Redemption–and Cheesecake–Is at Hand
Growing up, the only way I celebrated Shavuot was at my temple’s religious school,when we’d memorize the Ten Commandments over and over each year. If we were lucky, there’d be an ice cream treat for snack, usually ice cream sandwiches, which I adored.
It wasn’t until my now almost 25-year-old son Sam started attending Jewish day school that Shavuot took on more observance and deeper meaning for me. Along with a friend and her son, we attended many traditional Shavuot-eve study sessions, often staying late into the night. Of course, our sons focused more on eating all the ice cream and cheesecake they could, but usually there were a few meaningful conversations mixed in.
I have also come to appreciate how much of Shavuot’s symbolism and celebration centers around food. It joins Passover and Sukkot as the three pilgrimage holidays in biblical times. Thousands of years later, we eat wheat, fresh fruits and vegetables – foods brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as offerings – to celebrate and give thanks for the first spring harvests.
And then there’s the whole thing with cheese–or should I say cheesecake? There actually are reasons for eating dairy at Shavuot besides being an excuse to indulge in sweet diary treats. The first is that Israel, the destination of those Jews wandering in the desert, is referred to in Torah as “the land of milk and honey,” Also, Shavuot falls during spring when milk from sheep and goats is plentiful for feeding the newborn and young offspring.
Cheesecake, blintzes (recipe below) and sweet noodle kugels with cottage cheese, sour cream and cream cheese are among Ashkenazic favorites for Shavuot. In many Sephardic traditions, Los Siete Sielos is a specially shaped holiday bread of The Seven Heavens. Usually made with a ball of dough in the middle to symbolize Mt. Sinai, seven full or partial rings of dough around the ball represent the clouds around the mountain that shrouded Moses. Other symbols of the holiday, made of dough and carefully placed round the bread, include Torah scrolls, the tablets containing the commandments, Jacob’s ladder and a yad (Torah pointer) with a hand pointing at the well in the dessert during the Exodus story.
But don’t worry. Sephardim have their Shavuot dairy dishes, too, including cheese, cheese and spinach or cheese and potato burekas plus baked egg-vegetable-cheese casseroles called quajado, sfongato, frittata, almodrote, kuku and various other names. And, yes, there are even cheesecakes including the kousmeri (below) that comes from the often-forgotten Romaniote community of Greece.
After the years of my growing connection and meaning in this holiday, I am finding additional significance in Shavuot this year. After the Israelites’ freedom from slavery, they begin their long journey through the desert. Just as we count the Omer, the 49 days between Passover’s liberation and Shavuot’s redemption, many of us have been counting the days of the pandemic over this past year, more than 400 of them. It’s been a long, arduous journey through a modern desert of isolation, uncertainty, fear, stress, illness and for too many, death. Not to push the metaphor too far, it does seem that we are approaching redemption, to go along with our liberation, in the form of vaccines and re-opening our lives to possibilities and to each other.
I hope that we will arrive together in our renewed world. I know I look forward to being able to celebrate with special foods and welcoming people around my table again.
Recipes © Susan Barocas
This cheesecake recipe originates with the Greek Jewish community of Ioannina, known as Janina among Greece’s Jews. For hundreds of years, the city had a large Romaniote Jewish community. Often overlooked or forgotten when talking about Jews of different backgrounds, the Romaniote have lived in what is now modern Greece and Turkey for over 2,300 years, making it the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe. Over the centuries, beginning with the arrival of Spain’s Jews fleeing the Inquisition, the Romaniote were mostly absorbed into the larger Sephardic population. Kousmeri has a smooth, firm texture with most of the sweetness coming from the sugar-honey sauce, the same as can be used on baklava. It’s important to pour very cold sauce on top of the hot cake just as it comes out of the oven. (Recipe adapted from Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nickolas Stavroulakis, Lycabettus Press, 1986.)
Since the syrup needs to be very cold before using on the cake, it’s best made at least a couple hours ahead of the cake or even the day before.
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Juice of 1 small lemon (optional)
Boil ingredients together 20 to 25 minutes until you have a syrup that will coat the back of a wooden spoon. Add the fresh lemon juice just before removing from the heat. Chill well before using. Syrup will thicken as it chills.
- 2 pounds soft, mild-tasting white cheese such as farmer’s or bland feta, or a mix of the two, at room temperature
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour or one-to-one gluten-free flour (such as King Arthur or Bob’s Red Mill)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Well-chilled syrup
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9×12-inch baking dish.
Mash the cheese(s) in a large mixing bowl until creamy. If too dry, add a little yogurt. Add the eggs, sugar and flour, and beat well just until smooth with wooden spoon or hand mixer on medium speed. Add the melted butter and beat or stir in well.
Pour into the buttered baking dish and bake until the edges are browned and the top is starting to color, about 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and immediately pour the well-chilled syrup over the cake. Let the cake cool in the pan with the syrup. Best served cold, cut into squares. Will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Can be frozen for up to 2 months.
Birthday breakfasts, break-the-fast, Passover…I’ve been making this recipe for blintzes for at least 50 years with only a few small tweaks. You can use flour, but I always use potato starch, which makes the bletloch, Yiddish for the crepes, gluten-free and perfect for Passover. Making blintzes can seem daunting. They are a bit labor-intensive, but not difficult and definitely worth the effort. The cheese filling is closer to the original Eastern European blintzes, which were not as sweet as many versions today. And since no cheese blintz is complete without fruit topping, both uncooked and cooked versions are offered.
For the crepes
- 1 cup all-purpose flour or potato starch
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- Pinch sea salt
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil (such as grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, avocado)
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)
- 2 cups farmer’s cheese or ricotta
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- Zest from 1 small lemon (2-3 teaspoons)
To make the dough: Whisk together the flour or potato starch, water and milk in a mixing bowl until smooth. Whisk in the eggs and salt to form a smooth and thin batter. Another option is to mix the dough for 15 seconds in a blender, scrape down the sides and blend another 15 seconds. Refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes.
To make cheese filling: Use a wooden spoon to beat together the all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. (For a sweeter filling, use 2 tablespoons sugar and a dash of vanilla extract.) Refrigerate until ready to use.
To cook the crepes: When you’re ready to cook the crepes, heat the 8-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet over on medium to medium-low heat. Grease with cooking oil spray or brush lightly with vegetable oil before making each crepe.
Pour in about 1/4 cup of the batter for each crepe, working quickly to swirl and coat the bottom of the pan. Cook for 45 to 60 seconds, until the top looks dry and the bottom is golden brown. Gently lift part of an edge to loosen the crepe, then turn it out of the pan, with the browned side up. Continue making crepes (a total of 10 to 12), stacking finished ones on a plate.
To fill the crepes: Place one crepe browned side up on a clean work surface. Spoon a scant 1/4 cup of filling in a log across the lower third, then fold the crepe up over the filling to cover it, tucking the round end under the cheese log. Next, fold both sides in toward the middle, then continue to roll to form a fairly tight roll. Repeat to fill all the crepes.
At this point, the blintzes can be frozen individually on a baking sheet, then wrapped individually and frozen in a zip-top bag for up to 3 months. Defrost before cooking.
To cook the blintzes: Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add some of the blintzes, seam sides down, leaving some space between each.. Cook for about 10 minutes, without turning them over, until lightly browned. (If the blintzes cook before the filling is warmed through, transfer them to a lightly greased baking dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes before serving.)
Serve the cheese blintzes with one of the accompanying berry sauces, dusted with confectioners’ sugar if desired.
During strawberry season, all you need to do is macerate the luscious ripe berries to top your blintzes, or use blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, cranberries to make a delicious sauce for your blintzes…and ice cream, pancakes, waffles and cheesecake. Use just one kind of berry or any combination you like. When in season, use fresh or any time of year you can use frozen, so your blintzes never need to be without a homemade sauce to complete them. Make both sauces before the blintzes.
Makes about 3 cups
- 1 pound fresh strawberries
- 2-4 tablespoons sugar according to taste
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Hull the strawberries and either slice or quarter lengthwise. Stir together the fruit, sugar and lemon juice in a glass bowl. Let stand for at least 30 minutes so the berries release their juices or up to 1 day in the refrigerator. Mash some of the berries if desired to thicken the sauce and provide different textures.
Chunky Berry Sauce
Makes 2 cups
- 4 cups fresh or frozen berries
- 3/4 cup sugar or more to taste
- 1/3 cup juice and 1 tablespoon finely grated zest from 1 orange
If using fresh strawberries, hull and halve or quarter each lengthwise. Stir together all the fruit, sugar, orange juice and zest in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, stir gently and continue to cook at a simmer until the fruits release their juices and soften, about 10 to 12 minutes. Let cook another 10 to 15 minutes. The longer sauce cooks, the more it thickens.
Remove from the heat. The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools. Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks or frozen for up to a month.