Between the shaking (last month’s earthquake) and the baking (summer’s coming heat wave), glorious spring comes to Orange County with fruits and flowers in luscious abundance and a joyous holiday to celebrate them: Shavuot. As is our custom, we decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers and leafy branches for this occasion. But why? “The Midrash tells us that although Mount Sinai is in the desert,” explained Susie Fishbein, author of the wildly popular “Kosher by Design” (Artscroll) series cookbooks, “it suddenly bloomed with fragrant flowers and grasses on the morning that the Torah was given to the Jewish People.”
They say you eat first with your eyes, and Fishbein’s gorgeous cascading flowerpot salad bar buffet shown here is almost too pretty to disturb. “To get this look, use a floral tablecloth covered with purple cabbage-lined terra-cotta pots of all sizes,” she instructed. Arrange mixed salad greens in larger pots and all the fixings – multicolored tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts, carrots, dried cranberries, chickpeas and so on – in smaller ones. And do as the caterers do: arrange your offerings at various heights. You can use the flowerpots’ saucers to lift some of the pots and to tilt others as well.
“Stick loose roses and greenery in every open space,” suggested Fishbein. “Little touches, such as using colored enameled gardening tools as serving pieces and watering cans to hold dressing, really make this buffet charming and unique.”
Shavuot is also known as Chag HaBikurim, a pilgrimage holiday when the first fruits were brought to the Temple of Jerusalem as a tribute to God’s blessings. “Like the farmers and the Jews at Sinai,” noted Fishbein, “on Shavuot we affirm that G-d rules the world and that His blueprint for personal and national success is the Torah.”
The holiday commemorates the giving of the Torah to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai, including the laws concerning keeping kosher. Because all their meat products and utensils were not kosher, for the first Shavuot they ate dairy products, probably a form of cheese curds made from milk – the blintzes came later! “Another reason for eating dairy,” added Fishbein, “is that the Torah itself is compared to milk in the Biblical passage: ‘honey and milk under your tongue.’”
Blintzes are traditional for Shavuot, and Fishbein’s individual berry-topped muffins make a festive addition to your display. And in commemorating such a milestone moment in our history as the giving of the Torah, how fitting that serving a rich and decadent cheesecake has become a tradition as well, even causing some to call Shavuot the “cheesecake holiday.”
I asked Chef George Geary, author of “The Cheesecake Bible” (Robert Rose) for some tips in baking cheesecakes. I have always used a springform pan, but Geary prefers a cheesecake pan, which has solid sides and a pop-up bottom. There is no spring mechanism, which can rust, and the pan does not need to be greased. “A springform pan needs to be replaced after only a few uses because the sides buckle and the spring in the release stops working,” he explained. “The bottom must fit very tightly into the pan edge or it leaks. If you do use a springform, lightly grease it or cut out a circle of bleached parchment paper for the bottom.
“Thorough mixing is critical for a perfect cheesecake,” he noted. “And use the paddle attachment rather than the whip on a stand mixer.”
The big bugaboo in baking cheesecakes is that pesky crack down the center. “One great myth about cheesecakes is that cracks or crevices are caused by drafts inside the oven or during the cooling process,” Geary noted. “The truth is simply that eggs are proteins, which create pockets in the fat that explode when exposed to heat. Adding the eggs slowly one at a time and beating well after each addition will help eliminate the pockets and the resulting crevices.”
Make sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature and that you remove the cake from the oven while the center still jiggles and the sides look somewhat dry, he added. “Don’t worry about the wobbling center. The cheesecake will continue to bake as it cools and the center will firm up. But if you do get a crack in the center, just cover it with whipped cream. The cheesecake will still taste wonderful.”
These may be served, hot, warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 12 servings
8 ounces farmer cheese
(regular, not unsalted)
8 ounces cottage cheese (2% or 4% milk fat)
3 tablespoons sour cream
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose baking mix, such as Bisquick
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 large eggs
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Heavily grease a muffin tin with butter or nonstick cooking spray.
2 With electric mixer at medium speed, blend farmer cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, sugar, baking mix, vanilla, melted butter, and eggs.
3 Fill each muffin compartment halfway with mixture. Place 1 raspberry and 2 blueberries on top of each muffin. Bake 20 to 25 minutes.
4 Remove from oven. Sprinkle each baby blintz with cinnamon/sugar mixture; add small dollop of sour cream and serve.
Source: “Kosher by Design”
by Susie Fishbein
Blueberry Cheese Pie
This pie gives you all the luscious cheesecake flavor with a simpler preparation.
Yield: 5 to 6 servings
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
4 ounces mascarpone cheese
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup whipping (35%) cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup fresh blueberries
1 Preheat oven to 325°F. Have ready an ungreased 9-inch pie plate.
2 Crust: In a bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom and sides of pie plate and freeze.
3 Filling: In mixer bowl fitted with paddle attachment, beat cream cheese, mascarpone and sugar on medium-high speed until very smooth, 3 minutes. Add whole egg and egg yolk, one at a time, beating after each addition. Fold in blueberries, vanilla and almond extract by hand.
4 Pour over frozen crust, smoothing out to sides of pie plate. Bake until top is light brown and center has slight jiggle, 25 to 35 minutes. Let cool in pan on wire rack 2 hours. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours before decorating or serving.
5 Decoration: In well-chilled mixer bowl fitted with whip attachment, whip cream on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. With mixer running, sprinkle with sugar and whip until firm peaks form. Ice top of pie with whipped cream topping or pipe rosettes around top of pie. Top with blueberries.
Source: “The Cheesecake Bible”
by George Geary
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.