As with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is rooted in the agricultural seasons. Originally, it was the beginnings of the wheat harvest. Before the fall of the Temple, thousands of Jews traveled from the countryside to Jerusalem with thanksgiving offerings.
The High Priest (representing the Jewish people) placed twin loaves baked from the newly harvested wheat on the alter. Families arrived carrying baskets laden with bikurim, the "first fruits" or Israel's seven species: i.e., figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives and honey. And, according to tradition, it marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It was a special observance and a joyous celebration.
One of the oldest customs is that dairy dishes are served on Shavuot. One explanation is that at Shavuot time, animals tend to give birth, and there are brand-new spring grasses to feed on; thus, there is a plentiful supply of milk. Another reason is that milk and milk products are usually white, symbolizing the purity and sanctity of the Torah.
White-rice dishes are popular at Shavuot among Jews of Middle Eastern Origin, who also call the festival the "Feast of Roses." For Ashkenazi Jews, kreplach and blintzes are as traditional at Shavuot, in the same way that apples and honey are for Rosh Hashanah.
In Russia and Eastern Europe, milk and dairy products were plentiful in the spring, so cheese, eggs and cream were key ingredients in Shavuot cooking. Kreplach and blintzes stuffed with cheese and heavy on eggs and butter were rich and filling.
In Israel, especially at Shavuot, fresh baked borekas and onion rolls stuffed with all kinds of cheeses are served in street-corner kiosks, to be eaten out of hand. At home, dairy dishes are set out — garnished with leafy branches and flowers, a beautiful custom that brings a seasonal, bountiful look to our tables.
Biblical Mushroom Soup
In Israel, wild mushrooms grow abundantly, but it's safer to buy them from the market. Many wild mushrooms are poisonous — even fatal — if eaten.
2 egg yolks
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 Tbsps. sherry
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1/2 lb. mushrooms, such as crimini, shiitake and/or porcini, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp. matzah cake meal or matzah meal
11/2 cups low-fat milk
1/4 tsp. dried pepper flakes or to taste
1 Tbsp. snipped fresh oregano or 1 tsp. dried
salt to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, sherry and yogurt. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.
Add the mushrooms and onion. Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, or until vegetables have lost their raw look.
Stir in the matzah cake meal and cook stirring for 1 minute.
Add the milk, pepper flakes and oregano. Bring to simmer. Remove from heat.
Gradually pour in the egg-yolk mixture, whisking constantly until combined. Return to stove top. Heat through but do not boil.
Season to taste with salt.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 147; protein, 5 g; carbohydrates, 7 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 78 mg; sodium, 64 mg.
Chilled Cherry Soup
A favorite Ashkenazi soup from Eastern Europe, where cherries were more often seen in soups than in pies. Serve chilled as a starter or as a dessert, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream or a tiny meringue.
1 lb. pitted fresh or frozen sweet or sour cherries
2/3 cup sweet red wine
1/3 cup granulated sugar or to taste
1 Tbsp. frozen orange-juice concentrate, thawed
pinch of cinnamon
2 tsps. cornstarch
If cherries are frozen, thaw before using.
Place the cherries, wine, 1/3 cup sugar, orange juice, cinnamon and 11/4 cups water in a saucepan. Stir to mix.
Heat over medium-high heat to bring to simmer. Cook 5 minutes, or until cherries are soft. Cool slightly.
Transfer to the blender jar or food processor. Blend or process to purée. Return to the saucepan.
Blend the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons water. Stir into the cherry mixture.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until boiling and thickened. Continue cooking and stirring for about a minute more. Remove from heat.
Add a little more sugar, if desired. Chill and serve.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 124; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 26 g; fat, 1 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 2 mg.
Prepared puff pastry makes short work of these savory turnovers, which were introduced to Israel by Greek and Turkish Jews.
1 package (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, thawed
1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/4 cup farmers cheese
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
1 package (171/4 oz., 2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, thawed
2-3 Tbsps. water
sesame seeds (optional)
Preheat oven to 400°.
Spray a large baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Squeeze as much liquid as possible from the spinach so that it is dry. Place in a bowl, and add the egg, cheeses, mustard, nutmeg and salt to taste. Mix well to combine. Set aside.
Unfold one pastry sheet. With fingers, press out any lines or perforations. Cut into quarters.
Place 2 tablespoons of the spinach mixture on one half of each piece of pastry. Moisten the edges with water. Fold over to cover, filling as in a turnover.
Brush with water and sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds (optional).
With scissors, snip pastry to make a small "V" for steam to escape. Place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining pastry and filling.
Bake for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°. Bake until pastry is puffed and golden-brown, about 15 minutes longer.
If browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.
Serve hot or warm.
Makes 8 puffs.
Approximate nutrients per boreka: calories,415; protein, 9 g; carbohydrates, 28 g; fat, 29 g; cholesterol, 43 mg; sodium, 323 mg.
Variation for Fruit-Filled Borekas: Prepare filling by combining 3/4 cup farmers cheese, 2 tablespoons beaten egg, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1/4 cup dried currants or raisins, 1/4 cup finely chopped dried apricots, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon and 2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger.
A blintz is really just a Jewish crepe, deliciously moist wrappers that encase an assortment of fillings. Make ahead and freeze, separating each blintze with wax paper. May use two nonstick skillets to speed up the cooking. For a fuss-free method, use 6- or 7-inch tortillas, stuff with your own filling and roll up as described below.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus oil for frying
3/4 cup water
In a bowl, stir together the flour and salt. Make a well in the center.
Whisk in 1 tablespoon of oil, the water and the eggs. Mixture should be smooth and the consistency of heavy cream. If needed, add a little more water. Pour into a pitcher.
Heat a 7- or 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crumple a paper towel and dip into some vegetable oil. Rub over the surface of the skillet to grease it lightly.
Raise heat to medium high. Pour just enough batter into skillet to cover bottom. Tilt to spread thinly. Pour excess back into the pitcher.
Cook 30 seconds, or until the center is dry. Turn onto a clean dishtowel or paper towel. Repeat until all batter is used.
Cover with a damp dish towel until you are ready to fill. Or separate with wax paper, stack one on top of the other, cover tightly with foil and freeze. When needed, they will defrost in 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature.
Makes 10 to 12 blintzes.
Approximate nutrients per blintz leaf: calories, 51; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 4 g; fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 35 mg; sodium, 11 mg.
To Fill Blintz Leaves: Place a heaping tablespoon filling (see below) on center of blintz leaf. Fold the bottom of the leaf up and over the filling. Fold the opposite sides to meet in the middle. Fold over again to completely enclose the filling. Arrange filled crêpes, folded-side down, on a dish until ready to cook or freeze.
To Fry Blintzes: Melt 2 to 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter or oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry on both sides until golden-brown. Add more butter or oil as needed to fry remaining blintzes.
Orange-Scented Sweet-Cheese Filling (enough for 10 to 12 blintzes): Combine 8 ounces farmers cheese, 3 ounces softened cream cheese, 2 tablespoons sour cream, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon orange extract. Use as above.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 93; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 3 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 22 mg; sodium, 140 mg.
Shredded Vegetable Filling (enough for 10-12 blintzes): In a medium skillet, heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium heat. Add 3 cups shredded cabbage, 3/4 cup shredded carrots, 1 small onion, chopped, 2 teaspoons bottled chopped garlic, 2 teaspoons vegetable bouillon granules and 2 teaspoons lite soy sauce. Cook until vegetables are soft and all liquid is reduced. Cool and use as above.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 24; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 95 mg.
This doesn't fall under the heading of dairy soups, blintzes or borekas, but this recipe that combines my Scottish-Jewish heritage is so often requested that I've included it in this Shavuot dairy column. Make sure cheese and beer is melted over very low heat to ensure a smooth mixture.
3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
3/4 cup Israeli Maccabee beer or other light beer
2 Tbsps. Dijon mustard
pinch of nutmeg
3 whole-wheat English muffins, split and toasted
1 large tomato, cut into 8 thin slices
In a medium saucepan, stir the cheese, butter and beer together over low heat until the cheese is melted and mixture is smooth. Stir often. This will take about 12 to 15 minutes.
Stir in the mustard and nutmeg. Heat through, stirring constantly.
Spoon onto the English muffin halves. Top with tomato slices.
Serve with a knife and fork.
Note: May finish off under a preheated broiler to brown the tomatoes.
Makes 8 pieces.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 346; protein, 18 g; carbohydrates, 19 g; fat, 23 g; cholesterol, 70 mg; sodium, 702 mg.
From The Jewish Kitchen by Clarissa Hyman, 2004. To avoid scorching, make this in a double boiler, stirring occasionally.
5 cups milk
1/2 cup short-grain rice
4 Tbsps. honey
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup dates, pitted and chopped
2 Tbsps. butter
2 egg yolks
2 Tbsps. rose water
cinnamon or crystallized rose petals to garnish (optional)
Pour the milk and rice into a medium saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat. Reduce to low. Simmer for 1 to 11/2 hours, stirring frequently until mixture is thick and creamy.
Stir in the honey, almonds and dates, then simmer for another 20 minutes. Stir in the butter and remove from heat. Cool slightly.
Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time. Finally, add the rose water.
Stir well. Pour into a shallow serving dish and let cool.
Sprinkle with cinnamon or garnish with crystallized rose petals (optional).
Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 431; protein, 12 g; carbohydrates, 58 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 109 mg; sodium, 105 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.