Recipe: Light & creamy cheesecake with nut brittle and blueberries


New Yorkers have lots of opinions about cheesecake—not surprisingly, as it’s a hometown favorite. This version made it into the book because it combines low-fat-farmer cheese and goat cheese to lighten up the classic recipe, which relies heavily on rich cream cheese and sour cream or whipping cream. The result is a light and tangy cake that we surround with a crunchy, nutty, caramel brittle. Cheesecake is the main dessert made for Shavuot (the Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai), when it is customary to eat dairy foods. While there are many reasons for this tradition, one of the most compelling is the reference to the description of the Land of Israel as a “land flowing in milk and honey.” 

The cake and brittle can be prepared a few days ahead. The cake will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week (do not freeze it) and the brittle should be kept tightly covered at room temperature. Remember to bring the cake to room temperature, which takes at least 1 hour, before serving. For a version with a more traditional crust, see the variation at the end of the recipe.  Serves 10

Ingredients

  • 1 pound low-fat farmer cheese
  • 3/4 cup (5 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 log (11 ounces) Montrachet goat cheese, at room temperature
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 6 extra-large egg whites (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt or mascarpone
  • Nut Brittle (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 pint fresh blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries

 

Position a rack in the bottom third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease an 8-inch springform pan and wrap the exterior with foil up the sides to make it water tight.

In a food processor, purée the farmer cheese, scrapping down the sides of the bowl 2 or 3 times. Add the cream cheese and goat cheese and purée until smooth. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, vanilla, and salt and combine. Add the egg whites and continue to process the mixture until smooth. Pour the cheese mixture into the pan and tap it a few times on the counter to knock out any bubbles. Set the springform pan in a roasting pan or other ovenproof pan with 2-inch sides. Add 1 inch of boiling water to the roasting pan. Carefully transfer the roasting pan to the lower third of the oven and bake until the cake is set and its edges are beginning to color, about 1 hour.

Remove the cake from the water bath and allow to cool in the pan to room temperature. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Run a thin knife around the sides of the pan then open the hinge and release the sides. Remove the pan ring, leaving the cake on the pan bottom. Spread the yogurt or mascarpone over the top and sides of the cake. Gently pat the brittle up the sides and gently press to help crumbs adhere to the cake. Serve with the berries.

Crust Variation 

  • 4 ounces graham crackers or gluten-free oat biscuits
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoon (1/2 stick) chilled unsalted organic butter

 

Combine the crackers, sugar, and butter in a food processor and process into fine crumbs.

Press into the bottom of the pan. Pour batter on top and follow baking directions above. 

Nut Brittle

Our brittle was inspired by the New York City restaurant Chanterelle’s astounding peanut brittle. It’s great sprinkled on almost anything—ice cream, sorbets, chocolate cake. You can’t go wrong. Makes about 1 cup.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • Pinch cream of tartar
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons water
  • 1/4 cup finely ground blanched hazelnuts
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon finely ground sea salt

 

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. If using organic sugar, pulse-chop the sugar in a food processor fitted with a metal blade for 8 to 10 seconds to get the finer texture you will need for this recipe.

In a small heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, cream of tartar, and water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook (do not stir) until the caramel turns a golden brown color and smells like burnt sugar, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour the mixture onto the baking sheet and cool. Break the brittle into pieces. Transfer to a food processor and pulse to grind to the consistency of sugar. Transfer to a medium mixing bowl, add the hazelnuts and ginger if using, and mix to combine.

From 'The Community Table: Recipes and Stories From the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan & Beyond' by Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl and Lisa Rotmil (Grand Central Publishing)

From Torah to cheesecake


Ask a group of average Jews what they know about Shavuot, and you’re likely to hear something like: “Oh sure, that’s the holiday when we eat cheesecake.” 

From a biblical standpoint, Shavuot is one of the holiest days in Judaism, but as a holiday on the Jewish calendar it is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked.

It’s not that the cheesecake comment is wrong. Actually, all sorts of dairy foods are eaten on Shavuot. But the central reason for the celebration — that the Jews received the Torah from God — isn’t as well known as one might expect. Part of the reason, experts believe, is that there are few traditions associated with the holiday.

“Shavuot is the third of the harvest festivals, but there are not very many rituals attached to it,” said Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita.

Blazer says that the other harvest festivals might be easier for people to connect with because they have specific food and prayer traditions associated with them.

“Sukkot, the first harvest festival on the calendar, celebrates the harvest of fruits, nuts and other agricultural products. It also commemorates our ancestors living in the desert for 40 years,” he said.

The unmistakable matzah we eat on Passover reminds us of our ancestors’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the seder is a widely observed tradition. But when it comes to Shavuot, Blazer says, “Eating cheesecake or blintzes really isn’t a big or important reminder to people.”

Furthermore, Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest — a crop that was not easy for our ancestors to grow. Sukkot lasts eight days, as does Passover (which celebrates the harvest of barley). Fruits, nuts and barley all were readily available and abundant, so eight days of celebration seemed appropriate. With wheat being more expensive and less available, Shavuot became a one-day holiday. On a more practical level, many rabbis believe that the celebration of Shavuot might be a bit neglected because it traditionally falls toward the end of the religious school year.

So, how do you get the Jews to celebrate a holiday that is biblically mandated but not, er, well, all that exciting from a traditional standpoint?

The rabbis figured out that Shavuot, which marks the end of the counting of the Omer, also should represent the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as the event occurred during the same period.

Today, many synagogues commemorate Shavuot by hosting all-night Torah study sessions. The idea is to replicate the excitement of the Israelites as they waited for Moses to return from the mountain with God’s laws. So what, exactly, is the deal with dairy foods on Shavuot?

That depends on whom you ask.

There are a couple of theories about how dairy became associated with Shavuot.

One theory holds that once the Israelites were given the Torah, they became obligated to keep the dietary laws of kashrut. Because they did not have the means to prepare kosher meat, they ate dairy products. Another idea that’s been explored also involves kashrut — that milk and meat must be kept and consumed separately, so the Israelites ate two separate meals, one meat, the other dairy. Of course, this is all open to interpretation.

Yet another idea comes from the Song of Songs, verse 4:11, which compares the Torah to milk. Just as milk can sustain the body, Torah is seen as nourishment for the soul.

Fortunately, this is one tradition that’s easy to follow. Let’s face it: Jews are pretty good about keeping up with food traditions. Kosher cookbooks and recipe sites overflow with delicious recipes for creative cheesecakes and blintzes.

This Shavuot, even if you don’t attend an all-night study session, grab some cheesecake and a glass of milk and remember the miracle of our ancestors receiving the greatest gift of our people — the Torah.

VIDEO: Joan Nathan, the real Sara Lee and America’s favorite cheesecake


The namesake of the famous company Sara Lee discusses her father’s early expeierments with cheesecake and how he decided to name the company he founded after her. From Jewish Cooking In America with Joan Nathan.  Nathan is a big fan of Langer’s pastrami.

Find your inner cheesecake


Next time I’ll be more careful before I make fun of cheesecakes. You might recall that last week, I waxed plaintively at how the custom of serving dairy has come to dominate people’s view of Shavuot — and how the holiday could certainly use some better marketing to make it more relevant to mainstream Judaism. I made a wisecrack that a holy day deserves more than cheesecakes and cheese blintzes, and I even asked readers to send me their ideas.

I was expecting my observant friends to take me to task and educate me on how Shavuot is a lot more than a mucus-generating dairy festival — that there is a treasure trove of meaning in the Book of Ruth, for example, that I failed to allude to.

What I did not expect was to get a phone call from one of the city’s illustrious Orthodox rabbis defending the magical, mystical, community-building power of … the cheesecake.

Yes, the cheesecake. There I was chilling with the kids last Saturday night when my cellphone rang. It was Rabbi Elazar Muskin, the fearless leader of Young Israel of Century City, and he had dairy and white flour on his mind.

Actually, he had it on his hands, too, as well as sugar and eggs and whatever else gourmet bakers put into their cheesecakes. You see, the rabbi was spending his Saturday night making cheesecakes. On this night, his profit margin would be the envy of Microsoft. He’d spend less than $20 on ingredients — and make a profit of about $8,000 selling his treats to people who would fork out over $1,000 for each cake (I didn’t ask the rabbi what he was putting in those cheesecakes).

The rabbi wasn’t calling to pitch me on a Muskin’s Cheesy Cheesecakes franchise, but to enlighten me on the transformative power of food in community and religious life. Like a good father, he gave all the credit to his children, in this case his 17-year-old daughter, Dina, who, several years ago and with the help of her older sister, started a Bake for Israel charity around the time of Shavuot.

And like all successful ideas, it took on a life of its own.

She sold her first cheesecake five years ago and ended up raising $1,200 for a little rehabilitation center in Israel. This year, she’s raising more than $25,000 selling all kinds of donated baked goods, with proceeds going to Amcha, a support group for Holocaust survivors living in Israel. And who’s donating all this baking time and buying up all these simple carbs? Many are members of Young Israel, of course, but according to Rabbi Muskin, his daughter’s baking bonanza has now spread all over the hood, with people from other shuls and communities chipping in.

In short, all those Shavuot cheesecakes I made fun of last week have helped unite the community around this holiday, and this year it will help bring some light to Holocaust survivors in Israel.

And there I was worrying about marketing hooks.

The elusive hook was staring me in the face, and I couldn’t see it. A simple cheesecake. You bake it. You donate it. You sell it. You help the Jews. How could there be stronger marketing than that?

The Book of Ruth that we read and study on Shavuot is all about kindness. The eating of dairy is connected to the primordial and motherly sustenance of the Torah, and to the attribute of humility (unlike wine, milk doesn’t need a fancy glass). The Torah that we received on Shavuot came to unite us, like a parent wants to unite his children.

Kindness, nourishment, humility and unity, all wrapped up in a 12-year-old girl’s idea to sell a few cheesecakes. No wonder the illustrious rabbi got Talmudic with me on the ins and outs of making a bake sale work — it didn’t sound too spiritual, but he saw something I didn’t: When you can get a community to rally behind a common activity and a worthy cause, that’s spiritual enough.

So Dina Muskin’s Shavuot Bake Sale is my surprise winner for a cool marketing idea for Shavuot, and I can see it catching on. If we can get so many Jews to light candles on Chanukah and eat matzah on Passover, I can see them baking a cheesecake on Shavuot, or, if they live in Los Angeles, executive producing one.

For the lactose intolerant, my winning entry is from Nancy Schwartz in Granada Hills, who proposed a cross between “Shabbat Across America” and the “Tellabration” events sponsored by the National Storytelling Network. Nancy would love to see a national Jewish story swap event on the Sunday evening before Shavuot, where Jews of all stripes and denominations would gather in shuls and homes across the country and share their favorite Jewish stories.

My runner-up is Jo Pitesky, who wrote: “Shavuot has to be the holiday that has the lowest shul attendance (for the non-Orthodox, at any rate). And as wonderful as the story is, and as wonderful as my blintzes are, it is not exactly a kid-friendly holiday. What to do for my kids?

“About 6 or 7 years ago, I read about a Shavuot custom from North Africa. The Jews in these areas equate Torah with water — both are life-giving. When they return home from shul on the afternoon of Shavuot, they change their clothing… and then go outside for a rousing water fight! That’s how ‘Cheesecakeorama’ was born: a pool party after shul, accompanied by a huge buffet of cheesecakes. This year, we’ve even added a twist of helping a water-based charity called, ‘Ryan’s Well.'”

If you ask me, I think Dina, Nancy and Jo should pool their efforts. Just think how much better the Jewish stories will sound if the kids are having their fun while you’re about to sink your teeth into one of Rabbi Muskin’s $1,000 cheesecakes.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Try these vegetarian delights — fit for a Persian queen


During our first trip to Israel many years ago we bought a humorous silver Purim grogger that depicts a man holding a goblet of wine, almost tipsy, dancing while being bucked by a frisky goat as a young boy looks on. We assumed it was made in Israel, but later we discovered it was handcrafted in Italy.

Since then we have collected Purim groggers from all over the world, made from many different materials — wood, bronze, silver and even ivory. Most of the groggers symbolize Haman, but some depict modern tyrants.

Last year my husband and I traveled to Israel with the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership on a cultural mission. We stayed in Tel Aviv, where we visited art galleries and several artists’ studios.

One day we drove to Jerusalem to see a wonderful exhibition at the Israel Museum as well as a private art collection. Just outside the Old City we discovered a street behind the King David Hotel that opens onto a private hillside walkway filled with galleries and shops that sell contemporary and traditional Judaica.

At the base of the steps was a gallery that was different from the others.

Beautiful embroidered tapestries lined the room, and on one of the walls was a colorfully hand-stitched Omer calendar used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot. The owner told us that most of the work was made by artist Adina Gatt. We asked the owner if Gatt had ever designed a grogger. She immediately called the artist, who drove the next day from Nahariyah to meet us in Tel Aviv.

Gatt arrived at our hotel in the afternoon, and when she unwrapped her grogger we could not believe our eyes. It was a nontraditional piece celebrating Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, rather than depicting Haman. It has banners embroidered in Hebrew and adorned with small brass bells hanging from each one, and the beautifully handcrafted piece is topped with a crown of bells. When the handle is twisted the fabric banners unfold, fly in a circle and the bells chime. Each banner quotes a passage from the Purim Megillah.

After we arranged to purchase the piece and have it sent to Los Angeles, we talked with Gatt about the foods that are served during the Purim celebrations, and she shared a few of her favorite recipes with me, including Hummus With Pita Bread and her Eggplant Casserole. Adina’s favorite dessert is cheesecake, which she makes for almost every holiday. During Purim she adds nuts and poppy seeds to celebrate Queen Esther’s traditonal characterization as a vegetarian.

Purim Poppy Seed Cheesecake
Almond Nut Crust (recipe follows)
2 cups sour cream
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
5 tablespoons poppy seeds
4 eggs

Prepare, bake and cool the Almond Nut Crust.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a small bowl, beat the sour cream and 1 tablespoon of the sugar, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla and 1/4 teaspoon of the almond extract until well blended. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese with the remaining 1 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons of the poppy seeds until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in the remaining vanilla and almond extracts. Pour this filling into the prepared pan.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until the center is set and the top is golden. Remove the cake from the oven. Spread the prepared sour cream mixture on top and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons of poppy seeds. Cool. Remove from the springform pan and serve cold.

Makes 16 servings.

Almond Nut Crust
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups unpeeled whole almonds
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Melt three tablespoons of butter. Brush a 9- or 10-inch springform pan with butter and set aside.

In a food processor or blender mix almonds and sugar until the almonds are coarsely chopped. Dice remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add butter and almond extract to food processor or blender and mix until the dough pulls away from the sides.

Press the almond mixture evenly into the bottom of the springform pan and 1?4 inch up the sides in the prepared pan. Bake for five to 10 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Cool.

Hummus With Pita Bread

Hummus is a simple, wonderfully flavorful dip or spread made from garbanzo beans (chickpeas) and tahini (sesame seed paste). Its texture is velvety, rich and firm enough to scoop up with wedges of pita bread or crisp vegetables. The taste is robust, nutty, garlicky and so satisfying that you won’t be able to stop eating it.

l can (15 ounce) garbanzo beans, with liquid
1 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 cups lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 cup olive oil
6 fresh parsley sprigs, stemmed
1 to 2 teaspoons salt

Place the garbanzos in a food processor or blender and coarsely purée. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and cumin and purée until smooth, drizzling the olive oil into the mixture during the mixing. Blend in the parsley leaves and l teaspoon of salt. Add additional salt to taste.

Serve with hot pita bread and sliced vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, mushrooms and jicama.

Makes six to eight servings.

Adina’s Eggplant Casserole

This casserole is wonderful as a main course, a side dish or as a topping over pasta.

Olive oil
2 medium-size eggplants
6 firm tomatoes, preferably locally grown
6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the broiler. Line two to three baking sheets with aluminum foil and brush with olive oil.

Mommy, Me & Cheesecake Makes 3


OK, mom, so what part of eating that cheesecake is making you feel guilty?

If you fear that little bubbela is annoying the other customers in the bakery, your worries are over.

The Essential Chocolate Collection, a Culver City bakery, is for parents who want an alternative to dragging their babies to Starbucks for an afternoon pick-me-up amid unsympathetic non-parents. Here, moms can indulge while their babies can crawl and play — or make a fuss. It’s OK because Fridays from 1-3 p.m., in the bakery’s annex, are reserved for just this crowd.

“It’s nice to have a latte and not have someone glaring at you,” says event organizer Lara Sanders Fordis, who has an 11-month-old son. Her sister, shop owner Melissa Sanders, has added incentive to be welcoming: newcomers may get hooked on the goodies.

The free get-together (you do pay for drinks and dessert) is called Coffee, Mommy & Me, but it’s not really a Mommy & Me class. Still, the organizers do schedule “programs.” The recent schedule has included “Funtime with Nanny C,” a “Free Organic Baby Food Tasting” and “Mommy Chair Massages.” The Passover event on April 14 is pretty much all about food — featuring chocolate macaroons, chocolate-dipped fruit and other treats. (The ingredients are kosher, but not certified kosher for Passover.)

Participating moms said they appreciated a chance to get out of the house and relax. And it’s safe for baby: There are no sharp edges — especially on the chocolate.

The Essential Chocolate Collection, 10868 Washington Blvd., Culver City. For information on Coffee, Mommy & Me, call (310) 287-0699.

 

Celebrate Shavuot With Spring Harvest


When I was growing up, two types of food were usually associated with the holiday of Shavuot. There were the dairy dishes — blintzes, knishes, noodle kugels and, of course, cheesecake. Most of us remember them from our childhood, but they were always laden with cream, butter and cheese, and may not appeal to our diet today.

The second group reminds us of the harvest, and includes wheat, barley, lentils, spring vegetables, honey and the traditional first fruits of the season.

This year I have planned a menu for my family Shavuot dinner using many of the foods in the second category. The recipes are designed for six, but may be doubled, and can be prepared in advance.

I always include Harvest Wheat Rolls for the holiday. They carry out the harvest theme and are a perfect accompaniment for the Lentil Soup, that is accented with rich vegetable flavors and topped with olive oil. Don’t forget to serve a bowl of honey to spoon on the rolls.

Harvest Wheat Rolls

2 cups whole wheat flour

3 cups unbleached flour

1 package active dry yeast

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup warm water

1/4 cup olive oil or safflower oil

2 tablespoons honey

1 cup peeled, grated carrots

2 eggs

1/4 cup yellow corn meal

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Combine the flours. Place 2 cups of flour mixture, yeast and salt in bowl of an electric mixer. Heat water, oil and honey in a saucepan until very warm, 115 F to 120 F. Add water mixture to flour mixture, beating until well blended. Beat in one egg, carrots and 2 cups of flour mixture to make a soft dough. Turn dough onto floured board and knead for 5-10 minutes, adding remaining flour to make a smooth and elastic dough. Place dough in an oiled bowl and oil the top. Cover with towel and let rise in warm place until doubled in size, about 1.5 hours.

Line baking sheet with foil; brush with oil and sprinkle with corn meal. Break off small pieces of dough (about 30) forming each piece into a long rope, twist into a knot and place on prepared baking sheet. Cover with towel and let rise in warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Beat remaining egg and brush the top of rolls. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake at 350 F for 20-30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Makes about 30 rolls.

Lentil Soup

1 1/2 cups lentils

2 bay leaves, crumbled

1/4 cup unsalted butter or nondairy margarine

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, finely chopped

1 parsnip, peeled, finely chopped

4 carrots, peeled, finely chopped

2 stalks celery, finely sliced

1/2 cup minced parsley

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried

4 tomatoes, peeled, finely diced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 tablespoon each, minced parsley, green onions and basil leaves

Olive Oil for garnish

Soak lentils in 4 cups water six hours or overnight. Drain lentils and place in large pot with 8 cups warm water and bay leaves. Bring to boil, then simmer 20-25 minutes or until tender.

Heat butter and olive oil in large saucepan. Add garlic, onion, parsnip, carrots, celery and parsley. Saute 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add rosemary and tomatoes. Simmer 10 minutes.

Drain lentils, returning liquid to large pot. Remove bay leaves. Add 2 cups drained lentils to garlic mixture and mix well.

Place remaining drained lentils in food processor or blender with 1/2 cup reserved liquid and puree. Add pureed lentils and lentils with garlic mixture to pot with reserved liquid. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bring to boil and simmer until soup thickens, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Ladle into serving bowl. Sprinkle parsley, green onions and basil and drizzle with olive oil.

Makes 8-10 servings.


Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

A ‘Cheesy’ Holiday


My father never missed a chance to eat cheesecake. He was a furniture salesman whose territory covered the New York metropolitan area, and whenever he called on stores near a bakery, he purchased a cheesecake. While my mother and brother avoided cheese in any form, he knew he could count on me to join him at the kitchen table after dinner to sample his latest discovery.

“I like the consistency of this one,” I said one night, feasting on a slice of creamy cake from a Brooklyn bakery. We felt the best cheesecakes came from places densely populated by Jews and Italians. “But the crust is wimpy,” my father said. “A good crust should be crunchy and thick.”

“The cake could be tarter,” I said. “It’s a bit bland.”

“Yet it’s perfectly moist.”

We had no use for dry cheesecakes. Full-blooded Ashkenazi Jews, we were equal-opportunity cheesecake lovers. We adored the zesty citrus flavor infused in the ricotta cheesecakes that my father purchased in Italian neighborhoods.

“But Rueben’s really makes the best cheesecake,” my father always concluded after we consumed several slices. Since his office was close to the famed Reuben’s delicatessen, he frequently brought home their decadent cakes. Four decades later, I’m still working off the calories.

We didn’t wait for the late-spring celebration of Shavuot to partake in our favorite luxury. Reform Jews, we called Shavuot “the cheesecake holiday,” but knew little else about it.

Shavuot is an important late-spring observance that commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It is often celebrated with all-night study and by the eating dairy foods, particularly cheese.

In Psalms 68:16-17, Mount Sinai is called by several names. One of them, mountain of peaks, Bar Gavnunim in Hebrew, shares the same root as gevinah, the word for cheese. Some historians speculate that after receiving the Ten Commandments, the ancient Israelites had been gone from their campsite for so many hours that their milk had soured and was becoming cheese. It’s possible that they fasted while receiving the Ten Commandments and returning hungry, reached for milk, a biblical version of fast food.

Accordingly, Shavuot arose as a dairy holiday. For centuries people have indulged in creamy confections for dessert, and cheesecake became the pastry of choice among Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. In the Old Country, recipes called for curd cheeses, such as pot or cottage cheese, which created disappointing results by today’s super-rich standards.

Cream cheese was the ingredient that turned a dry cake into a touch of heaven. When farmers in upstate New York invented cream cheese to duplicate French Neufchatel cheese, they never expected enterprising Jewish delicatessen owners in Manhattan to buy the product in bulk for baking.

Arnold Reuben Jr., a descendant of immigrants from Germany, claimed that his family developed the first cream-cheese cake recipe. At a time when other bakeries relied on cottage cheese, Reuben’s, then on Broadway and later on Madison Avenue and 58th Street, began baking cheesecakes with Breakstone’s cream cheese. In 1929, Reuben’s cheesecake won a Gold Metal at the World’s Fair.

Unaware of his destiny, a young go-getter named Leo Linderman left school at age 14 to apprentice in a Berlin delicatessen. In 1921, eight years after arriving in America, he opened Lindy’s, a delicatessen that he promoted by creating super-sized sandwiches with flamboyant names.

In the 1930s, this marketing genius developed a cheesecake recipe inspired by Kraft’s Philadelphia Supreme Cheesecake, and began selling a confection that competed with Reuben’s. For decades rumors circulated that Leo Linderman had stolen the Reuben family recipe after luring their German chef into his employ.

Whether the story is true or not, there were differences between the two cakes. Those old enough to remember will tell you that Reuben’s cheesecake was simple and delicious, while Lindy’s cake, as showy as its inventor, was topped with strawberries in a syrupy gel. In addition, Lindy’s crust was doughy, and not to my father’s liking.

Unfortunately, my father passed away by the time I married. But fate shined on me the day I met my husband and fell in love with his mother’s cheesecake. It is delicate and refined with a smooth texture, deep vanilla flavor and crunchy graham cracker crust.

For a change of pace, there’s nothing like a slice of airy ricotta cheesecake with its divine lemon essence. I fashioned this recipe after a cheesecake I enjoyed in Trieste, Italy, visiting my husband’s aunt. Sadly, she passed away before I asked for her recipe. For contrast, I added a gingersnap crust.

It’s impossible to discuss recipes without paying homage to the delicatessens that made New York as famous for cheesecake as for the Statue of Liberty. Since Reuben’s and the original Lindy’s restaurant have closed their doors, people who adored their luscious cakes are still haunted by delicious memories. Let’s face it — it’s been a loss for the Jews.

In the ensuing decades, I’ve tried to conjure up the qualities of the quintessential New York cheesecake: a graham cracker crust, creamy texture, distinct lemon flavor, and firm but light density. It must be taller than the tines of a fork and slightly sweet but with a little kick. The recipe below delivers on all counts. Yet authentic as it is, nothing compares to those evenings when my father indulged me with wondrous cheesecakes from the bakeries of New York.

Classic New York Cheesecake

Crust:

Heavily coat 10-inch springform pan with cooking spray

11/2 cups commercial graham cracker crumbs

5 Tbsp. butter

1 tsp. honey

1/4 cup sugar

Mix ingredients together with hands until well blended and crumbs appear moist. Pour into pan. With hands, spread evenly across the bottom and pat down firmly.

Filling:

5 8-ounce bars cream cheese, at room temperature

2 Tbsp. flour

1 Tbsp. confectioners’ sugar

11/2 cups sugar

grated rind of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp. orange liqueur

3/4 tsp. vanilla

2 egg yolks at room temperature

5 eggs at room temperature

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

  • Place first five ingredients in large mixing bowl and beat on high until they are completely blended.

  • Add vanilla and 2 yolks, and beat again.

  • Add eggs one at a time, beating well.

  • Pour into prepared pan. Batter will fill pan. Bake for 10 minutes. Top will be golden. Lower oven temperature to 200 degrees and bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until top browns, cake feels bouncy to the touch, and a toothpick tests clean. Cool to room temperature. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate.

  • Bring to room temperature before serving.

  • Yield: 16-20 slices