Pashtidat Kishuim/Zucchini Casserole

So, it is time to post one of my favorite childhood recipes: a zucchini casserole called pashtidat kishuim. It is an odd favorite dish for a child: a soft, eggy, slightly bitter, zucchini-based pudding. But to me, this is childhood: it was a frequent feature on the dinner table. I am not given to nostalgia, but I will say that 14-year-old me and 28-year old me are equally enthusiastic about this dish. I am excited to share it with you!

Slice of Pashtidat kishuim
I forgot to take a photo of mine, but this is what it looks like – toasty zucchini goodness. (Photo Aloha Zohar)

I discussed the history of pashtidot in one of the earliest posts on this site, a recipe for pashtidat tiras (corn casserole). To review: the dish is rooted in some sort of baked dish from medieval times, mentioned by Rashi and other scholars. In modern Israel, that morphed into a casserole made from various readily available, often processed, and nationally encouraged ingredients. In the 1950s, classes and media encouraged pashtidot as a food, and soon, the casseroles became a staple of dinner tables. They remain as such today – one of Israel’s best-selling cookbooks is simply titled Pashtidot.

Pashtidot are different from kugels but are often similar. Some Israelis use pashtida to refer to kugels, and many Americans use “kugel” to refer to pashtida. I draw the difference by two means. One is that the history is different – kugels were originally and sometimes still are cooked in a Sabbath stew, while pashtidot are generally baked separately. The other is that kugels tend to have a mainly starch base, while pashtidot tend to be egg-based for their structure. As a result, pashtidot tend to be a lot softer than kugels – even those made from mashed potato tend to be firmer. But who knows – the boundary is in the eye of the beholder. Authenticity is still bullshit, anyway.

A typical Israeli pashtidat kishuim is a little less firm than my rendition. This is because I add potato for solidity and for heartiness. This addition brings my pashtida closer to a kugel then other pashtidot, because of the carbohydrate. Again, the boundary is fuzzy – and even, then, such a heavy kugel would be classified differently, as a teygekhts, in some dialects of Yiddish. But I digress. The potato cuts the bitterness of the zucchini nicely, adds some weight and solidity, and also makes the whole thing even more delicious. You can decide whether or not it is a main course (serves 6) or a side (serves 12).

Pashtidat Kishuim

Serves 6-12

4 medium-large fresh zucchini

2 medium baking potatoes

1 medium onion, finely diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

6 large eggs, beaten

1/3 cup neutral-flavored oil

1 heaping tablespoon avkat marak (soup powder) or 2 tbsp table salt, additional 1 tsp ground black pepper, ½ tsp dried oregano

1 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp dried oregano

1 ¼ cups white flour

Additional salt, to taste

Oil, to grease the pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Grease a 13”x9”/33cmx25cm deep baking pan.
  2. Grate the zucchini, then squeeze out all the water by hand. If you have a food processor, I strongly suggest you use it.
  3. Grate the potatoes, but do not squeeze them. Mix with the zucchini.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the onion, garlic, eggs, oil, avkat marak, black pepper, and dried oregano.
  5. Add the grated vegetables and mix until the egg mixture is distributed throughout.
  6. Add the flour and mix in until thoroughly combined. Pour the mixture into the pan and distribute so that it is level.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top is beginning to become golden on the ridges and a knife comes out moist, but without zucchini or flour sticking to it. If you like a crispy top, bake for another fifteen minutes. Serve warm or hot.

A note: during Passover, you can swap the flour for an equivalent amount of matzah meal.

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Potato Frittata for Passover

Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies in a cast-iron pan with a missing section cut out
Potato frittata with cilantro and chilies – the missing bit was eaten by yours truly. (Photo mine, March 2018)

And now for the second in our series of potato dishes for Passover – a dish most people associate with Spain, the potato omelet. In Spain, this dish is made with chunks of potato and known as a tortilla española. It is a common favorite at tapas bars around the world. However, a similar dish exists across Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities. It is called frittata de patate by Italian Jews, kuku sib zamini by Persian Jews. It is also named makroud fil-batates in North African Arabic or a variety of things in Ladino.

A slice of frittata on a blue plate
Enjoying a slice of frittata. (Photo mine, March 2018)

Some may ask if this dish originated in Spain. I would say no – the expulsion of the Jews in Spain happened before the introduction of the potato to Europe. Recipes for large omelets served like cakes,  however, were spread widely in the Mediterranean by travelers, traders, and soldiers during the Umayyad caliphate. In addition, the use of eggs to “wrap up” vegetables was found in Italy since at least the time of the Romans, when eggs tended to be used by the wealthy. So when the potato came along, it was incorporated into omelets just like eggplants, spinach, and onions.

One of the great things about many of the Jewish versions of the frittata is that it is made with mashed potato instead of potato chunks, which does wondrous things for the texture. Instead of admittedly delicious chunks of potato, you get a creamy, almost mousse-like texture. I based my recipe off of Claudia Roden’s, but with a few adjustments. I swapped the parsley with cilantro, and added a touch of another New World introduction – chili peppers – to give it a bit of a spicy kick. This dish makes for a great sharing food, or as breakfast for Pesach and the whole year. However, I skipped the onions in the North African version and made a riff off of the deceptively simple Italian version. I have been eating it for breakfast, piece by piece. Enjoy!

Potato Frittata for Passover

Based on several recipes by Claudia Roden

2lbs/1kg potatoes, peeled

5 cloves white garlic, minced

2 fresh hot chili peppers, finely diced

4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil

1 fistful fresh cilantro, chopped

8 eggs, beaten

Salt and black pepper to taste (I used about 2 teaspoons of salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper)

  1. Boil the potatoes in water until soft. Then, drain the potatoes and rinse them under cold water to cool them. Mash the potatoes and set aside to cool further.
  2. In the meantime, heat a deep non-stick or cast-iron skillet and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Then, add the garlic and chili and sauté for 1-2 minutes, or until the garlic is browned. Pour out the oil, garlic, and chili, and mix them into the mashed potatoes.
  3. Mix the cilantro, eggs, salt, and pepper into the mashed potatoes until you get a thick batter.
  4. Heat the skillet again, and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Then, pour the egg-potato mixture into the skillet. Cook for 15-20 minutes on a medium-to-high flame, or until the omelet is set and browned on the bottom. If you want it brown on top, you can bake the frittata afterwards for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can bake the frittata in the skillet or a pan for 35-45 minutes in an oven preheated to 425F/220C.
  5. Remove from heat. Serve the frittata in slices, hot, warm, or cold.

Pashtidat Qishuim (Zucchini Pashtida)

I posted an updated recipe in October 2019 for this dish.

A shorter post this time, which features one of my favorite recipes. I wrote about pashtidot – eggy casseroles – two years ago when I made a corn version, pashtidat tiras, for the blogs. These casseroles have a long history in Jewish cooking, from medieval meat pies through 1950s Israeli cuisine. One of the most popular versions today is pashtidat qishuim – zucchini casserole; this particular dish is found throughout Israel. I grew up with this pashtida, and it is a childhood favorite.

My pashtidat qishuim is a little unorthodox – I add a small turnip to the mix, which gives the pashtida a nice body and a slightly meatier note in the flavor. Others add cauliflower or a grated potato, reminiscent of a kugel. Like many people, I add some cheese to the pashtida as well – but you can always replace the cheese with more zucchini and another egg if you are making a pareve version for a meat meal. Enjoy!

 

Zucchini Pashtida (Pashtidat Qishuim)

Based on the recipes by Kobi Bar (Hebrew) and Natalie Aviv (video in Hebrew)

4 medium zucchini, grated

1 small white onion, diced finely

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small turnip, grated

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried parsley flakes

1 cup cottage cheese or farmer’s cheese (I far prefer cottage cheese)

1 teaspoon table salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 eggs, beaten

⅓ cup/80 mL vegetable oil

⅔ cup/85g white flour

  1. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C. Grease a baking dish with vegetable oil – you can use different dishes, depending on the desired thickness. I use a 7”x10” (18cm x 25cm) deep casserole pan, but generally any medium-sized baking pan should do.
  2. Squeeze any remaining water out of the zucchini with your hands. Then, place the zucchini in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add the onion, garlic, turnip, parsley, cheese, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine.
  4. Add the eggs and oil. Mix to combine.
  5. Add the flour. Mix to combine. You should have a thick batter mixed in with the zucchini, onion, and turnip.
  6. Pour your mixture into the greased pan.
  7. Bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on the depth of the pan. The pashtida should be brown on top and set when it is done. If you stick in a knife or a chopstick, only a residual zucchini piece should come out, otherwise it should be clean.
  8. Remove from oven. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Coconut Macaroons (Pesach is Coming)

Pesach (Passover), like winter, is coming. So it is time to prepare: we clean our homes to the cracks in the floorboards, stock up on enough wine for our sedarim, and prepare our digestive systems for an onslaught of tough matzah.

A macaroon sitting under the title on the cover of a haggadah for Passover
It’s time – haggadot and macaroons. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Despite these struggles, Pesach is a delicious holiday. And for many Jews, no food is so associated with the holiday as much as the macaroon – the delicious, nowadays usually almond- or coconut-based, mysteriously flour-free cookie. Some people, including myself, are fans of macaroons, especially when they are freshly baked. A few Jews have been known to eat ten in one sitting – a category that, of course, does not include the author. Others will gladly eat fluffy French macarons but avoid the heavier Jewish macaroons. And many, having only had the underrated-but-still-somewhat-dry packaged macaroons, consider the cookie a bit dull or not tasty at all. Though one can find them all year round on many tables, macaroons are now only encountered by most Jews around Pesach in their packaged form. As a result, many think this treat with a long history is a modern invention.

Fresh macaroons on parchment paper
Macaroons, freshly baked, cooling. (Photo mine, March 2017)

 

Some historians argue that macaroons can be traced to monasteries and palaces in medieval Italy, where it was introduced to Italian Jews. However, given that cooks in the Arab world were already using whipped eggs and sugar to make treats, and that medieval (and modern!) Italian cooking is heavily indebted to influence from the Islamic world, it is more likely that Italian Jews first encountered macaroons in an Arab context. In any case, macaroons became a popular Pesach delicacy among wealthier Jews – since they already contain no chametz, or leavened food. The macaroon then spread through trade networks to the rest of Europe. The name in English itself comes from the Italian maccarone, or paste, which refers to the almond paste that was originally used to make the macaroon. The French macaron, of recent chic status in world financial capitals, is also based on this word and a cookie that first reached France through the same trade networks (link in French). Though now the cookie is seen as especially Jewish, macaroons were the typical small pastry found at wealthy tables throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Turkish almond macaroons
Turkish almond macaroons. (Photo MCozturk via Wikimedia Commons/CC)

Sephardim, and then Ashkenazim, adopted the macaroon from Italian Jews and Spanish Jews fleeing the inquisition, who had made the similar amarguillos from bitter almonds (link in Spanish). Macaroons appeared in the earliest Jewish cookbooks in the United States, and have remained popular since. Today, coconut macaroons predominate – especially given both the ready availability of coconut and the industrialization of coconut grating since the 19th century. One can, of course, still find delicious almond macaroons. The coconut version, however, connects Jewish macaroons to another family of macaroons spread through colonial empires. Coconut macaroons based on the European-Arab original are now popular in the Dominican Republic, Southern India, the Philippines, and Mauritius. (This Mauritian recipe by Shelina Permaloo is particularly lovely.)

These coconut macaroons are simple, tasty, and a good dessert for any time of the year. (And they are gluten free!) I have the recipe here with raisins, but you can also make them with chocolate chips.

A macaroon on a plate with flowers painted on the plate
A macaroon, waiting to be eaten by me. (Photo mine, March 2017)

Coconut Macaroons with Raisins

Makes 20-24 macaroons

2 eggs

½ cup white sugar

½ cup vegetable oil or 4 tbsp melted butter

3 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

½ tsp vanilla extract

1/8 tsp salt

½ cup raisins, soaked for ten minutes in hot water

  1. Preheat your oven to 325F/160C. Line a flat sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the eggs, sugar, and oil/butter together until well combined.
  3. Add the coconut, vanilla, salt, and raisins. Mix again until the egg mixture, coconut, and raisins are thoroughly mixed together.
  4. Drop tablespoons of the mixture onto the baking sheet, leaving about 1 ½ inches/3 centimeters between the macaroons.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly brown on top and browned on the bottom. Let the cookies cool before removing them from the parchment paper.

Thank you to those of you who had these for participating in User Acceptance Testing. Thank you to Christine Schupbach from Writing the Kitchen for helping with research for this piece.

Fun With Chestnuts: Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples

On a lighter note than prior posts, it is chestnut season here in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. This fact is amazing in my book, because I would actually marry a chestnut tree. I love chestnuts and their sweet starchiness, which complements everything from chicken to chocolate.

Chestnuts on a green cutting board
Chestnuts being chopped. Delicious! (Photo mine, December 2016)

As it happens, so too did medieval Jews enjoy chestnuts – preparations with chestnuts and onions were commonplace in the cuisine of Alsatian and German Jews, and still are in some forms. Meanwhile, Jews in the Balkans and Caucasus often adopted the chestnut-based sweet and savory dishes of their neighbors, like the utterly delectable churchkhela, a Georgian sweet made with grape must and chestnuts, to tempting pastries in chestnut-loving Croatia. Even today, many Jewish cuisines incorporate chestnuts – including in a delicious chestnut and meat stew, hamim de kastanya (or etli kestane) among Sephardic communities in Turkey.

In honor of the glorious chestnut I decided to make a kugel, using the Alsatian combination of chestnuts, onions, and apples – and somewhat inspired by Joan Nathan’s recipe, linked above, for a dish with prunes instead of apples. I used farfel, a traditional egg noodle from Eastern Europe, for the dish. Farfel was traditionally made from egg dough by Ashkenazi Jews, and was either grated or chopped depending on the region. In English the noodle also became known as “egg barley” for its size and its eggy base. Today, farfel is somewhat rarer than in times past, but is still commonplace in many Orthodox communities. It is also delicious – and rather easy to make at home; albeit time-consuming. Though traditionally served with mushrooms, farfel also goes well with meat, soups, and sweeter sauces. During Passover, matzah farfel – or crumbled matzah – serves as a nearly perfect substitute.

Kugel in a bowl
A heaping, filling helping of kugel for dinner. Better than it looks! (Photo mine, December 2016)

Farfel Kugel with Chestnuts, Onions, and Apples

Serves 6-8

8 oz/225g farfel (or another small noodle)

1tbsp+2tbsp butter

7oz/200g roasted chestnuts, diced – you can use prepackaged ones

2 medium apples, diced

1 large onion, diced

2 tbsp + 1 tsp salt

2 tsp+ ½ tsp black pepper

2 tsp brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp paprika

½ tsp nutmeg

2 tbsp cider vinegar

2 tbsp water

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup sour cream

  1. Sauté the farfel in the 1 tbsp butter for three minutes, then cook for 20 minutes in 4 ½ cups boiling water, or until the farfel are soft and have absorbed all the water.
  2. Meanwhile, saute the chestnuts, apples, and onion in the other 2 tbsp butter for 3 minutes, or until the onions begin to soften.
  3. Mix in the 2 tbsp salt, 2 tsp black pepper, brown sugar, cinnamon, paprika, and nutmeg with the onion-apple-chestnut mixture, and cook, stirring, for another minute.
  4. Add the water and vinegar to the onion-apple-chestnut mixture, and cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the apples are softer and the onions and chestnuts very soft.
  5. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  6. Mix the onion-apple-chestnut mixture with the farfel until evenly distributed. Place into an oven-proof dish, greased if necessary with butter.
  7. In a separate bowl, mix the sour cream, eggs, salt, and black pepper until thoroughly combined. Then, mix into the farfel in the dish until evenly distributed. Make sure the mixture is level.
  8. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the mixture is set and the top is browned. Serve as a side or as a hearty main course.

Bonus: if you want to roast your own chestnuts, I recommend the guide from BBC Good Food.

Challah

Three baked challahs
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin
Challah with black sesame seeds, between my etrog and a pumpkin. A fall combination. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

It has been almost a year since I started this Jewish food blog, and I am only now making challah. This, I admit, is to the chagrin of many readers: since starting this blog I have been asked, harangued, flirted with, email, telephoned, texted, and Snapchatted (!) for my challah recipe. I deflected for a while: “I don’t often make challah,” I told myself. Then again, nor do I make quince jam that often. Besides, making challah is really fun.

Challah occupies a vaunted place in the American Jewish imagination. It is challah that is the marker of Shabbat, challah that is the marker of holidays, challah that non-Jews ask Jews about, challah that goes in French toast, challah that every Ashkenazi cookbook seems to include. As a bread, it’s pretty delicious, and it’s not the worst symbol of Judaism out there. That said, challah is also a very interesting example of how class and luxury intersect with Jewish practice to create a tradition that evolved quite a bit over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Challah evolved from the tradition of serving special bread on Friday night to commemorate the showbread used in Temple ceremonies in ancient times. The name itself commemorates the Biblical commandment to “separate the challah” as a tithe to the Kohanim, or priestly class. (Today, those that still follow this commandment burn the challah instead.) At some point in the Middle Ages, challah came to refer to braided, wheat-based breads with egg in the Ashkenazi world. These breads have also been called kitke, berkhes, and koylatch at various points. It should be noted here that non-Ashkenazi communities have their own “challahs” and other Shabbat breads. (Note: the Hebrew plural is challot, sometimes Yiddishized as khales, but “challahs” has entered colloquial American usage. I use the latter here.)

Ultimately, challah is not unique. Other Central and Eastern European cuisines have similar braided, egg-based breads, such as the Hungarian kalács and the Lithuanian velykos pyragas. The recipes that we know today probably came from interactions with our neighbors and was certainly not a Jewish invention alone. Challah was historically a bread of luxury: in a region where rye was the predominant grain and wheat was pricy, one did not simply eat challah every day. Moreover, the eggs – another commodity that was not cheap before the 20th century – made challah that much more of a treat. Thus the bread became part of the special nature of Shabbat: a culinary way to set the day aside from the rye-filled workdays of the week. Having challah or any wheat bread more frequently was a sign of prosperity, having “black bread” on the table on Friday night was a sign of poverty.

Challah started out as a celebratory ritual, but has become a culinary force of its own in the United States. In a country and era with plentiful wheat flour and eggs, challah has gone from being a marker of celebrations and good fortune to being a frequent treat. One can buy challah every day in New York – fulfilling the claims of early immigrants, as documented by Michael Wex, that the United States was a country “where one could eat challah every day.” You can find challah French toast, challah bread pudding, challah grilled cheese, and I have even seen deep-fried challah. Those in the 19th century who celebrated having a challah every week would probably be stunned by this abundance. Even then, for most Ashkenazi Jews in the United States, challah is firmly a “Shabbat food.”

Unbaked challah on a tray
Challahs, braided, waiting to be egg-washed and baked. (Photo mine, October 2016.)

The tradition of making challah at home, by hand, has continued strong in this environment of industrialized plenty. Some use family recipes passed down through generations. Others add new ingredients first encountered in the United States – like chocolate chips. Some braid new patterns, others use food coloring to make “rainbow challahs” for gay pride. Making challah, like all Jewish cooking, is still a gendered practice: historically, like other culinary pursuits, it was considered a “women’s practice.” Many still consider it as such.

Many “schools” of challah exist. Some challahs are braided with three strands, others with the far more intricate six strands, and for Rosh HaShanah, braided round challahs are served. Some challahs are large and fluffy – aided by a second rising of the dough. Other challahs are dense and tightly packed – but still sweet and soft. Many people fill their challah with raisins, cinnamon, or even – as one colleague did – fig paste. Density varied historically, but sweetness – like that of gefilte fish – was a Polish trait, encouraged by the 19th-century proliferation of the sugar beet industry there. In all forms, though, challah is delicious.

This recipe is for a denser, smaller challah. The salted egg-wash gives it a pretzel-like twang; indeed, “pretzel challah” is increasingly popular. As for the density, I like challah to be cute and soft, but also able to absorb a good amount of soup, stew, or sauce. After all, I too cannot resist a piece of challah dipped into lentil soup.

Three baked challahs
Baked challahs. Bottom to top: one with black sesame, one with poppy-seed, and one with both black sesame and poppy-seed. (Photo mine, October 2016)

Challah

Based on recipes by Jay Stanton, Dana Katz, Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern in The Gefilte Manifesto, and Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food.

Makes three small-medium loaves

1 packet active dry yeast

1.5 cups (350mL) lukewarm water

1/3 cup (80mL) honey

1 tsp table salt

1/3 cup (80mL) canola oil

3 eggs, beaten

5 1/2-7 cups (23-30oz/660-840g) white bread flour, plus more for kneading

 

Egg wash:

1 egg, beaten

1/5 cup (50mL) cold water

1/2 tsp table salt

 

Sesame seeds or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)

 

  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix the yeast and 1/4 cup of the water. Leave alone for ten minutes. Your yeast should “proof” and start to bubble in the water. (If it does not, you need new yeast.)
  2. Add the honey, salt, oil, eggs, and the rest of the water. Mix well until thoroughly blended. You can use a whisk or wooden spoon for this step.
  3. Now, add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix it in first with the spoon, and then with your hands. Flour your palms to prevent the dough from sticking. You should have a thick, but not too sticky dough, by the end.
  4. Now you should knead the dough on a well-floured surface with your hands, also floured. Knead for ten minutes, or until you have a smooth and elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe (yes, I am serious, as are others). If your dough gets sticky, add a tablespoon of flour to your hands and the dough. If you have never kneaded bread dough before, I recommend this video.
  5. Place the dough ball into a clean bowl, and cover with a towel or cheesecloth. Leave alone at room temperature to rise for one hour or until doubles in size.
  6. Punch the dough down, then knead for a few minutes on a well-floured surface with well floured hands. You should once again have a smooth, elastic dough with the texture of an earlobe. Split the dough into nine equally-sized balls. If you want longer loaves, split into six equally sized balls – this will make two long loves.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Prepare a large tray – cover the bottom in either tin foil or, preferably, parchment paper.
  8. Now it is time to braid the challah. Roll three of the balls into ropes about 8-9 inches (20-23cm) long (or longer for bigger loaves) and lay out side by side on your baking tray. Lay the right rope over the middle rope close to the top, so that the right strand becomes the new middle strand. Then, lay the left strand over the new middle strand so that the left strand becomes the new middle strand. Repeat, alternating, until you can’t loop the ropes anymore without extending them. Then, pinch the ends together. (Here is a nice video from Once a Month Meals.)
  9. Repeat for the other two loves as you did for the first one. Give a few inches/centimeters space between the loaves, since they will expand while baking.
  10. Mix your ingredients for the egg wash.
  11. Brush the egg wash on your loaves so that the surface is “glistening” but not dripping. You can do this with a pastry brush, cheesecloth, or a paper towel. At this point, you may choose to sprinkle sesame or poppy seeds on top.
  12. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the intersection between the ropes is no longer doughy, and the challah sounds hollow if hit on the bottom with a spoon or the backside of a fork.

Thank you to the 17 of you who participated in User Acceptance Testing for this challah.

Shavuot II: Cheesecake!

Cheesecake on a plate
Me with cheesecake
I’m really excited about this cheesecake. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Mention Shavuot to a Jew in the United States or Canada, and their first response is often “cheesecake.” The holiday associated with dairy foods has now become, for many, only associated with a creamy concoction of cheese, eggs, and sugar, soft and yet mysteriously solid. In fact, I’m pretty sure that for many American Jews the cheesecake on Shavuot matters more than the important event the holiday actually celebrates: revelation. This connection may seem modern, but – as I noted in my last post, when I made cheese and talked about dairy on Shavuot – dairy and this holiday have a long history together, and cheesecake and Jewry also have a long and delicious relationship.

Cheesecake has a long Jewish history spanning the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds – in fact, the longest of any recipe yet profiled on the blog. In Ancient Greece, combinations of flour, fresh cheese, and honey were baked and dried; this recipe was likely known in the Holy Land. (The Priestly Source may himself have eaten this.) Similar desserts were eaten across the Roman Empire, probably including by those Hellenized Jews who sought to assimilate into access to imperial power. Later on, Jews settled in many cheese-eating parts of the world: and so you ended up with Italian Jews making ricotta-based cheesecakes (more on that later), and Ashkenazi Jews – as Claudia Roden notes in her book – absorbing and reimagining the cheesecakes of their non-Jewish neighbors. English Jews before the expulsion of 1290 probably made a cake like the sambocade found in medieval cookbooks; medieval Spanish Jewry probably ate cheesecakes not unlike the quesada pasiega (video in Spanish) still common in Spain today. By the 19th century, cheesecakes were popular Shavuot and festival dishes in many places of the Jewish world.

Three cheesecakes
Cheesecakes, ready to go. (Photo Gabi Kirk, June 2016)

Cheesecake is now considered in many places a “Jewish” food. In Rome, the traditional ricotta-based cassola  and crostata di ricotta (video in Italian) are both recipes that originate in the Jewish quarter of that city. The recipe is based on the Shavuot and Sabbath delicacies of the Sicilian Jews that arrived in Rome after being expelled from their home island in the fifteenth century. Today, the Jewish cheesecake has become a Roman Christmas tradition, one that has even attracted the attention of the New York Times. Across the ocean, in New York City, Toronto, and Montréal, the cream cheese-based cheesecake of North American Jewry is considered a “Jewish” food of the first order – and in the rest of the United States, “real” cheesecake is often “New York, and Jewish.” Indeed, as Joan Nathan notes in Jewish Food in America, cheesecake was first popularized in the United States by Jewish delis in New York.  (In college, the first question one non-Jewish friend asked of me, when he learned I was Jewish, was for a cheesecake recipe.)

Cheesecake on a plate
Eating cheesecake – a bit of the almond base fell off to the side! (Photo mine, June 2016)

For this recipe, I made a simple ricotta cheesecake with an almond base, using the homemade cheese I made for the last post. Of course, you can also use store-bought ricotta and/or quark cheese. One of the great things about ricotta cheesecakes or quark cheesecakes is that you don’t need to have a water bath for them, as you do for the far more delicate cream cheese-based cakes common here in the United States. This means that the recipe is both far quicker to make, and far easier – especially for beginning cooks. The recipe here resembles in some ways the ricotta cheesecakes from Italy I mentioned earlier, and in some ways the quark-based Käsekuchen or sernik common in Germany and Poland. Perhaps it also resembles the cheesecakes of pre-war, pre-Holocaust Lithuania – Fania Lewando’s recipe also uses farmer’s cheese (tsvorekh). The innovation I made is using an almond base. Not only does this provide a wonderful nutty counterpart to the light, sweet cheese – with which the almonds meld wonderfully – but also makes the cake gluten-free. Feel free to make a dough or biscuit crust, like that in the Baked Apple Pudding, but the almonds really do work.

Ricotta and Quark Cheesecake with an Almond Base

Almond base:

1/3 cup whole, raw almonds, soaked in water

1 tbsp butter

2 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Cheesecake:

1 1/2-2 cups fresh ricotta

1-1 1/2 cups fresh quark cheese (you can also use ricotta only, it should add up to three cups of cheese)

5 eggs

1 cup white sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon

 

Butter for greasing the pan.

 

  1. In a food processor, blend the almonds, butter, sugar, and cinnamon until you have a thick paste. You do not need to peel them.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F. Grease the bottom of a 9″ round pan. You can use a springform pan for easier cutting or a normal deep round cake or casserole pan for easy transport.
  3. Press the almond base into the bottom of your pan. Your almond base should be pretty soft and a bit of a paste, so this shouldn’t be too difficult. The almond mix should be evenly distributed.

(Author note: for a thicker base, use 1/2 cup of almonds and a tad more butter and sugar.)
If you are using a dough base, cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of dough of about ½ an inch thickness.

  1. Mix together all of the cheesecake ingredients until you have a batter of medium thickness.
  2. Pour the cheesecake batter into the pan over the almond base. Make sure the batter is level on top.
  3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set (meaning it no longer jiggles when moved) and the top is browned. Let cool before serving.

The author would like to thank Sara and Lisa Wolovick for assisting in the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe, and Gabi Kirk for User Acceptance Testing, photography, and helping me make this year’s Shavuot cheesecakes.