During Shavuot, Jews eat soft cheeses and dairy-based meals for several reasons. First, the Torah was given to our people by Moses on Shabbat, when no animals could be slaughtered and no utensils could be koshered. Also, the Torah is likened to nourishing milk, or “chalav” in Hebrew. The numerical values of the word chalav totals 40, the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.
But even for secular Israelis, tradition dictates that every table has a cheesecake on it at this time of year. Because I can’t think about cheesecake without thinking of my Aunt Dora and Uncle Nissim, I reached out to my cousin recently to get her recipe for the classic Israeli preparation. I recalled a summer I spent living with them in their apartment in Tel Aviv, during which I realized how much my aunt spoiled my uncle and how much he loved and adored her for it.
My uncle was not an emotive man. If I could describe him in a few sentences, I’d say that he could have been the prototype for James Bond in the Sean Connery era. Cool and stoic, devastatingly handsome and gentlemanly, my uncle was a man of refined tastes. He was a gourmand, a connoisseur and a foodie.
He used his considerable charms as leverage to get my aunt to cook him anything he wanted at any time day or night. There was never a time when there was not a perfectly smooth and velvety chocolate mousse or a crème caramel in the fridge, just in case my uncle felt like something sweet after what was usually a four-course meal.
Even though my uncle was a bon vivant, he was not an easy man to feed. My aunt called him an “especzico,” which in Ladino roughly translated means picky eater. She would peel his tomatoes, temper his hot chocolate and serve him only the “troncho,” or the heart of the lettuce.
When she made her famous cheesecake, she knew that it was acceptable to give my uncle a slice only after it had cooled a bit but was still warm from the oven. A cold slice of cheesecake would sit uneaten, as would everything my uncle left on his plate if it weren’t absolutely to his liking.
But when my uncle ate something he liked, the smile on his face was her reward, and you could almost see his heart melting for my aunt as he took his first bite.
But even for secular Israelis, tradition dictates that every table has a cheesecake on it at this time of year.
Because my uncle and I were kindred spirits in this regard, and I am also a bit of a food snob and an “especzico,” like him, I tend not to eat anything that I don’t love. My cheesecake recipe is one that I’ve adapted from Veniero’s in New York City, an Italian, family-run bakery that has been making the rich and dense New York-style version for 125 years.
While my aunt’s recipe will yield a fluffy, light cheesecake that appeals more to the Israeli palate, my recipe is the New York-American-style cheesecake, which has that irresistibly velvety texture from being cooked in a water bath like the true custard that it is. Although I am not a sweets eater, preferring savory food over desserts, I have to admit that this cheesecake is one of my favorite things. You can top it with berries or sugar-coated rose petals for Shavuot, but I like it best unadorned.
Either recipe you use, know that they both have the stamp of approval of two “especzicos.” Chag sameach!
DORA’S ISRAELI-STYLE CHEESECAKE
7 ounces petit beurre biscuits, crushed (or similar dry butter cookies)
3 1/2 ounces butter, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar, divided
23 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 package vanilla instant pudding
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/4 cups sour cream, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 390 degrees F.
Crumble butter cookies with a rolling pin or heavy object and mix with room-temperature butter and salt. Press evenly into a greased 10-inch diameter springform pan.
Whip egg whites and 1/2 cup sugar until soft peaks form. In a separate bowl, combine cream cheese, remaining 1/4 cup sugar, egg yolks, instant pudding and cornstarch. Fold egg whites into yolk mixture and mix thoroughly until no white streaks remain.
Pour over prepared crust and bake in a 390 -degree-F oven for 15 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 F and bake for approximately 45 minutes more or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, combine sour cream, powdered sugar, vanilla extract and lemon zest. After the cheesecake is done, turn off oven, pour sour cream mixture evenly over the cheesecake and return to the oven to set for about an hour. Serve warm “especzico”-style or refrigerate overnight and serve cold.
Makes about 10 servings.
YAMIT’S CLASSIC NEW YORK-STYLE CHEESECAKE
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/3 cup butter, room temperature
32 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, plus 1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup sour cream
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Preheat over to 400 F.
Grease a 9-inch cake pan and line its bottom with parchment paper. Thoroughly mix crust ingredients and press evenly into the bottom of the pan, pushing crumbs two-thirds of the way up its sides. Place crust in oven for 10 minutes, remove and place in freezer.
Turn oven temperature to 450 F. Place a large pan with 1/2 inch of boiling water in the middle rack of the oven.
Using a stand mixer, mix cream cheese, sugar, salt and vanilla. Make sure all ingredients are room temperature to avoid lumps of cream cheese. Using a paddle attachment or a hand mixer on low speed, blend until smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl every few minutes. Add eggs and eggs yolk one at a time and mix to incorporate, followed by sour cream, lemon zest, lemon juice, flour and cornstarch. Try not to incorporate too much air into the mixture.
Pour mixture into prepared crust from a height to pop remaining air bubbles, and then tap the pan a few times lightly on the counter to remove any remaining air. Bake in water bath for 15 minutes and then turn down oven temperature to 225 F and bake the cheesecake for another 30 minutes.
Turn off oven and leave cheesecake in oven for 30 more minutes. Then crack open oven door and leave in a final 30 minutes.
Remove cheesecake from oven and let it sit at room temperature for 1 hour. Cheesecake should still have a slight jiggle at its center.
Cover pan with foil and refrigerate cheesecake overnight or at least 6 hours.
Before serving, run a sharp knife around the inside of the pan. Place pan on a hot stove burner for 30 seconds to loosen the cheesecake and invert onto a clean plate. Then invert the cheesecake again onto another plate or a cake stand for serving so that it is crust side down.
Slice with sharp knife whose blade has been dipped in hot water, redipping the knife into the water and wiping it off in between cuts.
Makes about 10 servings.