NEW YORK (JTA) — Recently my 3-year-old granddaughter played with a music box she had received from her parents at Chanukah.
“What is Chanukah?” I asked her.
“It’s the candle holiday,” she said.
At such an early age, she was impressed by the drama of this powerful symbol. Yet she’s not old enough to realize that Jewish holidays are rife with symbols that spark the imagination and sometimes memories of favorite foods.
If Purim is the hamantaschen holiday, Passover the matzah holiday, then Shavuot could be considered the dairy holiday.
Arriving seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot (on May 19 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. The species were wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Along with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot was one of three harvest festivals.
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 screen 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.
In America, Shavuot is usually celebrated as a bagels-and-lox brunch. This much-loved sandwich often is served alongside kugels, blintzes and pickled herring with sour cream. Cheesecake has become the classic dessert.
As my family eats bagels and lox every chance they get, I would never drop this delicacy from the menu. However, I like to shake up things occasionally by offering some exciting alternatives to elevate Shavuot from typical Sunday brunch fare to a holiday as cherished as a dollop of sour cream over blintzes.
As friends and family arrive, I put out crudites with a curry cream dip along with a bowl of marinated mozzarella balls. Alongside platters of smoked fish, bread pudding accented by cherries is a surprising change from noodle kugel. At Shavuot, recipes calling for cherries are a culinary tradition in Hungary. I also serve a trendy mesclum mix that I augment with unexpected flavor and texture.
I cap off the meal with a buttery kuchen, a coffee cake, which has been a popular pastry in Jewish homes for centuries. Often containing fruit, kuchens are usually raised by yeast. However, my easy recipe bypasses this trickiness. Acquired from my Viennese mother-in-law, this lovely dessert is topped by seasonal fruit. Once you try this cake for Shavuot, you’ll bake it again and again all summer.
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, to serve whipped cream with abandon. It’s a time to smile and say cheese.
The following recipes have been developed by Linda Morel.
MARINATED MOZZARELLA BALLS
This zesty hors d’oeuvre tastes best when prepared a day in advance. It will disappear faster than you can imagine.
1 pound (golf ball-sized) mozzarella balls, preferably made with salt
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt, or more, if desired
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Drain water from mozzarella balls. Place them on paper towels to dry.
Pour olive oil into a small saucepan. Squeeze garlic cloves through a press. Place the pressed garlic in the oil. Discard the fibrous parts of the garlic remaining inside the press. Heat oil on a low flame for 2 minutes, or until oil becomes fragrant with garlic. Be careful not to scorch the garlic. Remove pan from flame.
Add the 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 all the balls are well coated. Refrigerate balls for 24 hours. Every few hours, shake balls to insure even coating of oil. Remove from the refrigerator an hour before serving.
Yield: 14-16 mozzarella balls
CHERRY CREAM CHALLAH PUDDING
This divine pudding must be assembled the night before and then baked before serving, making for easy entertaining.
2 1/2-quart souffle dish
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 challah, cut about 1/4-inch thick
1 3/4 cups milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Coat the souffle dish with butter. Using a strainer placed over a bowl, drain liquid from cherries and reserve.
Cut bars of cream cheese into 6 slices and place in a microwave safe bowl. Pour 1/4 cup of the cherry liquid over cheese and discard the rest. Microwave at high power for 90 seconds or until cheese softens. Mix together with a fork. Juice doesn’t fully incorporate.
Cover the bottom of the souffle dish with 4 slices of challah. Slices may overlap. Spread half of the cream cheese mixture over the challah. Spoon the cherries over the cheese mixture.
Cover cherries with the remaining challah. Spread the remaining cheese mixture over the challah.
Place the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and beat at high speed until well combined. Eggs turn frothy but butter clumps. Pour the egg mixture over the layered challah 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: 8 servings
FIRST FRUITS SHAVUOT SALAD
This salad is dotted with figs, grapes, olives and dates, four of the holiday’s seven first fruits. A sprinkle of blue cheese adds a dairy twist.
1/4 pound mesclum mix, rinsed under cold water and dried in a salad spinner or in paper towels
25 red or green seedless grapes, cut in half
20 kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half
10 medjool dates, pitted and cut into thirds
10 dried figs, stems removed and cut in half
1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled
Place all ingredients in a large salad bowl and toss with A Simple Vinaigrette (below).
Yield: 6-8 servings
A SIMPLE VINAIGRETTE
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Kosher salt to taste
Place ingredients in a jar, close top and shake until well combined. Pour over salad immediately.
SUMMER FRUIT KUCHEN
This cake tastes best when baked one day ahead. Like many European pastry recipes, this one requires the weighing of ingredients, which is no harder, and far more accurate, than measuring by volume.
A kitchen scale
No-stick vegetable spray
3 eggs, plus 1
Note: the amount of sugar, butter and flour depend on the weight of the eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Zest from 1/3 of a lemon
5 or 6 peaches, nectarines, plums or other summer fruit, skinned, pitted and sliced thin
Preheat oven to 350. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with no-stick spray.
Using a kitchen scale, weigh 3 eggs and record their weight. Reserve the eggs.
Using the scale, measure out amounts of sugar, butter and flour equal to the weight of the 3 eggs and place all 3 ingredients in separate bowls. (For instance, if the 3 eggs weigh 1/2 pound, then measure out 1/2 pound each of sugar, butter and flour.)
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and creamy. One at a time, add all 4 eggs, mixing well after each addition.
Add the flour, vanilla and lemon zest, mixing until incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Gently place sliced fruit on the surface of the batter, covering it completely. Place fruit end to end with no spaces between. You can use more than one kind of fruit. Bake for 30 minutes or until tester inserted in the center comes out clean. The batter may swell over some of the fruit. Cool to room temperature. Cut into squares.
Yield: 24 squares