“The use of dairy to celebrate this holiday is not a Biblical injunction, nor is it mentioned in the Talmud,” Marks told me. “Shavuot falls when the animals are beginning to be weaned away from the mother, so you have a surplus of milk and therefore cheese, yogurt and other dairy products. Once you have a tradition, you will find Biblical reasons for it.”
Herdsmen of almost 6,000 years ago stored milk in the waterproof stomachs of animals (the first “bottles”), he explained. These ancient people discovered that when the milk separated, it coagulated into curds – the first fresh cheese – which not only tasted good, but lasted longer than milk. (Blintzes would come much later!)
“Remember, for most of history people didn’t drink milk straight,” Marks noted, “because, until pasteurization, it was dangerous unless it came straight from the animal. So fermented forms like yogurt, cheese and butter, which have a longer shelf period, are what people ate.”
More importantly, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. “No Jews existed before the giving of the Torah,” Marks said. “One of the new laws concerned keeping kosher, and since their utensils and any meat products they had produced before were no longer kosher, for the first Shavuot they ate dairy products.
“In addition, the tradition exists that when they came back to camp after receiving the Torah, their milk had curdled into cheese, so you have a variety of mystical and somewhat Biblical reasons that developed for the association with dairy.”
Milk suggests purity, so white foods, such as rice and white corn, are eaten in some communities at this time. Romanians, for example, prepare mamaliga – their beloved cornmeal mush – with white corn meal instead of yellow on Shavuot.
“Milk also suggests the purity of the people not only having received the Torah,” said Marks, “but having accepted it and having agreed to become a holy nation.”
Eggplants with White Cheese from The Turkish Cookbook: Regional Recipes and Stories by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman is perfect for the holiday.
Ilkin and Kaufman became friends through a diplomatic group both belong to in the Washington, D.C., area. Ilkin is the wife of the former Turkish ambassador to the United States, and Kaufman is a food writer, cooking instructor and author of 26 cookbooks. “I attended a luncheon at her magnificent home where she served 23 different dishes,” Kaufman recalled. “I just had to have the recipes. When I suggested we do a cookbook together, she said, ‘I don’t know how to write a cookbook.’ I told her, ‘I don’t know how to cook Turkish.’”
The resulting collaboration became The Turkish Cookbook (Interlink Books, $35) with more than 250 healthful, tantalizing recipes from a very unique cuisine accompanied by stunning color photos.
“Turkey is the only country in the world that lies on two continents” (Europe and Asia), explained Kaufman. “It has seven regions, all with different cuisines, combining Venetian, Roman, Persian, Mongolian, Arab, Phoenician and Byzantine, as well as Greek food.”
So many cheesecakes, so little time! How to choose? I turn to The Cheesecake Bible (Robert Rose, $24.95) by George Geary, with 200 delectable cheesecake recipes, from White Chocolate Crème Brûlée Cheesecake to Carrot Cake Cheesecake – there are 20 chocolate cheesecake recipes alone! – to no-bake and savory varieties, sauces and even cheesecake bars, plus tips and techniques that eliminate the intimidation factor. Try Fresh Raspberry Hazelnut Cheesecake, perfect for spring, a delicious way to celebrate the holiday!
There are dozens of eggplant recipes in Turkish cuisine. Italian eggplants are about 4 to 5 inches long. If unavailable, substitute with Japanese, Dutch or small American eggplant. Turkish white cheese is similar to Greek feta.
Yield: 6 servings
Water for soaking eggplant plus 1/3 cup
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
5 medium (about 2 pounds) Italian eggplants
2 large onions, thinly sliced into half circles
16 cloves garlic, slivered (quartered lengthwise)
2 green bell peppers, seeded, ribs removed, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 medium tomatoes, peeled and puréed
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup Turkish white cheese, Bulgarian cheese, or ricotta salata, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
4 tablespoons finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 In large bowl combine water, lemon juice and salt. Cut stems off eggplant. Leaving an inch of peel on top and bottom, peel off ½-inch strips of skin, lengthwise, at ½ -inch intervals, making a striped effect. Cut eggplant into 4 lengthwise slices and then into 1-inch-thick crosswise pieces.
2 Place eggplant pieces in the bowl of water and let sit for at least 30 minutes.
3 Line bottom of large skillet with onion and garlic slices and top with green pepper pieces. Cover with cubed and pureed tomatoes.
4 Season with salt and add 1/3 cup water and olive oil. Bring to a boil for one or two minutes, then turn heat to low, cover and continue to cook for 40 to 45 minutes, shaking pan by the handles 3 or 4 times.
5 Arrange eggplants on serving dish. When cool, add cheese and parsley.
Source: The Turkish Cookbook by Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman
Fresh Raspberry Hazelnut Cheesecake
Almonds may be substituted for the hazelnuts if you prefer.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
1¼ cups sugar cookie crumbs
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and ground
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
4 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sour cream
1¼ cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2½ tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup raspberries, cut into quarters, if large
½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground
½ cup raspberries
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
Whipped cream (optional)
1 Preheat oven to 350˚ F.
2 Crust: Combine crust ingredients. Press into bottom of 9-inch springform pan and freeze.
3 Filling: In a mixer bowl fitted with paddle attachment, beat cream cheese, sour cream and sugar on medium-high speed until very smooth, 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Stir in flour, lemon juice and vanilla. Fold in raspberries and ground hazelnuts by hand.
4 Pour over frozen crust, smoothing out to sides of pan. Bake until top is light brown and center jiggles slightly, 45 to 55 minutes. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 2 hours. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 6 hours before decorating or serving.
5 Sprinkle with raspberries and chopped hazelnuts. Serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Source: The Cheesecake Bible by George Geary