Shavuot is fast upon us! For those of you who don’t know, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah unto Israel, and the time of the Biblical wheat harvest. Though oft-forgotten in secular American Jewish culture, Shavuot is one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, and was one of the three Pilgrimage festivals – along with Pesach and Sukkot. Many traditions exist for Shavuot, including pulling an all-nighter of Jewish study, the tikkun leil, decorating the house and synagogue with flowers, and eating copious amounts of dairy food. It is absolutely my favorite Jewish holiday, not least because my favorite prayer and favorite Biblical text are both read in the holiday’s ritual.
But this blog is about food, not archaic Aramaic prayers or the Biblical injunction against slut-shaming, so let’s return to our topic at hand: dairy. Now, multiple explanations exist for why we eat milk products on Shavuot. Some say it is because the Torah is like G-d’s way of giving to Jews what a mother’s milk gives to her child. The Song of Songs does call the Torah “honey and milk” that “are under Your (G-d’s) tongue” (4:11). Others argue that it comes from the fact that Mount Sinai is Har haGavnunim in Hebrew, the name of which is similar to gvina – cheese. I prefer a more practical explanation: before modern times, Shavuot was soon after the time of year most cows gave birth to calves, and milk would have been in most plentiful supply at this time in most Jewish societies across the world.
Most Jewish communities, other than those of Yemen and Ethiopia, have various dairy-eating traditions on Shavuot. These tend to revolve around the various forms of cheese and milk products each Jewish cuisine uses. Cheesecake, a very Jewish dish whose history will be discussed in the next post, is common across many Ashkenazi, Italian, and Sephardi communities, and is taken as synonymous with Shavuot in the American Jewish community. Other delights include blintzes in the Ashkenazi sphere, rice pudding (sütlaç) among Sephardim, and qatayef – very sweet fried and syrup-soaked pancakes – among Syrians. All of these are delicious, and many often involve local forms of soft cheese.
Soft cheese is a very traditionally Jewish thing. Quark cheeses, called tvarog in Russian, tsvorekh in Yiddish, and gvina levana in Hebrew, is a curd cheese that is often confused with ricotta. It is soft, sweet-tart and slightly tangy, and quite tasty. The cheese comes at various levels of hardness and sweetness – I tend to prefer a softer, tangier quark. Tsvorekh is traditionally used in kugels, blintzes, and on bread. In fact, quark on black bread was one of the most common meals of poor Jews in Lithuania and Poland for centuries. [The same cheese was used for Shavuot.]
Ricotta, that famous soft Italian cheese, is a frequent ingredient in Italian Jewish dishes. Ricotta – which means “twice cooked” in Italian – is actually made from the whey left over from making other cheeses. When you make cheese, it separates into curds – the white stuff that we eat – and whey, the acidic component. (Think of the nursery rhyme.) Whey is cooked again to separate out the curds, and then the curds are strained out and sometimes played around with. Italian Jews traditionally used ricotta both for Hanukkah cheese pancakes, cheesecakes for Shavuot, and with bread year-round.
Both cheeses are ridiculously easy to make and taste quite good. In fact, you can make them both at the same time, as I shall show you below. It’s not an everyday thing, but certainly a fun thing to do when you get the chance. This is how you do it:
How to Make Two Cheeses at Once
Makes one pound quark cheese (tvarog/tsvorekh/gvina levana), one pound ricotta, and about four cups whey
Refer to pictures at the beginning of the post for parts of the process.
You will need:
1/2 gallon/2 liters milk
1 pint/500 ml heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
Juice of 2 large lemons
1/2 tsp white vinegar
A big soup pot
Two colanders – one should be quite big
A giant bowl
Big wooden spoons
- Line one of your colanders – the big one – with cheesecloth, and then place over the bowl so that there is a good two-three inches between the bowl floor and the bottom of your colander.
- Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
- Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
- When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
- You should notice the milk start to curdle. This is the curds separating from the whey. The curds are the cheesy bit. The whey is the leftovers* from which we will make more cheese.
- Turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for five minutes. It will look weird – white clumps and white fluid. This is how we make cheese, do not worry one bit!
- Pour the entire mixture into your big, lined colander. Then let sit and have the whey drip out for anything between fifteen minutes and two hours – the longer it sits, the harder your cheese. I go for 30-40 minutes since I like my cheese super soft.
- When your time is up, scoop up the cheese in the colander and put into a container, and refrigerate. Don’t throw the whey (liquid below) away! Congratulations! You have made quark cheese! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
- Now it’s time to make the ricotta. Pour your whey – you should have about six cups – back into the pot, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally.
- When the whey is boiling, turn off the heat and quickly stir in the 1/2 tsp of vinegar.* Then leave alone for ten minutes.
- You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
- Pour the mixture through a colander, preferably a fine-meshed one – with a bowl underneath if you want to save your whey. The curds should collect in the colander right away. Scoop them out into a container and refrigerate. Congratulations! You have made ricotta! It keeps in the fridge for up to a week.
- You can save your whey – it is really great for making hearty breads and baked goods when you use it instead of water.
*Traditionally many cooks allow their whey to sit for a few hours to allow it to acidify, which negates the need for additional vinegar. However, this can be a rather smelly process that is not conducive to relaxing cheese-making.