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Holiday Feature: Shavout – a Dairy Holiday That Should Be ‘trifled’ with

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HOLIDAY FEATURE: Shavuot — a dairy holiday that should be `trifled’ with While Jews of Ashkenazi descent have nicknamed Shavuot “the cheesecake holiday,” there is a competitor seeking to bump this traditional dessert off its milky white pedestal.

Popping up in American gourmet magazines, the famed English trifle is a creamy rich confection layered with pieces of cake, luscious fruits, custard, whipped cream, and an occasional dash of liqueur.

“Oh trifles, they are what I miss most about home,” says a 20-something woman from London who recently moved to New York, the town that Eastern European Jews made famous for cheesecakes.

Other than its dairy connection, Shavuot remains the least known and least observed of the major Jewish festivals, which may explain why it bears the cheesecake label.

Occurring seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot — the Hebrew word for weeks – – revolves around the day that Moses descended from Mount Sinai and presented the Torah and the Ten Commandments to the Children of Israel.

For centuries, several theories have circulated explaining why Shavuot has been linked to dairy foods. Some scholars cite the verse in Song of Songs, “Honey and milk on your tongue,” which is said to refer to the Torah.

Others say that because the Jewish people received the laws of kashrut that day, the utensils used to slaughter meat were made nonkosher.

Still others claim that milk prevails at Shavuot because it is a healthy food. So nutritious, in fact, that it is the only food a baby requires. For that reason, milk has become a metaphor for the Torah, the only thing that the generations since Mount Sinai have needed to sustain themselves spiritually, to grow and be good. Like Torah scrolls, milk is white and associated with purity.

Because at other Jewish holidays meat inevitably dominates the menu, a dairy meal affords people following the laws of kashrut the opportunity to indulge in desserts calling for milk products. Bursting with summer fruit nestled in cool custard and sweet cream, a trifle is a sumptuous alternative to cheesecake. Served in a large glass bowl, this British tradition creates a colorful razzle- dazzle on the table.

“Trifles are absolutely gorgeous,” explains an English friend of mine. After a lovely salmon lunch at her house, she introduced me to a treat — a luscious banana custard trifle for dessert. When I returned to New York, she sent me her recipe, along with three bags of loose tea.

Her gesture reiterated that diversity is the essence of Jewish cuisine. For centuries, Jews have moved from country to country, carrying their customs and cooking pots with them. Along the way, they have embraced local cuisine, often adapting new tastes to ancient holidays. This is true in England, where Jews hail from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds.

Trifles are particularly suited to Shavuot, because the holiday is also called Yom Habikurim, the Day of First Fruits. It commemorates bringing the first fruits of the seven species (grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, olives, barley and wheat) to the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Bible, Shavuot is an agricultural festival known as Chag Hakatzir, the celebration of the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat season. Along with Passover and Sukkot, it is one of the three harvest festivals on the Jewish calendar.

Because trifles incorporate several of Shavuot’s food groups — dairy, fruits and wheat — they are a particularly fitting way to acknowledge this harvest festival, and are especially refreshing in summer when cold food is welcome.

Since the holiday begins this year on June 9, a Friday night, people may take the opportunity on this special Shabbat to celebrate with family and friends, and to introduce a sensational new dessert. Because trifles are prepared several hours in advance, served cold, and taste more scrumptious the following day, they are a Shabbat dream — no trifling matter.

As the recipes below indicate, trifles are prepared in steps, similar to lasagna. Have a 12-cup glass bowl on hand.

A BERRY EASY TRIFLE

Marinated Fruit:

2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced

1 pint blueberries, stems removed

2 1/2-pint containers of raspberries

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Reserve five strawberries with stems, five raspberries and 10 blueberries for topping. Place the remaining berries, sugar, lemon juice and vanilla into a large bowl and mix. Marinate while preparing the next steps.

Whipped Cream:

1 1/2 pints heavy cream

1 1/2 tsp. sugar

2 tsp. vanilla

Place these three ingredients in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high until firm peaks form. Do not over beat. Reserve.

Assembly:

12-16 ounce pound cake (homemade, bakery bought, supermarket variety or frozen)

½ cup seedless strawberry preserves

1. Cut cake in 1/4 inch slices. Spread one side of each slice with preserves. Arrange in the bottom of a 12-cup glass bowl, cutting slices to fit, if necessary.

2. Cover cake layer with fruit, followed by a layer of whipped cream.

3. Starting again with cake layer, repeat twice (three layers in all), ending with whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate six hours. When ready to serve, top with reserved berries in center of trifle. Yield: 12 servings.

BANANA PEACH TRIFLE

Vanilla Custard: (Can be made two days in advance, if covered and refrigerated).

2 cups whole milk

1 tbsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup sugar

6 egg yolks

1. On a low flame, bring milk and vanilla to a slow boil in a saucepan. Let bubble for 30 seconds. Remove from heat. Add sugar, stirring well. Cool for 15 minutes.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, beat egg yolks for 1 minute on high speed. Pour cooled milk-mixture into bowl and whisk well. Return contents of bowl to saucepan and stir over low flame for 6-8 minutes, or until sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon. DO NOT BOIL; sauce will curdle. Pour into a bowl. Reserve.

Marinated Fruit:

6 peaches, skinned, pitted, and sliced

4 large bananas, skinned and sliced into 1/8 inch rounds

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Place these five ingredients in a large bowl and mix. Marinate while preparing the next steps.

Whipped Cream:

1 1/2 pints heavy cream

1 1/2 tsp. sugar

2 tsp. amaretto

Place these three ingredients in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer on high speed until firm peaks form, about three minutes. Do not over beat.

Assembly:

12-16 ounce pound cake (homemade, bakery bought, supermarket variety or frozen)

A few sprigs of fresh mint for topping (optional)

1. Cut pound cake into 1/4-inch slices. Arrange in the bottom of a 12-cup glass bowl, cutting slices to fit, if necessary.

2. Cover cake with a layer of fruit. Spoon custard on top of fruit, followed by a layer of whipped cream.

3. Start with a layer of cake again, repeating twice (three layers in all), ending with whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 6 hours. Decorate with sprigs of mint on top. Yield: 12 servings.

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