Many people think of Shavuot, which begins this year at sunset on Thursday, May 28, as the cheesecake holiday. But cheesecake alone does not a holiday make. Why do we eat dairy at this time?
“Like the spring holidays of ancient Canaan and Rome,” write sisters Phyllis Glazer and Miriyam Glazer in “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking” (HarperCollins, $32.99), “Shavuot occurs in the very season when animals grazing in the lush pastures, green from winter rains, produce an abundance of milk. Cheese-making too, was part of spring harvest festivals across the world.”
The sisters recall a spring day many years ago when they were newcomers to a kibbutz in the Galilee and witnessed the spring harvest festival Israeli style: “The wagons rolled in, heaped to the brim with the freshly harvested wheat. Baskets overflowing with homegrown fruits and greens were laid out on the table, and the whole community was singing. Even the dairy cows were decorated with wreaths….This was a world apart from any Shavuot we had ever celebrated in America….We realized that we were witnessing the Bible brought to life.”
But how did this agricultural festival morph into a celebration of the giving of the Torah as well? The answer lies, write the sisters, with the rabbis of the Talmud, who refused to let the Jewish holidays die with the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian captivity, infusing them with new meanings. “Searching through the Bible like determined detectives, they found clues that proved to them that the ancient harvest festival had actually coincided with a crucial ‘spiritual harvest’ too: What the Israelites ‘reaped’ at Shavuot was the Torah.”
Serving a kugel seems like a no-brainer for a holiday that celebrates dairy. Recipes abound calling for cottage cheese, cream cheese, pot cheese, milk, sour cream, etc. According to tradition, the kugel is Sabbath fare, imbuing it with almost mystical qualities. Its origins can be traced to the Middle Ages when it was cooked along with the cholent (Sabbath stew). In a paper entitled “Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism,” Professor Allan Nadler discusses the symbolism attributed to this humble pudding by the Hasidic rabbis.
While today a kugel is usually served as a side dish, in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where meat was rare and expensive, a starchy kugel could become a filling meal.
Some assembly required—true for swing sets and true for kugels, but for the most part, kugels are a snap to prepare. Once you’ve cooked and drained the noodles, you simply stir in the other ingredients and bake. The King of Kugels offered here, one of a dozen in my cookbook “Cooking Jewish” (Workman Publishing, $29.95), was contributed by Rita Miller, my cousin’s machatenista (her daughter’s mother-in-law), a retired kosher caterer in New Jersey. You’ll find it sinfully rich, yet lighter in texture than others you have tried.
For a different take, try the Ricotta Dumplings with Pistachio-Cilantro Pesto from Adeena Sussman’s wildly popular new cookbook “Sababa.” (Avery, $35). The word is Hebrew slang (via Arabic) for “everything is awesome,” and indeed this dish makes an awesome addition to your Shavuot table. “One spicy, pistachio-studded bite here tells you that you are in different pesto territory now,” she writes. “Adding spicy schug and a healthy amount of cilantro in the pesto brightens it up in surprising ways. OK, now the dumplings, which look like matzo balls but so aren’t: I’d always wanted to try chef April Bloomfield’s famous ricotta dumplings, but I was intimidated by a process that included rolling in semolina and chilling overnight. Great news: just mixing ricotta, flour, and egg yolks creates giant ricotta pillows in minutes. Just pull off pieces of dough, drop them in boiling water, and three minutes later—plus the time it takes to make the pesto—dinner is yours.”
Schug (sometimes spelled zhug) is a Yemenite spice mixture that Israelis are known to slather on everything from a falafel sandwich to roasted meats. You can buy prepared schug at some markets, specialty stores or online, but it is easy enough to make yourself, plus you get to control the heat. Sussman got the idea to add cardamom from her friend Gil Hovav, bringing a unique flavor to the mixture.
The King of Kugels
Slice the wider pear and peach slices in half for a more elegant presentation. If sliced pears are unavailable, buy pear halves and slice them yourself.
Yield: 16-24 servings
Butter or solid vegetable shortening, for greasing the baking pan
Kosher (coarse) salt
12 ounces wide egg noodles
1 dozen large eggs, beaten
3 cups heavy (whipping) cream
1 1/2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
1 can (29 ounces) sliced pears in heavy syrup, drained and thinly sliced
1 can (29 ounces) sliced peaches in heavy syrup, drained and thinly sliced
2 cans (11 ounces each) mandarin oranges, drained
3/4 cup golden raisins
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking pan (see Note).
2. Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until al dente, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, combine eggs, cream, vanilla, both sugars, cinnamon (if using) and salt in a very large bowl. Stir well. Stir in raisins and drained pears, peaches, and mandarin oranges.
4. When noodles are done, drain them well and stir them into fruit mixture. Transfer mixture to prepared baking pan and bake until golden and set, about 1 hour. (Test by inserting a butter knife in the center. It should come out clean.) If longer baking is needed, cover with aluminum foil to prevent the top from burning.
5. Cut into squares, and serve hot or at room temperature.
Note: If your baking pan isn’t 2 inches deep, fill it three-fourths full (allowing room for the kugel to rise) and place the remainder in a smaller casserole to be baked separately.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” by Judy Bart Kancigor
Ricotta Dumplings with Pistachio-Cilantro Pesto
Yield: 3-4 servings
1 1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup packed fresh cilantro leaves
1 1/2 cups (2 1/4 ounces) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon schug (recipe follows, or use store-bought) or 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped jalapeño
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, plus more, chopped, for garnish
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound whole-milk ricotta cheese
1 cup (1 1/2 ounces) finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1. Pesto: In bowl of food processor, process basil, cilantro, Parmigiano-Reggiano, schug, pistachios, salt, and pepper. With motor running, drizzle in olive oil in thin stream until smooth, about 20 seconds. Measure out 1/2 cup and store remainder in airtight container in refrigerator up to 1 week.
2. Dumplings: Bring medium pot of generously salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Stack 3 heavy–duty paper towels on a plate. Dollop ricotta on top of towels, spread it out, stack 3 more paper towels on top, and press down 5 minutes to absorb liquid. Peel away and discard towels. Transfer ricotta to a bowl; stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg yolk, salt, and pepper. Generously sift in flour and stir just until loose dough is formed. Form dough into 10 golf ball-sized rounds. (Don’t handle or pack dough too much. The balls don’t need to be perfectly round either.) Drop dough into water, return to a boil, and cook until dumplings float to the top and are cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer dumplings to a paper towel-lined plate. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta cooking water.
3. Assembly: In large skillet, cook reserved 1/2 cup pesto and 1/4 cup pasta cooking water over medium heat until simmering, 2 to 3 minutes. Move drained dumplings to skillet, toss to coat with pesto, and warm through for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; garnish with pistachios.
Yield: 2 cups
2 cups tightly packed fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems
2 cups tightly packed fresh parsley, leaves and tender stems
20 cloves garlic (about 2/3 cup)
10 to 12 medium jalapeños (about 6 ounces) or 6 to 8 medium Serrano peppers, stemmed and coarsely chopped, but not seeded
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to cover
In bowl of food processor, combine cilantro, parsley, garlic, jalapeños, salt, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, and lemon juice and pulse 15 to 20 times, then process until smooth, about 1 minute, stopping and scraping down bowl once, if necessary. Mixture may seem a bit pulpy at first, but it will come together. If necessary, add water by the tablespoon to get the contents of the processor running. Drizzle in olive oil and pulse very briefly. Transfer schug to one 2-cup jar or two 1-cup jars with tight fitting lid(s) and cover with very thin slick of olive oil. Stored in refrigerator, schug lasts for up to 1 month.
Source: Sababa by Adeena Sussman
Jlife Food Editor, JUDY BART KANCIGOR, is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (An E-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cooking jewish.com.