Shavuot I: Make Your Own Cheese

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:

Ingredients

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

Equipment

A big soup pot

Two colanders – one should be quite big

A giant bowl

Cheesecloth

Big wooden spoons

  1. 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.
  2. Pour all the milk and all the cream into the pot. Add the salt and stir in.
  3. Bring the milk mixture to a low boil. When the milk begins to froth, start stirring rapidly to prevent it boiling over.
  4. When the milk is boiling, add the juice of the two large lemons, and stir rapidly in. Simmer for one minute.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. You should have a lot of green mixture (whey) and then more white curds clumped around!
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

Lokshen Kugel

I’ve written before about kugels on this very blog: these lovely Ashkenazi casseroles that can conjure a whole world of warmth and homeliness for those who grew up with them. The past kugels I have written about are for one sphere of kugel: the dense potato or vegetable kind. The other kind of kugel is what I’m writing about today: the lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding. This kugel has a long history: German Jewish cooks started making kugels in the Sabbath cholent with egg-based noodles during the medieval era, when noodles were introduced to Europe from China and the Arab world. (Fun fact: noodles were already present in Middle Eastern Jewish cooking from antiquity.) Hence the Yiddish word for noodle, lokshen, comes from the Persian lagman, which itself comes from the Chinese lamian – itself the origin of the Japanese word ramen.

By the modern period, the lokshen kugel had morphed into a separate baked dish, savory or sweet. In the United States and South Africa, the latter variety is more common, often served with raisins and baked with an improbable amount of dairy. Among more “assimilated” Ashkenazi Jews in these and other countries, the lokshen kugel is one of the foods that stood the test of cultural change: many of my friends otherwise uninterested in the foods of their ancestors get quite excited when offered a slice of freshly baked kugel. My friends who are not Ashkenazi Jews – be they Sephardi, Mizrahi, or not Jewish – are often somewhat perplexed by the idea of a sweet noodle casserole. “You’ve made a pasta cake!” a Malaysian friend once told me. That said, the popularity of baked savory noodle dishes in the Sephardi and Mediterranean worlds means that the concept, for many, is not that unusual.

This recipe is for a somewhat more traditional variant of the lokshen kugel, with apples and raisins. Other “traditional” recipes may be for a savory “salt and pepper” kugel, or a sweet one with apricots. You can also go down the “non-traditional” route: my friend Maxine makes a delicious kugel with pineapples, and I myself have experimented with the Nutella-esque chocolate and hazelnut combinations. Whatever you do, it will be delicious.

Lokshen kugel with apples and raisins.
Lokshen kugel with apples and raisins. Photo mine, May 2016.

Lokshen Kugel With Apples and Raisins

Makes 2 8-inch/20-centimeter round kugels or one 9×13 rectangular kugel

 

½ lb short, thin noodles – ideally egg noodles, but any flattish pasta should do

1 ½ cups sour cream

¼ cup melted butter + butter for greasing pan

1 cup white sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp honey

4 eggs

½ cup raisins, soaked for plumpness

1 large apple, cored and chopped

  1. Cook the noodle according to package or other directions to the maximum suggested time – a softer noodle makes a better kugel. Drain and rinse well under cold water.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.
  3. In the meantime, mix the sour cream, melted butter, sugar, cinnamon, and honey together until well blended. Add one egg at a time and mix in until you have a consistent, creamy mixture. If your mixture is too thin, add some more sour cream; if it is too thick, add another egg.
  4. In a large bowl, mix together the cooked noodles, apples, and raisins. Then, mix in the sour cream mixture until all the ingredients are blended together.
  5. Decant the mixture into greased pans – I would make either two small eight-inch round kugels, or one 9×13 thick, rectangular kugel. Bake the mixture for 40-45 minutes, or until the custard has set and the noodles on top have caramelized.

Variations: Many people would simply omit the apple and double the raisins. You can swap the apple and raisins for ½ cup ground hazelnuts and 1 cup chocolate chips, for a gianduja/Not-Nutella kugel. You can swap the apples for 2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped and soaked.

A thank-you to Diya Mchahwar and Mara Lasky, who were the User Acceptance Testers for the apple-raisin variant.

Tu biShvat, Dates, and the Occupation

A pile of dates
Dates in a market in Spain. They are traditional for Tu BiShvat. Photo Hans Hillewaert/CC.

Greetings from a blizzard-bound New York! Though it is hard to think about green trees when this city is being given up to seventy centimeters of snow, Sunday night and Monday mark Tu biShvat, commonly called the “New Year for Trees.” The holiday originates in halakha (Jewish law): certain trees’ fruits cannot be eaten for the tree’s first three years of life. Those years are counted from Tu biShvat, thus it is the “New Year” for trees: Rosh Hashanah 2.0. As a New Year, it is a time of at least a little celebration. The Sephardic kabbalists of the medieval era developed a seder for the day, in which the seven species and other fruits of the soil are consumed and discussed. The theological component is that the ceremony and the holiday are an opportunity to strengthen the Etz Khayyim – the Tree of Life – the Kabbalistic metaphor for the nature of G-d and His/Her/Hir Creation. In modern times, however, the holiday has become increasingly associated with environmental causes – a sort of Jewish Arbor Day. Many foods are traditional for Tu BiShvat, but the “Seven Species” are the most common. These plants, identified in Deuteronomy 8, are those associated closely with the biblical land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

My favorite is the humble date. Sweet and intense, sticky and nutty: the date is quite the fruit. So I am quite happy that the Tu biShvat tradition includes date consumption – plain, in muffins, in pilafs…eating a date becomes slightly sanctified. But buying a packet of dates is not always a holy act.

See, many of the dates sold in the United States and Europe – and especially those sold in areas with large Jewish populations – are marked as “grown in Israel,” but are actually sourced from illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many of these farms are built on expropriated Palestinian land. Many use child labor. All of them benefit from an occupying régime that abuses the Palestinian population it de facto governs, limits their movements, and violates international law. So for those of us who oppose what is wrought in the West Bank and Gaza in our name as Jews, buying agricultural products from the settlements is  … problematic. Some folks, like myself, try our utmost to not buy them – not necessarily in terms of a boycott, more that…we do not want the current situation to continue. But in an environment when so many products in the Jewish world come from settlements, or you’re not sure where they come from – it’s not as easy as it seems. “Israeli” dates and other warm-weather fruits are particularly likely to come from these areas.

Some of you may be wondering: how can I avoid funneling my money into the Occupation? Let’s start with buying dates for Tu BiShvat (or anytime), since that is a temporally topical problem. Here’s how to find dates without financially supporting the theft of Palestinian land.

  1. The easiest/lazy option is to just simply not buy dates at all.
  2. Another option that is “easy” or “lazy” is to not buy “Israeli” dates at all. You can buy Californian dates, Tunisian dates, and Moroccan dates fairly easily across the United States. Note that these may not be certified as “kosher.”
  3. If you do wish to buy Israeli dates, or no others are available, I find that one trick that works is to check the city of the hashgacha, or kosher seal, on the package. (This requires some Hebrew and geography knowledge.) Kosher seals are usually geographically based, and certain ones tend to be on settlement products more often than others. I do not buy products with any settlement indicator, and generally will also not buy products with hashgachot from Jerusalem, since many of them are sourced in the West Bank. Ashdod and Ashkelon are generally “safe” bets. I use this trick for Israeli products generally.

Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

fried seasoned plantains

As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too.  Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….

One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!

And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.

How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains

  1. Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)