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Say cheese

As per tradition, Shavuot brings the dairy

Itzik Barak is the executive chef at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.
Itzik Barak is the executive chef at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.

If Purim is the hamantaschen holiday and Pesach the matza holiday, then Shavuot could be considered the dairy holiday.

Arriving seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot — May 19-20 this year — has evolved over time.

In the Bible, Shavuot was an agricultural festival, a celebration of the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of wheat season. Shavuot originally commemorated the ancient Israelites bringing the first fruits of the Seven Species to the Temple in Jerusalem. Early on, the rabbis worried that Shavuot celebrations might wane because the holiday was not attached to a historical event the way Passover was connected to the Exodus.

To ensure Shavuot’s survival, by the third century the rabbis decided to link its observance to the Children of Israel receiving the Torah at Sinai, thus elevating Shavuot to a multifaceted holiday. Despite this effort, Shavuot never became associated with any specific rituals and remains an important holiday that falls under the radar of many Jews.

There is no definitive answer as to why dairy foods are prevalent on Shavuot menus, but several theories have been offered. In the “Song of Songs,” the verse “Honey and milk on your tongue” is assumed to refer to the Torah. The whiteness of milk is considered a symbol of the Torah’s purity.

In Israel, “the Land of Milk and Honey,” Shavuot falls at a time of year when there is an ample supply of barley and wheat for cows to feast on, causing them to gush with milk. From a practical point of view, enterprising cooks had to find creative ways to incorporate this filling yet refreshing ingredient into recipes.

Most Jewish holidays revolve around foods compatible with meat; Shavuot is a time to let loose with the wholesome richness of milk. It’s a time to savor foods oozing with butter, yogurt, and sour cream. In America, Shavuot is often celebrated as a bagels-and-lox brunch. Cheesecake has become the classic dessert.

MARINATED MOZZARELLA BALLS

1 pound (golf ball-sized) mozzarella balls, preferably salted
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1/8 tsp. kosher salt or to taste
1/4 tsp. dried basil
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper

Drain water from mozzarella; place on paper towels to dry.

Pour oil into a small saucepan. Squeeze garlic cloves through a press into pan. Heat on low flame for two minutes, or until oil becomes fragrant, being careful not to scorch the garlic. Remove pan from heat.

Add remaining ingredients to the warm oil; stir until combined.

Transfer balls to a plastic container with a top that has a tight seal. Pour oil mixture over the balls. Close the container and gently shake until well coated. Refrigerate for 24 hours. Every few hours, shake the container to insure even coating. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before serving.

Yield: 14-16 mozzarella balls

CHERRY CREAM HALLAH PUDDING

Butter for greasing souffle dish, plus 1/4 cup, melted
1 16-ounce can of cherries
2 8-ounce bars of cream cheese
8 slices of hallah, cut about 1/4-inch thick
8 eggs
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Coat a two-and-a-half quart souffle dish with butter. Using a strainer placed over a bowl, drain liquid from cherries and reserve.

Cut cream cheese bars into six slices and place in a microwave safe bowl. Pour one-quarter cup of the cherry liquid over cheese; discard the rest. Microwave on high for 90 seconds or until cheese softens. Mix together with a fork.

Cover the bottom of the souffle dish with four slices of hallah; slices may overlap. Spread half the cream cheese mixture over hallah. Spoon cherries over cheese mixture.

Cover cherries with remaining hallah, then cover with remaining cheese mixture.

Place the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and beat at high speed until well combined. Pour mixture over the layered hallah slices. Gently wiggle a spoon along the souffle dish’s edges to ease the egg mixture into every crevice. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat oven to 350. Bake bread pudding for 90 minutes, or until it domes like a souffle. Serve immediately.

Yield: Eight servings

FIRST FRUITS SHAVUOT SALAD

1/4 pound mesclun mix, rinsed and dried in a salad spinner or on paper towels
25 red or green seedless grapes, halved
20 kalamata olives, pitted and halved
10 medjool dates, pitted and cut into thirds
10 dried figs, stems removed and cut in half
1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled

Place ingredients in a large bowl and toss with Simple Vinaigrette (below).

Yield: Six to eight servings

SIMPLE VINAIGRETTE

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Kosher salt to taste

Place ingredients in a jar, close top, and shake until well combined. Pour over salad immediately.

Eggplant Lasagna with Mozzarella and Basil

by Chef Itzik Barak

12 pieces lasagna, cooked according to package directions
1 eggplant, sliced into 1/4–inch pieces and fried in olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 large ball, Buffalo Mozzarella, sliced thin
6 basil leaves
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Dash pepper
Pinch salt
1 egg, beaten with 4 Tbsp. whipping cream

Preheat oven to 210 degrees.

Coat a nine by 13-inch pan with olive oil. Arrange a layer of lasagna in pan, followed by layers of eggplant, tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Repeat as needed, finishing with a layer of lasagna.

Pour egg/cream mixture over top. Bake for 20 minutes.

Serve with tangy tomato sauce.

Yield: Four servings

Ron’s Tropical Coconut Cheesecake

by Ron Kaplan

COCONUT CRUST

1 2/3 cups shredded coconut
4 Tbsp. butter, melted
3 Tbsp. sliced almonds
Canned pineapple rings, rinsed and patted dry

LEMON CHEESE FILLING

3 8-oz. bars, Neufchatel cheese
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup plain or vanilla Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
3 tsp. grated lemon peel
2 Tbsp. vanilla extract
3 eggs

LEMON TOPPING

1 cup whipping cream
Shredded coconut, toasted
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. grated lemon peel

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap aluminum foil around the bottom and sides of a nine-inch springform pan.

To make crust, combine coconut, almonds, and butter and press evenly into pan (optional: toast coconut and almonds — separately — in a skillet for about five minutes, taking care not to burn ingredients). Place a single layer of pineapple rings on coconut. Bake for ten minutes; remove and allow to cool while preparing the filling.

For the filling, combine Neufchatel, sugar, and yogurt in an electric mixer for 15 minutes or until completely smooth. Add lemon juice, peel, and vanilla and mix briefly, about two minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and mix until just blended (do not over-mix or the cheesecake will be too dry).

Pour into pan. Bake for one hour. Turn off oven, open oven door slightly, and leave cheesecake for an additional hour. Remove from oven and run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan. Chill overnight.

For the topping, whip cream, sugar, and lemon peel in an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Spread over chilled cake and sprinkle with toasted coconut.

Makes eight-16 servings, depending on how indulgent you are.

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