One of my favorite Shavuot customs dictates that we bring flowers and natural beauty into our homes. And spring flowers are blooming everywhere now. Another favorite custom is that of eating dairy foods for the main meal in contrast to the meat we eat on most of the other holidays. But within that custom are lots of others — some people eat a dairy meal on the first day and then celebrate with meat for the rest of the holiday; others eat dairy and then, after waiting an appropriate interval, follow right after with a hearty meat meal.
The many customs surrounding the meals on Shavuot could trap a cook in the kitchen for days preceding the holiday. But that does not have to be the case. Many dairy foods, like cheesecakes, can be made a day or more ahead.
Magnificent cheesecakes are often the crowning glory of any Shavuot dairy meal. In addition, there are also delicious cheese blintzes, cheese bourekas and other cheese dishes. These sweet and creamy dishes are meant to remind us of the land of milk and honey and also to let us know that there is sweetness in our lives.
So why dairy and not meat on this holiday? The explanation I was given as a child — it’s imprinted in my memory — is that once the Jewish people had the Torah, they realized that none of their cooking vessels were kosher according to the new laws. Therefore, the people had no choice but to eat dairy products until they could kasher their pots or make new ones. We eat dairy to remind ourselves of our time before and after we received the Torah.
Shavuot means beautiful flowers throughout the house, delicious cheesecake and homemade blintzes. It is also a time to reflect on how we integrate Torah into our lives in the 21st century. We study all night to reflect on the meaning of the Torah and the ancient words that have connected our people for over five thousand years and still have great meaning for us today.
I hope you have a sweet holiday filled with milk and honey and, of course, cheesecake.
Montreal Cheese Bagels
I first had these in my future mother-in-law’s house in New York. I was in heaven. They were a bit like a cheese Danish, a bit like blintz and nothing like a bagel! They were absolutely delicious. They are not very hard to make and are delightful for breakfast, with a dairy lunch or as a snack.
1 pound Farmer’s cheese
4 to 5 Tbsp. sugar, to taste
1 extra-large egg
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 cups unbleached flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 cup butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup full-fat sour cream
1 extra-large egg
OPTIONAL: 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
TOPPING: 3 to 4 Tbsp. butter melted
3 to 4 Tbsp. sugar, Demarara sugar, or cinnamon sugar mix
FILLING: Place the cheese and the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix until smooth and creamy. Scrape into a bowl, cover and refrigerate.
DOUGH: Place the baking powder, flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse once to mix. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture has mostly pea-sized pieces. Add the sour cream and the egg and pulse until a smooth dough forms. You may need to scrape the bowl a few times.
Scrape the dough into a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 30 to 60 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line one or two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.
ASSEMBLY: Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide into four equal pieces.
Flour your work surface and roll out one piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/4” thin and about 8 to 10 inches long, and 7 to 8 inches wide. Place some of the filling along the long edge of the rectangle and carefully roll until the dough just overlaps. The dough should be one thickness with a small overlap at the seam. Use a sharp knife and cut the dough along the seam line. Place the filled log seam side down on the prepared pan. Pinch the ends closed and gently coax the log into a horseshoe shape. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. You should have about 6 to 8 “bagels.”
Brush the pastries with melted butter and sprinkle generously with sugar or cinnamon and sugar. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until golden. Serve warm with sour cream. Makes 6 to 8.
Lemon Raspberry Cheesecake (Dairy)
Every Shavuot I make a cheesecake and this is one of the best I have ever tasted. The raspberries are fresh and tart and go wonderfully with the sweet creamy and lemony cheesecake.
2 packages graham crackers or 2 cups crumbs
2 Tbsp. sugar
6-7 Tbsp. melted butter
2-1/2 pounds block cream cheese
1-1/2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs
2 extra-large egg yolks
1/2 cup sour cream
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/2 Tbsp. very finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp. pure lemon extract
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups excellent quality seedless raspberry jam
1-1/2 pints fresh raspberries
1/4 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Melt the jelly in a pan and add the sugar, heating until the jelly and sugar are melted and bubbling. Let cool completely for 30 to 60 minutes, until cool to the touch.
Process the graham crackers in a food processor until they are fine crumbs. Add the sugar and melted butter and pulse until the crust holds together just a bit. Press into a 9-inch spring-form pan, pressing one–inch up the sides. Bake at 350 for 8 minutes. Cool.
NOTE: While you are making the cheese filling, boil a large saucepan of water.
Place the cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Cream on medium high until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Reduce the speed and add the eggs and yolks one at a time, mixing well and scraping down the sides often. Add the sour cream, lemon juice, zest and extracts. Mix completely and pour half the batter into the cooled graham crust. Place several small dollops of the cooled raspberry jelly and then swirl with a knife. Gently pour the rest of the filling over the raspberry swirl and smooth the top.
Place a roasting pan filled with 2 inches of the boiled water in the bottom rack of the oven.
Place the cheesecake in the center rack. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 225 and bake for an additional 75 minutes. The top should jiggle, but not be liquid. IF not set, bake a few minutes longer.
Turn off the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Open the door and let the cake sit for another 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for 2 to 3 hours. Wrap in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.
Remove the sides of the pan by running a knife around the edges. Leave the cake on the bottom. Gently brush the top with the jelly and then arrange the raspberries over that. Spoon the rest of the jelly over the berries and refrigerate until cold and set, several hours or overnight. Serves 10 to 12.
Cheddar Polenta with Jalapeno or Red Peppers (Dairy)
1-1/2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 to 2 tsp. finely minced garlic
1 to 1-1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 cup polenta
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan
Finely chopped jalapeno peppers, to taste if you like some heat. If not, use chopped, roasted red peppers.
When making polenta it is most important to constantly stir the corn and liquid until thick. This creates a creamy polenta that is not gritty.
Place the milk, water garlic, salt and pepper in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-low heat and slowly add the polenta, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often with a large wooden spoon, until the polenta thickens, about 25 minutes.
Add the butter and stir until melted. Add the cheddar and Parmesan, and stir well. Add the chopped jalapeno peppers. Adjust seasoning, to taste. Generously grease a Pyrex- like casserole dish and press the polenta into the dish. Bake at 375 until just a bit golden, 15 to 25 minutes. Let cool a bit and cut into squares. Serves 6 to 8.