I enjoyed growing up in Venezuela or the fantastic puttanesca pasta that I’d whip up in a flash in New York, or the spicy Moroccan chicken couscous I’d dazzle their dad with when we lived in Boston.
It’s not that I can’t make these dishes here. I can and I do. It’s the experience of making them over a gas stovetop that is so different, the ease and control of creating them under the embrace of a real fire that makes a difference. Maybe it’s that primal, caveman instinct of cooking with actual fire that makes me happy. Maybe it’s the hypnotic dance of the blue flame and the way it instantly heats up my skillet, even the heaviest cast iron one, making my heart flutter just so.
The year we lived in Mexico, my kids witnessed this jubilation first hand.
“Look, see! See how fast the water boils?” I’d scream, vindicated, drunk with joy.
“Crispy, crunchy hash browns in seconds! “ I’d revel.
I admit, I had gone a bit mad. But it was a happy mad, one in which everyone seemed to benefit and eat a lot.
The euphoria ended upon returning to our South Florida home where my German engineering quietly awaited to disappoint me.
The kids poke fun at me, Santa.
There seems to be two lethal attacks they inflict on their mother regularly:
1) Commenting on how lovely whatever sunset we are currently enjoying would look from a beach home (because they know I am an ocean girl through and through)
2) Reminding me of how grand it would be if we had a gas stovetop.
They know I’d pretty much give one of them up for either one of these two things.
I’d definitely give up the dog.
But hey, they say Christmas is a time for miracles.
And Hanukkah, which is the holiday I celebrate, is filled with stories of miracles.
So, I’m writing you this note (because I don’t have Hanukkah Harry’s address, and, let’s face it, you must have more pull.)
I’m asking: amongst the tricycles and trucks and dolls banging around your bag, could you possibly spare a gas stovetop?