By Sarah Gold
MANY modern-day Jews aren’t that familiar with Shavuot, which celebrates the day when the Israelites first received the Torah from God and falls seven weeks after Passover marked their exodus from Egypt.
Jews with some familiarity of Shavuot probably know the holiday as a day for eating cheesecake — along with other creamy, dairy-rich dishes, like cheese blintzes and kugel for Ashkenazim and soutlach and boyikos de keso for Mizrachim.
There are varying theories about the significance of dairy in Shavuot celebrations. Some invoke the idea that since the Torah laid out the dietary restrictions on non-kosher meat for the first time, the Israelites celebrated with the only foods that conformed to the new laws of kashrut (until they purchased meat-only dishes, that is).
Others involve mystical numerology (in particular, the Kabbalistic interpretation of the Hebrew letters spelling ‘milk’) or scriptural passages in which God promises the Israelites a “land of milk and honey”.
Still other theories offer a more practical explanation: the holiday falls during the spring, when calves are weaned and cows produce a surfeit of milk.
Whatever the reason, dairy dishes have become part of Shavuot celebrations among nearly all parts of the Jewish Diaspora.
According to the New York-based culinary authors and Jewish food historians Jayne Cohen and Jennifer Abadi, while cheesecake, blintzes and kugel are traditional Ashkenazi preparations, Sephardim and Mizrahim mark the holiday with similarly creamy dishes.
These include bourekas (flaky, originally Turkish pastries filled with sweet and savoury cheeses), Syrian calsones (ravioli-like, cheese-filled pasta dumplings), buttery North African couscous and Levantine mujaderrah — a sort of pilaf made with rice, lentils or fava beans, generously slathered with labneh.
Soutlach is a Turkish rice pudding and boyikos de keso are cheese biscuits.
What’s ironic about the apparently universal love among Jews for dairy-rich dishes is, of course, that we Jews are largely predisposed to lactose intolerance.
Several studies suggest that 60 to 80 per cent of Ashkenazim are lactase-deficient (lacking the enzyme that allows for easy digestion of the lactose sugar in milk products).
Though less studied, the condition is also considered prevalent among Sephardim and Mediterranean Jews.
Explanations for this genetic tendency abound, but many seem to indicate that pastoral peoples, who stayed rooted in place long enough to cultivate and graze livestock, more easily developed dairy tolerance, while more nomadic subcultures — whose members may have relied more on sheep and goats than cows, and who may have preferred fermented dairy products for portability purposes — did not.
According to Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a Brooklyn-based author specialising in Jewish foodways, that particular clue — about how our ancestors likely enjoyed dairy foods that were fermented or cultured — may actually hold the key to how Jews developed our paradoxical affinity for, and intolerance of, the dairy-rich dishes enjoyed on Shavuot.
“The issue isn’t that we’re somehow destined to have bad digestion,” Yoskowitz says — or that we’re doomed to have a tortured relationship with the dairy dishes we love.
“It’s how bastardised Jewish food — especially Ashkenazi food — is today.”
Centuries ago, he says, Jews had a lot of gustatory wisdom about how to produce, and pair, foods for optimal digestion — making cultured dairy products like sour cream, and fermented foods like pickles and horseradish, at home.
But mass-produced versions of these items, especially pasteurised dairy products, are a far cry from those our ancestors likely consumed. Little wonder we’ve inherited the love, but not the same tolerance, for dairy.
As a way to savour the original traditions of Shavuot, Yoskowitz recommends that modern-day Jews try making some of these preparations from scratch.
“Making your own farmer’s cheese, or cream cheese, or even your own butter, and using them to make hamantaschen or pierogi is a great way to see how different these dishes can taste from what we’re used to,” he says.
Such treats may also go down a bit easier than their more convenient counterparts.
Studies have shown that fermented or cultured products, like kefir, sour cream and labneh, tend to have less lactose and more lactase than the non-cultured varieties.
Of course, for those who aren’t keen to get creative in the kitchen, there’s also always the fallback option plenty of us already use: popping a dietary aid along with our cheesecake.
CHEESECAKE and blintzes are traditional treats on Shavuot, but get ready to fall in love with a cheese-filled carb treat you have never heard of: Bessarabian cheese buns, writes RACHEL RINGLER.
This family recipe comes from the Jewish community of Bessarabia — today’s Moldova, which is situated between Ukraine and Romania and close to the Black Sea — by way of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where the author of the recipe moved upon her arrival to America in 1902.
The buns are light and fragrant, buttery and rich, and filled with a variety of white cheeses, sugar and butter. They taste a little bit like a dairy noodle kugel, but instead of noodles, they are bound by brioche-like pastry dough.
They look like a bun or a muffin, but they taste unlike either: America meets the Old World in a baked treat. Alisa Doctoroff, whose grandmother, Nancy Robbins, learned to make them from her mother, shared the recipe with us.
I suggest serving these sweet buns with a dollop of sour cream and sliced strawberries.
For the dough:
For the filling:
- ½ cup warm milk
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 packets dry yeast
- 2 sticks salted butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- ½ cup sour cream
- 5 cups plain flour
- lb cottage cheese
- One-third cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- Pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon flour
- ¼lb cream cheese
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
To make the dough: prove the yeast in the warm milk with sugar and salt. While yeast is proving, cream butter and sugar, add eggs one at a time and sour cream.
Make a well in the flour. Add the yeast mixture and mix a bit with spatula or spoon. Then add the egg mixture. When dough starts to come together, place on floured surface and knead until smooth, 5-7 minutes. Put in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Mix filling ingredients together in mixer. Refrigerate until ready to use.
When dough is ready, cut off small pieces (about 2 ounces) and flatten into rounds (approximately 5 inches wide). Make sure the centre of the rounds is not too thin or the filling will burst through the top.
Put one heaping tablespoon of filling in the centre and gather the ends together, crimping shut so the filling doesn’t come out. Place upside down (with crimped end facing down) in greased muffin tin. Let buns rise at room temperature in a warm spot for four hours.
Bake at 350F. for 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them after 15 minutes to make sure they don’t get too brown, too quickly. Depending on your oven, you may need to turn down the temperature.
Brush with a beaten egg mixed with a little water 10 minutes before the end. Serves 24 buns.
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