It’s sweet, creamy and totally unavoidable this time of the year. Yes, in celebration of the giving of the Torah, out comes … the cheesecake?
“You better have it at Shavuot,” says Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel in Georgetown. “People practically expect it.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Shafner says he doesn’t remember cheesecake being a popular on Shavuot when he was growing up. And Susan Barocas, a local food writer and chef, says cheese blintzes used to be the popular dairy delight for the holiday, which begins at sundown on May 19.
So how did cheesecake usurp the blintz at Shavuot? And why the fixation with dairy anyway?
To be sure, you can still find blintzes at certain Shavuot all-nighters. But Barocas said that a few things have helped turn cheesecake into an iconic holiday dessert. For starters, it’s simpler to make and keeps well, so it can be done in advance of Shavuot.
“Especially with a Cuisinart or a mixer, you can pull together a cheesecake in 10, 15 minutes,” Barocas says. “But I think it also speaks to our sweet tooth these days. We like desserts, and a cheese blintz can be more savory.”
But earlier iterations of cheesecake weren’t nearly as sweet as what you might get at Junior’s or The Cheesecake Factory, according to Barocas. She says that the earliest known version of the dish was served to athletes during the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C.E. A similar unsweetened cheesecake was enjoyed by the ancient Romans and spread throughout their empire.
There are references to a similar food in colonial American cookbooks, but Barocas says today’s cheesecake didn’t gain popularity in the United States until the mid-20th century. By then, sweetened cream cheese with a custard-like texture was being used for filling, making the dish more of a dessert. And according to Joan Nathan’s book “Jewish Cooking in America,” two New York delis owned by German-Jewish immigrants, Lindy’s and Reuben’s, had competing claims to serving the first of its kind.
As cheesecake grew to national prominence in the later part of the century, Barocas says, it also became a Shavuot custom.
It’s unclear why it’s customary to eat dairy dishes to celebrate Shavuot.
“The Torah says to have a celebratory meal and talks about Israel as the land of milk and honey,” Barocas says. “And it makes sense to use things made with milk during a springtime festival because that’s when cows and goats have a lot of milk to give.
“It’s an old saying that the Torah is as nutritious as mother’s milk,” she adds.
Shafner says that when the Jews received the Torah, they instantly had new and complex kosher laws to follow about slaughtering meat. According to this tradition, the Jews kept it simple and, until they mastered the laws of kashrut, stuck to eating dairy, which also relieved the people from carrying two sets of dishes.
“I think it reflects on the progression from Passover to Shavuot,” Shafner says. “After slavery you’re not really going to figure everything out right away. Everything is permitted in some way. The Torah is just showing them how to use these things.”
Susan Barocas’ cheesecake recipe (from Jewish Food Experience):
1 graham cracker or other cookie crust, or a regular pie crust
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
6 ounces Farmer’s cheese
1/3 cup superfine sugar
1/3 cup (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 large eggs, beaten well
Grated zest of one large lemon or small orange
½ cup chopped up dried fruit such as apricots, dates, prunes or golden raisins (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. If using regular pie crust dough, roll it out and line a greased tart pan, 7-inch diameter if you have one or use an 8-inch pie pan. Prick the bottom several times with a fork and bake for 10 minutes to crisp the crust. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool a bit before filling.
Let the cheeses and butter soften to room temperature. On a plate or in a shallow bowl, mash together the cream cheese and Farmers cheese with a fork or potato masher until well blended, smooth and creamy.
If you don’t have superfine sugar, put in a blender or food processor and pulse until fine. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light. Add the blended cheeses and beat together until well blended. Beat in the eggs and mix very well. Stir in the zest and, if using, the dried fruit.
For a quicker preparation, cream the butter and sugar in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Add the softened cheeses and pulse until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the eggs and process until smooth and creamy.
Once the filling is ready, fill the pie shell with the mixture. Put the cheesecake into the preheated oven, then immediately turn the heat down to 350 degrees.
Bake until the filling is set, about 25 to 28 minutes. Let cool.
Serve with fresh fruit or berries and whipped cream. Good also with a favorite fruit preserve spread gently on top.