For Shavuot, try this easy strawberry rhubarb trifle


Forget fancy pastries, cakes or tarts: Trifles are the best dessert you can make for entertaining. They are delicious and look beautiful and impressive, but are actually one of the easiest desserts you can make.

The first time I made a trifle was actually after a baking mistake. My Bundt cake had fallen apart mere hours before Shabbat dinner, and I was in a pinch to throw together a dessert. I threw the botched cake into a trifle dish, added some fresh fruit and chocolate mousse and voila – I was able to salvage dessert.

Shavuot is traditionally a time when we serve cheesecake, blintzes and other delicious, but heavy, dairy dishes. This trifle sings of spring flavors while being much lighter than your average cheesecake. And there’s no baking required — and only minimal cooking — since I suggest using a store-bought pound cake. Which leaves you more time for your all-night Shavuot studying. Or sitting outside with a glass of iced tea and a bowl full of trifle.

STRAWBERRY RHUBARB TRIFLE

  • 2 pounds rhubarb, chopped into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 pint strawberries, cut in half and stems removed
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Juice of half lemon plus zest
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Store-bought pound cake
  • Additional strawberries and mint for garnish (optional)

To make the strawberry rhubarb compote, combine the chopped rhubarb, hulled strawberries, sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce to simmer for 10-15 minutes, until pieces of rhubarb have broken down and the mixture is soft.

Place rhubarb mixture into a food processor fitted with blade attachment. Pulse a few times to smooth out mixture or until it has reached your desired consistency.

To make the whipped cream, place the heavy cream in a large chilled bowl and mix on low speed using a hand mixer or stand mixer for 2 minutes. Increase speed to high and add vanilla. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and mix until you have stiff peaks.

To assemble, crumble the pound cake on the bottom of a trifle dish or large glass bowl. Add 1/2 to 1 cup rhubarb compote on top. Cover with whipped cream. Repeat layers until you have reached the top.

Add fresh strawberries and mint on top if desired.

Blintzes and beyond for Shavuot


The holiday of Shavuot marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses, but it’s also a kind of Jewish Thanksgiving, when farm bounty and grains — “first fruits” — were brought to the temple. These often included wheat, barley, grapes, figs and dates.

In modern times, Shavuot is a holiday that inspires the preparation of many delicious and traditional recipes that usually feature a variety of vegetarian and dairy foods. Milk, eggs and cheeses of all kinds are used in abundance. 

Blintzes are the most popular of the Shavuot foods. They may be served as a side dish, dessert or main course. They are thin pancakes or crepes that are filled with an assortment of dairy or vegetable mixtures. I have adapted a basic blintz recipe to include a spinach-ricotta combination; served with yogurt or sour cream, it adds a perfect dairy accent.

The Vegetarian Lentil Soup is a family favorite. All the ingredients can be sautéed, blended in a food processor and served immediately, or prepared and stored in the refrigerator for two to three days.

Stuffed Eggplant Rolls are another flexible choice for your Shavuot lunch, brunch or dinner. Thin slices of eggplant are rolled around a three-cheese filling that is combined with lightly beaten egg whites. The spicy, garlicky herbed tomato sauce is a perfect accompaniment.

And don’t forget about dessert. One of my special treats for the holiday is an Apricot Cheesecake, along with bowls of fruit, dates and nuts. Together, they are sure to please!

SHAVUOT BLINTZES

  • Ricotta and Spinach Filling (recipe follows) 
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 3 tablespoons melted, unsalted margarine
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Sour cream

 

Prepare Ricotta and Spinach Filling; refrigerate. 

In a large bowl, blend the eggs, milk and 1 tablespoon margarine. Add flour and salt, blending until smooth. (If any lumps remain, pour through a fine strainer, pressing any lumps of flour through; mix well.) Cover and set aside for 1 hour.

Lightly grease a 6-inch nonstick skillet. Place over medium heat until hot. Pour in about 1/8 cup batter at a time, tilting pan and swirling to make a thin pancake. When lightly browned, gently loosen edges and turn out of pan onto towel or plate. Repeat with remaining batter. Cool.

Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of Ricotta and Spinach Filling in center of browned side of each blintz. Fold lower portion over filling. Tuck in ends then roll to form flat rectangle. Place on larger platter and cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook.

In a large skillet, place remaining 2 tablespoons melted margarine. Cook blintzes about 2 to 3 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Transfer to serving plates and serve with sour cream.

Makes about 20 blintzes.

RICOTTA AND SPINACH FILLING

  • 2 bunches fresh spinach
  • 2 cups ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

Rinse spinach; remove and discard stems. Place leaves in boiling salted boiling water; boil 10 minutes. Drain and cool, then squeeze dry. Chop finely.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine spinach, ricotta, Parmesan cheese, egg yolks, parsley and basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

Makes 5 to 6 cups.

VEGETARIAN LENTIL SOUP

  • 1 1/2 cups dried lentils
  • 2 1/2 cups warm vegetable broth or water
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 1/4 cup unsalted margarine
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 4 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 parsnip, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
  • 4 large tomatoes, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Red wine vinegar to taste
  • Plain yogurt or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish

 

Soak lentils in 4 cups of water 6 hours or overnight. Drain and place in a large, heavy pot with vegetable broth and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam that forms. Reduce heat, cover partially, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.

In a large skillet, heat margarine and olive oil. Add garlic, carrots, parsnips, onion, celery and parsley. Sauté 10 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add rosemary and tomatoes, and simmer 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and vinegar. Remove 2 cups of the cooked lentils and 1/2 cup of the liquid; puree in a processor or blender. Return the puree and sautéed vegetable mixture to the soup pot. Mix well. Bring to boil over medium heat, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until thick, 30 to 40 minutes. Ladle soup into warm bowls and garnish with yogurt or grated cheese. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

STUFFED EGGPLANT ROLLS

  • Tomato-Basil Sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1 pound ricotta or hoop cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh or dried basil
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 ounces mozzarella cheese
  • 2 medium eggplants
  • Flour
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • Fresh basil leaves for garnish

 

Prepare Tomato-Basil Sauce; refrigerate. 

In a bowl, combine ricotta, Parmesan, parsley, basil and egg yolks.

In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into cheese mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill.

Slice mozzarella cheese into 2-inch-by-1/2-inch sticks. Set aside.

Trim stem end from eggplants and slice lengthwise 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Dredge in flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper. Shake off excess.

In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add eggplant slices and sauté on both sides until soft and lightly browned. Drain on paper towels. Cool.

Place 2 tablespoons cheese filling across narrow end of each eggplant slice. Press stick of mozzarella into filling. Roll up eggplant tightly around filling. Place rolls, seam-side down, in greased baking dish. Cover with foil and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours. (Do not freeze.)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Spoon some of Tomato-Basil Sauce over each roll. Bake for 15 minutes or until hot and bubbling. With metal spatula, carefully place one or two eggplant rolls on each plate. Garnish with basil leaves. Serve immediately. 

Makes about 16 rolls.

TOMATO-BASIL SAUCE

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 onion, peeled and finely chopped 
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes with liquid
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh or dried basil
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

In a skillet, heat oil. Add garlic and onion, and sauté until onions are transparent. Add tomatoes, wine, basil, parsley and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a food processor or blender and process until well blended. Transfer to bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. 

Makes about 4 cups.

APRICOT CHEESECAKE

 

  • 1 (6-ounce) package dried apricots
  • 1 1/2 cups apple juice
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • Crumbled Sugar-Cookie Crust (recipe follows)
  • Sour Cream Topping (recipe follows)
  • 3 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

 

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a small saucepan, combine apricots, apple juice and 1/2 cup sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Cool. Transfer to a food processor or blender and process until pureed. Set aside. Reserve 1/2 cup apricot puree for cookie crust.

Prepare the Crumbled Sugar-Cookie Crust and Sour Cream Topping; set both aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and remaining 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Blend in vanilla and 1/2 cup of the apricot puree. Beat 2 or 3 minutes until light. Pour into crust that has been spread with a thin layer of apricot puree. 

Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until center is set and top is golden. Remove from oven and spread with Sour Cream Topping. Return to oven 5 minutes. Cool. Remove from springform pan and garnish with remaining apricot puree. Chill before serving.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

CRUMBLED SUGAR-COOKIE CRUST

  • 1 1/2 cups crumbled sugar cookies
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted margarine

 

In a large mixing bowl, food processor or blender, thoroughly blend the cookie crumbs and margarine. Spoon the mixture evenly into a 9-inch springform pan and press down firmly to make an even layer on bottom of pan. Spread with a thin layer of the apricot puree. Refrigerate at least 15 minutes.

SOUR CREAM TOPPING

  • 1 pint sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

 

In a small bowl, beat the sour cream, sugar and vanilla until well blended. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Makes 2 cups.


Judy Zeidler is a cooking instructor and the author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

Dining in: Italian cheeses inspire a unique holiday menu


It all started with Signora Grazia, an elderly cheese maker in Panzano, Italy. While vacationing in this Tuscan village, just 30 minutes south of Florence, we walked by her farm early one morning and saw the sign that read “Pecorino and Fresh Ricotta for Sale.”

We hiked up the path and, peering through the open barn door, saw her making hot ricotta cheese in a big copper bowl over an open fire. We bought some and briskly walked back to our villa. While the ricotta was still warm, we enjoyed this delicious discovery for breakfast, topped with dark chestnut honey. However, the dish is equally delicious for lunch, dinner or dessert.

Taking inspiration from my adventures in Italy, I’m skipping traditional Shavuot fare like cheese blintzes and cheesecake this year in favor of Homemade Ricotta, Cheese and Smoked Salmon Panini, Ravioli Filled With Four Cheeses and Ricotta Cake With Zabaglione.

The first time I had grilled panini was at an Autogrill, an extensive cafe/buffet bar at a rest area along Italy’s Autostrada. We found 10 or more different combinations of panini already assembled, using a variety of breads and rolls in many sizes and shapes. If you opt to have your panini toasted, the server hands you a hot, grilled sandwich, wrapped in parchmentlike paper, with melted cheese oozing out the sides. They were so good, we had several for lunch.

Ravioli Filled With Four Cheeses will replace the traditional cheese blintzes at our holiday dinner. The pasta dough, adapted from Chef Jessica’s handmade pasta, which is prepared daily at her Ristoranti L’800 in Argelato, is as easy to make as the blini for blintzes. Boiled for a few minutes, they are tossed in melted butter and served with Parmesan cheese.

Some think serving dairy for Shavuot is related to Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs). One line of this poem reads “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” Many believe this line compares the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey, and years ago it was the tradition for children to be introduced to Torah study during Shavuot with honey cakes featuring words from the Torah written on them.

For dessert, in keeping with the Shavuot theme, serve Bruna Santini’s Ricotta Cake With Zabaglione.

Many years ago we were at Dal Pescatore, a three-star Michelin restaurant between Mantova and Cremona, where we ate this delicious cake that was served with a rich zabaglione sauce spooned over the top. It was made by pouring the batter into a heavy cast iron skillet, covered with a lid and placed in the fireplace, where hot coals were raked over the pot to bake the cake. Fortunately, times have changed, and baking this ricotta cake in an oven makes the process significantly easier.


JUDY’S FRESH HOMEMADE RICOTTA

Judy’s fresh homepage ricotta (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup cream
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice

In a heavy saucepan, bring milk, cream and salt to a simmer. Just before it comes to a rolling boil, add the lemon juice, stirring until soft curds begin to form. Remove from the heat and allow curds to form. Using a slotted spoon, skim the ricotta curds from the whey and place them in a colander lined with cheesecloth. Or use a wire sieve or a small plastic ricotta basket. Drain for 15 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of honey.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups of ricotta.


CHEESE AND SMOKED SALMON PANINI

Cheese and smoked salmon panini (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

1/2 cup Mustard-Dill Sauce (recipe follows)
12 slices sandwich bread
6 slices smoked salmon
6 slices mozzarella cheese
Prepare Mustard-Dill Sauce, cover with plastic wrap, and chill.

Place sliced bread on a work board. Spread Mustard-Dill Sauce on six slices of bread and top each with a slice of smoked salmon and a slice of cheese to cover. Cover with remaining 6 slices of bread.

Preheat your panini press or grill to medium heat.

Place the sandwiches in the panini press and close the lid. Grill the sandwich until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted. Slice into quarters and serve immediately. 

Makes 6 panini.


MUSTARD-DILL SAUCE
3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon red or white vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh chopped (or snipped) dill

In a small, deep bowl, combine the Dijon and powdered mustards, sugar and vinegar; blend well. With a wire whisk, slowly beat in the olive oil until it forms a thick mayonnaise. Stir in the chopped dill. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

BRUNA SANTINI’S RAVIOLI WITH FIVE CHEESES

The Santini family at Dal Pescatore is famous for starting trends, and this is one of them. Make your own pasta, fill squares with the five-cheese mixture, and shape them into ravioli or tortellini. They are as light and melt-in-your-mouth as you can get. When a customer orders Bruna’s ravioli, she melts butter in a frying pan, adds grated Parmesan cheese, tosses the ravioli in the sauce, spoons it onto a plate — and voilà!

12 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1/2 pound ricotta, drained
6 ounces Romano cheese, freshly grated
6 ounces Emmental cheese, freshly grated
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, freshly grated
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 eggs
3 tablespoons grated fresh onion
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pasta Dough (recipe follows)
Unsalted butter

In a large bowl, combine the five cheeses, whipping cream, butter, eggs, grated onion, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper; mix well.

Prepare the Pasta Dough and roll it out in long wide sheets. Place a teaspoon of filling every 2 to 2 1/2 inches on one sheet of prepared pasta. With pastry brush or fingers dipped in water, moisten all sides and between cheese mounds. Carefully place second sheet of pasta over cheese-filled sheet. Using fingers, gently press sheets together to seal firmly at edges and between mounds of filling. With ravioli cutter or small sharp knife, cut ravioli into individual squares. Place squares on a clean, lightly floured cotton towel, and let rest 1 hour, if possible. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Cook ravioli 8 to 10 at a time in boiling water. Remove with slotted spoon to warm buttered serving dish. Repeat until all ravioli are cooked.

Toss generously with additional butter and additional Parmesan. Serve immediately with additional sauce.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


PASTA DOUGH

If your food processor has a limited capacity, make the dough in two or more batches.

3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons water

Place the flour and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Turn the machine on and off once. With the machine running, drop in one egg and, the instant it is blended in, turn off the machine. Repeat with the remaining eggs until the dough is crumbly or resembles a coarse meal.  Add the olive oil and water and process just until the dough begins to come away from the side of the bowl.

Remove the dough to a floured wooden board and knead just until smooth. Divide the dough into 3 or 4 parts for easier handling. When rolling out the first piece, cover the remainder with a large bowl so the dough does not dry out.


BRUNA SANTINI’S RICOTTA CAKE WITH ZABAGLIONE SAUCE

Bruna Santini’s ricotta cake with zabaglione sauce (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

3/4 cup dried currants
Sweet wine
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1 pound ricotta cheese, pressed through a strainer
2 1/4 cups sugar
5 eggs
3 3/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons rum
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup milk
Zabaglione Sauce (recipe follows)

Plump currants in sweet wine or warm water until soft, 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush a 12-cup bundt pan with melted butter and sprinkle with ground almonds. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat ricotta and sugar until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Then mix in flour a little at a time. Stir plumped currants into flour mixture along with rum and olive oil. Add vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and milk to soften batter and blend.

Spoon batter into prepared bundt pan. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, until a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan. Remove cake from oven and cool. Invert onto a platter. When ready to serve, slice and serve with Zabaglione Sauce on the side.

Makes 12 servings.


ZABAGLIONE SAUCE

5 egg yolks
5 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons Marsala wine

Beat egg yolks and sugar until thick, creamy and light in color. Add Marsala and whisk well to combine. Cook in a double boiler, over simmering water, for 10 minutes, whisking constantly.

Makes about 1 cup. 

Shavuot with a French accent


Joan Nathan says she’s always had a particular fascination with French Jews and their food.

For Nathan, author of “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 2010), the love affair with French cuisine started as a teenager when she made her first trip to France in the 1950s.

The prolific cookbook author says the simple pleasure of sampling a slightly melted bar of chocolate sandwiched into a crackly baguette transformed her life.

Believing a girl’s education should include fluency in other languages, her father approached a cousin in France who opened his home, immersing Nathan in his culture.

“Because I have relatives and friends who are French, I’m always curious what they’re doing for holidays,” said Nathan, who relishes visiting people’s homes to see what they eat and how they celebrate.

Falling seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot is a minor holiday with major importance, as it commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

It is traditional to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, which this year falls on June 8, because of the purity of the Torah.

Nathan has vivid memories of the holiday in France from the past few decades.

Many French Jews attend synagogue in the morning and come home for a well-rounded meal at lunch—more like a dinner—as opposed to a typical American bagels-and-lox brunch.

While the French often incorporate dairy products into recipes, they don’t go overboard on Shavuot the way Americans do by eating a meal composed almost entirely of blintzes, kugels and cream cheese. The French, however, do enjoy a good cheesecake.

The most important element at French holiday celebrations is a sense of style, with elegant table settings and presentation of food. Even the least affluent Jews serve food with great care for its appeal.

Some 600,000 Jews are living in France, making it the third largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States. French Jewish history goes back 2,000 years.

Many cultures have seasoned French Jewish cuisine. Over the centuries, Jews have come to France from Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Moving back to their original countries with French recipes, some Jews later returned to France, bringing back variations of dishes they had taken with them.

“Food has never been static,” Nathan said. “Even old recipes are in a constant state of flux and refinement, subject to outside influences and improvements.”

French Jews tend to be discreet about their religion, mostly in response to centuries of anti-Semitism. This is why Nathan, as the title of her cookbook indicates, had to search for Jewish cooking in France.

In recent decades, North African Jews have built a vibrant life in France. From Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, they revel in their Jewishness. Fragrant with spices, such as harissa (hot red chili sauce), their foods are easy to find in French markets. Their tasty salads, sumptuous stews, hummus and couscous have great appeal for French Jewish families.

Recent decades have seen intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in France. With cross-cultural menus becoming the norm, Sephardic food is overtaking traditional Ashenazi cuisine.

Aware of this reality, a friend of Nathan’s pleaded with her, “Please find the old Ashkenazi recipes before they die out in France and it’s too late.”

“My whole life has been about guarding the legacy of Jewish food,” said Nathan, whose research in France found many traditional Jewish foods can be traced to other countries.

“I love French cooking,” said Nathan, marveling at its variety. “The recipes in my cookbook are easy, and I use as many of them as possible on Shavuot.”

The following recipes are by Nathan from “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.”


FOUGASSE

(Dairy)

A traditional Sabbath and holiday bread usually made with oil but at Shavuot is prepared with milk.

Ingredients:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup softened butter
1 1/2 cups milk, heated to lukewarm
6-8 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup honey
Semolina for scattering
Olive oil for brushing

Preparation:
Put the yeast, butter, and lukewarm milk in the bowl of a standing mixer and blend. Gradually add 6 cups of flour, the salt, and honey to the yeast mixture, stirring with the dough hook and adding more flour as necessary until the dough comes together.

Form the dough into a ball and let it rise in a bowl, covered, for 1 hour. Then divide the dough into 2 equal portions. Roll out each into an oval about 1/4-inch thick.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, scatter some semolina on a cookie sheet, and transfer the dough onto the prepared sheet. Let rise for 30 minutes.

Brush each loaf with olive oil and bake in the oven for about 20 minutes. Eat when warm, if possible.

Yield: 2 loaves of Fougasse


FRENCH COLD BEET SOUP (BORSCHT)

(Dairy)

Russian immigrants before World War I brought Borscht recipes to France.

Ingredients:
2 pounds raw beets (about 4)
1 pound onions (2 medium sized)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons fresh dill, chervil, or mint cut into chiffonade

Preparation:
Peel the beets and onions. Cut them into chunks and toss them together in a large soup pot. Pour in about 2 quarts of water, or enough to cover the vegetables by an inch or so. Add the garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil, skimming the surface of any impurities that rise. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for about an hour, or until the beets are cooked. Stir in the vinegar and let cool.

When the soup has cooled off, ladle the vegetables and some of their broth into a blender and puree to the consistency of a thick soup. Adjust the thickness and seasoning of the soup to your taste, adding more beet broth for a thinner soup.

Serve cold in soup bowls with a dollop of the sour cream and a sprinkle of one of the herbs.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings


SALMON WITH PEARL ONIONS, LETTUCE, AND PEAS

(Dairy)

This recipe has been handed down through the generations since the first Jews left Spain during the Inquisition.

Ingredients:
10 ounces pearl onions
1 tablespoon butter
5 large lettuce leaves (preferably Romaine or Bibb), washed and halved
2 cups shelled peas, fresh or frozen and defrosted
2 teaspoons sugar
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh summer savory
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 pounds salmon fillets, cut into 4 to 6 servings

Preparation:

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Drop in the pearl onions and boil for 3 minutes. Turn off the water and remove the onions with a slotted spoon to a bowl of cold water. When they reach room temperature, cut the root ends and pop onions out of the skin.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pan. Stir in the onions and the lettuce, and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the peas, sugar, thyme, savory, parsley, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup water. Cover and simmer slowly for about 5 minutes.

Gently nestle the salmon pieces among the peas, onions, and herbs. Cover and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the salmon is just barely cooked through. Pluck out the herb sprigs and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings


SWEET COUSCOUS

(Dairy or Pareve)

Popular year-round among North African Jews in France, for Shavuot this dish is made with butter and served with yogurt.

Ingredients:
4 pounds onions (about 8 medium sized), peeled and thinly sliced in rings
4 tablespoons vegetable oil or butter
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of saffron
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup sliced or roughly chopped blanched almonds
1 pound (about 2 cups) uncooked couscous
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Optional accompaniment: yogurt

Preparation:
In a frying pan, saute the onions in the butter or oil over medium heat until translucent. Add the sugar and saffron, and continue to cook until caramelized and jam like. Add the raisins and almonds, cooking until the almonds are golden.

Prepare the couscous according to the package instructions, seasoning it with salt and pepper. Mound the couscous in the middle of a plate and surround with the onions, raisins, and almonds. Accompany with yogurt, if using.

Yield: 6-8 servings


TARTE AU FROMAGE (CRUSTLESS POLISH CHEESECAKE)

(Dairy)

This cheesecake, quite different from its American counterpart, reminds Joan Nathan of many she has eaten throughout France, including the one at Finkelsztajn’s Delicatessen in Paris.

Ingredients:
Butter for greasing the pan
1/2 cup milk
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 cup creme fraiche
5 large eggs,separated
2/3 cup sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins (optional)

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch springform pan.

Beat together the milk, ricotta cheese, creme fraiche, egg yolks, sugar, lemon zest and juice, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer or another large bowl.

Toss the flour with the raisins, if using, and beat into the cheese batter.

In a clean bowl with clean beaters, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Gently fold them into the cheese batter in three batches. Pour into the greased pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until golden and firm in the center. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before unmolding.

Yield: 8-10 servings

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.

Soy Vey! A Shavuot Without Milk


The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, on May 21, is about the last time of year you would want to talk to Beth Ginsberg or her boss, Michael Milken. Ginsberg is Milken’s chef, and together they co-authored the best-selling “The Taste of Living Cookbook: Mike Milken’s Favorite Recipes for Fighting Cancer” (CapCURE, $27.50). Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, is like many Jewish festivals rooted in seasonal agricultural cycles. Late Spring is not, coincidentally, the time when pasture lands are richest and milk production the heaviest. So the holiday is traditionally marked by serving dairy dishes — blintzes, cheesecakes, cheese strudels and other good stuff.

Milk fat is nowhere to be found in “Taste of Living.” After surviving a serious bout of prostate cancer, Milken avoids fats of all kinds like a bad investment. The San Fernando Valley native who grew up on pancakes and cheeseburgers — he boasts of winning fraternity breakfast-eating contests in which lard was considered “one of the essential food groups” — now preaches the gospel of low fat, high exercise and soy. Japanese men have one-fifth the rate of prostate cancer mortality as their American counterparts, and research points to a high intake of soy and soy products as a likely reason. Soy protein lowers bad cholesterol in the body without affecting the good cholesterol.

Three years ago, Milken hired Ginsberg as his personal chef to come up with vegetarian and soy dishes that didn’t taste like they were good for you. Many of the ingredients in “Taste for Living” will sound familiar to the bean sprout and Birkenstock crowd: tempeh, silken tofu, brewers yeast. But Ginsberg, who owned the well-regarded gourmet health-food restaurant 442, has managed to both simplify standard health-food recipes and bring them into the 1990s. Fresh herbs abound, as do more Milken-friendly takes on current menu favorites such as Chinese Roasted Tofu Salad and Chiles Rellenos in Tomato Jalapeño Broth. Ginsberg, a single mother in her mid-30s, has streamlined the recipes so that cooking healthy doesn’t necessarily mean cooking all day.

Milken adheres to his diet during Jewish holidays as well, Ginsberg said in a recent phone interview. On Chanukah, she makes latkes with zucchini and egg whites, sautés them lightly in nonstick spray and finishes them in the oven. This Passover, she made matzo balls with egg whites. Milken liked them.

Ginsberg herself likes a good, eggy challah each Friday, and has a weakness for low-fat potato chips. But using her cookbook, you could prepare a dairy-less Shavuot and barely miss a blintz. “Kids love my Devil’s Fool Cake with Cocoa Frosting,” she said. “And they go crazy for the chocolate pudding.” Both use soy milk, cocoa and egg whites, and they certainly look dairy-ish. Total fat in one serving of chocolate pudding: 1 gram.

Bring on the holidays.

“Taste of Living” is available in bookstores or by calling (877) 884-LIFE. All proceeds of the book go to CapCURE, a nonprofit association for the cure of cancer of the prostate.


Old Fashioned Chocolate Pudding

2 cups 1% cocoa soy milk

1/4 cup natural cane sugar or fructose

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons low-fat cocoa powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 vanilla bean, optional

1) Place all ingredients in saucepan. If using vanilla bean, split it lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place seeds and pod in saucepan with other ingredients.

2) Cook the mixture, stirring, over medium heat until it thickens to pudding-like consistency — about 15 minutes.

3) Remove from heat and extract the vanilla bean pod.

4) Pour into six individual cups or one large mold and chill at least 30 minutes before serving.