BOSTON (JTA) — Robin Cohen, a computer programmer turned national award-winning cook and food writer, recalls vivid childhood memories of her family’s Passover kitchen, when charoset was made in a large, old-fashioned wooden chopping bowl.
A small portion of the tasty fruit-and-nut mixture was placed on the seder table, a symbol of the bricks and mortar used by the Israelites when they were enslaved in ancient Egypt. The rest was reserved for the next day, when the flavorful combination of apples, nuts, wine and cinnamon, with a bit of honey and lemon, was enjoyed as a spread on matzah.
The fragrant flavors of charoset past inspired Cohen to create Seder Sweetness, a new jarred fruit conserve that will be available in Boston-area shops. The recipe is not hard for home cooks to follow, she says.
The idea for Seder Sweetness jelled last fall, when Cohen began selling her fruit conserves and preserves at local farmers’ markets. Cohen, who won Micheal Ruhlman’s 2011 national holiday cooking challenge for her rugelah, had just launched Doves and Figs Kitchen, a home-based business devoted to making and selling fruit preserves using local fresh fruit.
A Rosh Hashanah variety made from apples, figs, almond and honey became a popular seller; it reminded some customers of charoset. Since then, Cohen has tried several recipes for an authentic charoset flavor, tweaking apple varieties and the balance of other ingredients. Despite the New England winter, she’s still able to use local apples, along with local honey, she told JTA.
Cohen makes a sugar syrup with sweet kosher wine, lemon and honey, then adds chopped apples and toasted walnuts (recipe below).
She is branching out with other Passover-inspired conserve recipes, including savory ones. Her winter carnival recipe made from cranberries, apples and pears is a perfect accompaniment for brisket or lamb, and was awarded a prize last October from the American Lamb board. She is now testing recipes for an apple-horseradish preserve embellished with mint as a touch of Passover greenery. Horseradish is trendy in the food world right now, Cohen says.
Last Passover, Cohen got playful, offering a recipe on her blog for Wicked Son Eggs and Drunken Passover Grilled Cheese using kosher for Passover cheddar cheese, matzah and sweet kosher wine.
But making jams, conserves and preserves is her passion, and a family tradition. As a child, Cohen spent summers on Montauk, Long Island, where she and her brother helped their dad pick beach plums and grapes to make jars and jars of jam. They used the old-fashioned method of boiling the fruit for a long time to enhance the natural sweetness while using only a small amount of sugar and no pectin.
Jewish family gatherings were a time when the jams were served. House guests always left with jars of the summer jams as gifts, she recalled. Offering a jar of the charoset conserve as a gift to a seder host adds something homemade and local, she suggests.
Robin Cohen’s Seder Sweetness
8 cups apples (measure after peeling, coring, and dicing)
1 cup water
4 cups sugar
1/2 cup nuts
1/4 cup kosher sweet wine
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick
Toast walnuts in a 350 degree oven until lightly toasted and fragrant. Set aside to cool. Combine sugar, water, wine, honey, lemon juice, and spices in a large pot and cook over medium high heat until slightly thick and syrupy (about 10 minutes). Stir in apples and cook over medium heat until apples soften slightly. Boil until liquid starts to set (will be softer than a traditional jam). Remove cinnamon stick, mix in nuts. Refrigerate or can. Yield: 8-10 8-ounce jars.