The Cheesecake Holiday

You may have heard Shavuot referred to as the cheesecake holiday, but how did the tradition of eating dairy for Shavuot begin?

“The use of dairy to celebrate Shavuot is not mentioned in the Talmud,” said rabbi and food historian Gil Marks, the author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, $40). “Shavuot coincides with the weaning of the animals, so you have a surplus of milk at that time and therefore cheese, yogurt and dairy products. Once you have a tradition, you will find biblical reasons for it.”

Almost 6,000 years ago herdsmen discovered that when milk separated, it coagulated into curds – the first fresh cheese – which not only tasted good, but lasted longer than milk. (Cheesecake would come much later!)

“Remember, until pasteurization, it was dangerous to drink milk straight,” Marks noted, “so people ate fermented forms like yogurt, cheese and butter, which have a longer shelf period.”

More importantly, Shavuot, which begins at sunset on Sunday, May 16, commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mr. Sinai. “One of the new laws concerned keeping kosher, and since their utensils and any meat products they had produced before were no longer kosher, for the first Shavuot they ate dairy products,” Marks explained.

For an international take on the holiday, why not try this paneer and peas curry by Chef Rachana Rimal of Nepal from “The Kitchen Without Borders: Recipes and Stories from Refugee and Immigrant Chefs” (Workman, $24.95) by Eat Offbeat, a New York catering company that hires immigrants and refugees, bringing authentic tastes from war-torn and distressed areas of the world. “Our company was born out of the desire to give life to the special food memories our chefs brought with them,” write founders Manal and Wissam Kahi of Lebanon. Their purpose was two-fold: to provide safe and steady employment to refugees, and to introduce New York, the food capital of the country if not the world, to cuisines that may be less familiar: Napali, Iraqi, Syrian, Sri Lankan and Eritrean, to name a few.

Chef Rachana was the first Offbeat chef. She left Nepal, with its unstable government, and emigrated to New York in 2006, bringing her expertise and love of Nepali and Indian cuisine with her. The star of her vegetarian curry is paneer cheese, which is made by curdling heated milk with acids like lemon juice, vinegar, etc. It has less fat and fewer calories than regular cheese.

Lots of cheesecake recipes pretend to be real New York cheesecake, but if it has sour cream in the list of ingredients, it’s an imposter. Real New York cheesecake is quite dense (critics say “heavy”). If you almost have to flick it off your upper palate, you’ve got the real thing.

Cheesecakes are actually a form of custard, combining eggs, cheese, sugar and a host of extras over some sort of crust. According to Marks, the ancient Greeks made the first cheesecakes by pounding cheese with flour and honey and cooking the mixture on an earthenware griddle.

Some claim this recipe came from Lindy’s, the iconic New York restaurant and Broadway hangout – the original location operated from 1921 to 1957 –which was immortalized as Mindy’s in “Guys and Dolls.” Is it really their recipe? Who knows and who cares? I’ve even won two cooking contests with it. (Well, in truth, one was at my friend Joanne’s house party where I gleefully beat out her husband, Gerry, and the other was an office party, but still….) I have greatly simplified the traditional crust preparation – there’s really no need to roll it out, the only daunting process in the original recipe. I usually whip the leftover heavy cream with a tablespoon of sugar and pipe it around the cake for even more dazzle. (Note: If you want to avoid cracks, “at room temperature” means at room temperature!)


Paneer and Peas (Vegetarian curry with paneer cheese)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings as a main dish

You can purchase paneer cheese fresh or frozen at any of Orange County’s international markets, specialty grocers or online, where you’ll also find the other ethnic ingredients.

10 ounces paneer cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 ounces frozen peas, defrosted

2 birds-eye chilies, chopped

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon asafetida powder

2 bay leaves

1 cinnamon stick

4 curry leaves

1 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

6 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

4 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 beefsteak tomato, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chickpea flour

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1 tablespoon dried fenegreek leaves

1 tablespoon ground Kashmiri chili

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves

Finally chopped scallions, for garnish (optional)

Chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)


  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add paneer and sauté until golden on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. Set veneer aside in medium mixing bowl.
  2. Add peas to skillet and sauté until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Set aside in bowl with the paneer
  3. Sauté birds-eye chilies in same skillet until toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and set aside.
  4. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Once oil is hot, add cumin seeds and lightly brown, about 1 minute. And asafetida, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, curry leaves, and onion. Stir and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute more.
  5. Add turmeric, garlic, ginger, and butter to pot. Sauté until onion is tender and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add tomato and cook 1 minute more, then stir in chickpea flour and cook until tomato starts to soften and flour is beginning to cook, about two minutes. Stir in ground cumin, garam masala, coriander, black pepper, and 2 cups water. Raise heat to high and bring to a rolling boil.
  6. Lower heat to a simmer and mix in yogurt and dried fenugreek. Once incorporated, fold in paneer, peas, and ground Kashmiri chili. Remove pot from heat and stir in mint and sautéed chilies. Remove the leaves. Let curry rest until cooled slightly, about 5 minutes. Garnish with scallions and cilantro, if desired, and serve.

Note: If using frozen store-bought paneer, soak it in hot water for 2 minutes to defrost. Pat dry before using.


“Lindy’s” Cheesecake

Serves 16 to 20

Butter, for greasing the pan

For the Cookie Crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Yolk of 1 large egg

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the Cake:

5 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature

1 3/4 cups sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

5 large eggs, at room temperature

Yolks of 2 large eggs, at room temperature

1/4 cup heavy (whipping) cream, at room temperature

For Glazed Berries:

1 1/2 to 2 pints fresh berries

1/2 cup apricot jam

2 tablespoons brandy or water


  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan. Separate sides from bottom of pan.
  2. Crust: Combine crust ingredients in food processor and process until mixture forms a ball. Press 1/3 of dough evenly over bottom of prepared pan. Bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove bottom crust from oven and set aside on a wire rack.
  3. Press remaining 2/3 of dough evenly over sides of springform, reaching about 3/4 of the way up. Reattach sides to crust-lined bottom. Place pan in refrigerator.
  4. Raise oven temperature to 500°F.
  5. Cake: Beat cream cheese, sugar, flour, both zests, and vanilla with electric mixer on high speed, just to blend. Reduce speed to medium and beat in eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating well and scraping bowl well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add cream, beating just until combined.
  6. Scrape batter into prepared crust and bake 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 250°F and bake for 1 hour. Let cheesecake cool in pan set on a wire rack.
  7. Topping:Rinse and hull berries, and thoroughly pat dry; set aside. Combine jam and brandy in small, heavy saucepan over medium heat, and heat until preserves melt. Force mixture through a sieve, and set it aside to cool.
  8. When cheesecake has completely cooled, arrange berries on top. Brush glaze over berries. Refrigerate, covered, overnight.
  9. Just before serving, remove springform sides.

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



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