Savoring the Seder Symbolism



The first time we hosted Pesach, I was so busy cooking that I neglected the most essential part of the meal — the seder's ceremonial foods.

"Did you buy horseradish root?" my husband asked.

"Isn't the bottled stuff good enough?" I replied.

"Yes, but I like a real root on the seder plate," he said. "And where is the shank bone?"

"An actual bone?" I replied.

Since that time, I've learned all about these items — and the potent symbolism behind them.

Passover's five ceremonial foods are displayed on a kearah, or seder plate. The Haggadah explains the nuances behind these five foods and indicates when to eat or observe them:

· Maror, a bitter herb exemplified by horseradish or tart lettuces like escarole, symbolizes the bitterness our ancestors endured in slavery.

· Charoset, a mix of chopped fruits and nuts, symbolizes the mortar our ancestors used as slaves in Egypt. While I adore the Ashkenazi apple-and-walnut charoset of my youth, I've since adopted recipes from 12 Sephardic countries. I love the Egyptian one because it originated where the Passover story takes place.

· Z'roa, a roasted lamb shank bone or poultry neck, symbolizes the Pascal sacrifice. Before roasting the bone, I sprinkle it with paprika, lending it a charred authentic look.

· Beitzah is a roasted egg symbolizing the regular festival sacrifice of ancient times. For consumption, I boil onion skins with eggs, dying them a brown hue reminiscent of roasted eggs.

· Karpas, known as the symbol of spring, is any green vegetable, such as parsley or celery. I sprinkle parsley into as many foods as possible to weave color and flavor throughout the Passover meal.

Symbols extend beyond these foods. No seder table is complete without saltwater, representing the tears shed by our ancestors in slavery. It's poured over the greens and hard-boiled eggs.

Of course, the heart of Passover is matzah, the bread of affliction that our ancestors baked on the run after fleeing Pharoah's tyranny. Crunchy and flat, it symbolizes our deliverance from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light. It embodies the Exodus, a drama so rife with symbolism that the story grows more intriguing every year.

Ashkenazi 'Charoset'

3 Rome, Gala or Fuji apples, peeled, seeded, cored and cut into chunks 
11/2 tsps. ground cinnamon 
3 Tbsps. sweet red wine 
3 Tbsps. honey, or more 
11/2 cups walnut halves

Place all the ingredients, except the walnuts, in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Pulse, stopping every few seconds to check the consistency. Apples should be broken, but not mushy.

Add the walnuts and pulse for a few more seconds, until the mixture resembles mortar. Do not overbeat. If it doesn't hold together, add a bit more honey.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving.

Makes 3 cups, or 12 to 15 servings.

Egyptian 'Charoset'

1/2 orange 
1 box (15 oz.) dark raisins 
8 oz. dates, pitted 
1/4 cup sugar 
1/4 lb. blanched, slivered almonds

Remove pits from orange and dice it into small pieces, keeping the skin on. Cover with plastic wrap and reserve.

Place the raisins and dates in a medium-sized, heavy pot. Pour in enough water so that fruit is barely submerged. Leave at room temperature for 1 hour. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.

Move mixture in 3 batches to a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade. Process until the dates are broken into chunks. Return this mixture to the pot and add the orange. Simmer on a low flame until water reduces to a thick sauce, about 20 to 30 minutes.

The consistency should be pasty, but not dry.

Cool slightly and add the almonds, stirring until evenly distributed. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

Makes about 2 cups, or about 10 to 12 servings.

Browned Eggs

1 gallon-sized bag of onion skins, collected from bins of onions at supermarkets or grocers (include some red onion skins, as they lend color) 
12 large white eggs, at room temperature

In a large pot, place 1/3 of the onion skins.

Cover the skins with six eggs, followed by another third of the onion skins. Layer 6 more eggs on top and cover them with the remaining onion skins. Gently pour enough cool water into the pot so that top layer of onion skins is submerged by 1 inch.

Cover the pot and heat on a medium flame, bringing to a slow boil. Watch so water does not spill over. Boil for 1 hour, or until eggs turn a brilliant brown.

When ready, transfer eggs with the slotted spoon onto a plate covered with paper towels. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serves 12.

Linda Morel is a writer based in New York City. E-mail her at: [email protected].



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