Favorite dishes for Shavuot and Father’s Day
Photo: Dave Carlin
Mediterranean Cheese Torta

By Tina Wasserman

This year Shavuot is very late and is celebrated the week ending with Father’s Day. I thought the culinary traditions for Shavuot could also enhance any entertaining you might have to fete the fathers in your lives.

Dairy foods have been synonymous with Shavuot for millennia, possibly due to the laws of kashrut handed down at Mount Sinai but more likely connected to the abundance of milk prevalent with the birth of calves, lambs and sheep in the spring. However, before Shavuot was associated with the giving of the laws, it was the third harvest holiday in the Jewish calendar and celebrated the wheat harvest and the new growth of figs.

For your enjoyment and entertaining this month, I share with you some of my favorite recipes. Some are simple and pure comfort and some require a little more effort but are delicious and worth the time. All will make your family and guests happy. Enjoy!

Today macaroni and cheese is the staple dish to serve when you need to fix a fast meal. Unfortunately, it is often fast because the blue box comes out of the pantry. How about something even easier that you can bill as “Cheesecake Noodles”? It contains only three ingredients but, in my childhood, this was a dish I relished when my mother made it for me.

This recipe is more vague, in terms of ingredients, than any I have ever shared with you but this is so very typical of old world “shiterein” (thrown-in) cooking. A handful of this, a “bissel” (little) of that. You get my drift. You have a choice of making it more savory or sweeter. If your ancestors came from Eastern Europe then the choice was often due to location. Lithuanians added pepper and salt; Polish and Austrian Jews added sugar. You can add whatever your little heart desires, but if you add jalapeños keep it to yourself; my memories of eating on the pink Formica table of my youth require cinnamon and sugar!

Lokshen  (Noodles) with Cottage Cheese

  • Cooked wide or extra-wide noodles, any amount
  • 1 or more tablespoons of unsalted butter
  • Cottage cheese, farmer cheese or ricotta, any amount
  • Sour cream, optional
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste, optional
  • Cinnamon and sugar, optional

1. Cook wide noodles according to package directions until tender, but not mushy.

2. Drain and immediately toss with butter until well coated. The amount depends on the quantity of noodles you have cooked.

3. Add the cheese to the noodles in the amount you would like. The more cheese, the more bound together the mixture will appear.

4. Season with some salt and add your choice of pepper or cinnamon and sugar. Serve.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Although any shape pasta can be used, flat noodles encircle the cottage cheese well.
  • If your diner is young and often uses their hands and a spoon, switch to macaroni or cavatappi for easier grasping.
  • Farmer cheese is much drier and saltier than cottage cheese and ricotta is sweeter, so it’s your choice and memory if your mother made this dish for you when you were young.
  • Cottage cheese actually contains many probiotic microbes so it’s good for your gut as well!
  • Perhaps you are entertaining and want something to wow Dad and your guests while they wait for the customary grilled dinner. Here is a cheese torta that will impress all of your guests.

Mediterranean Cheese Torta

  • 10 sun-dried tomato halves
  • 3½ ounces jarred roasted red peppers, drained
  • 20 pitted calamata olives
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 ounces Gorgonzola or other blue-veined cheese
  • 8 ounces mascarpone
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Lightly grease one 4-cup mold or 5-6 ramekins. Line the mold(s) with plastic wrap or cheesecloth and set aside.

2. You will need to use your processor three times, rinsing thoroughly in between each use.

3. Combine the first five ingredients in the processor work bowl and process until a smooth paste is formed. Pour the mixture into the 4-cup mold or divide evenly among the ramekins. Rinse the work bowl.

4. Combine the Gorgonzola with the mascarpone and cream cheese in the processor and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Pour mixture evenly over the sun-dried tomato mixture in the mold(s). Rinse out the bowl.

5. Combine the basil with the garlic and oil in the processor work bowl and process until a fairly smooth paste is formed. Add the remaining ingredients and process until well combined and smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Pour this mixture over the other layers and smooth evenly. Cover with plastic wrap until firm.

6. When ready to serve or package for gifts, unmold and carefully remove plastic wrap.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Cheese and cheese mixtures may be frozen as long as they do not have high moisture content. High-moisture cheeses like cream cheese tend to break apart when frozen.
  • However, these tortas freeze well when frozen in their molds, then removed and covered tightly with plastic wrap and then frozen in airtight freezer bags because they are combined with high-fat butter and because they are meant to be spread, not cut into portions.

As much as I love my childhood Italian cheesecake, nothing sends me into rapture than an ultra-smooth, ultra-rich New York style cheesecake. I want it so smooth that you would be tempted to spread it on a bagel if it wasn’t so rich and sweet. Here is my version that I taught so long ago that I found it in my files printed in dot matrix!

New York Style Cheesecake

  • 1 cup flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 24 ounces good-quality, full-fat cream cheese
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • Finely grated zest of ½ orange
  • Finely grated zest of 1 small lemon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
  • ¼ cup heavy cream

1. Place the flour, sugar and lemon zest in a processor work bowl and pulse on and off three times to combine.

2. Cut the butter into 8 pieces and distribute in the work bowl. Pulse the machine for 5 seconds or until the mixture looks like coarse meal.

3. Combine the egg yolk and the extract and add to the work bowl while the processor is running. Mix only until the dough begins to clump together and starts to form a ball. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, or longer if necessary.

4. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

5. Pat the chilled dough over the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake for 10 minutes in preheated 400-degree oven. Cool while you make the filling.

6. Reduce the oven temperature to 275 degrees.

7. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until it is very smooth with no lumps. Scrape down sides of bowl if necessary. Add the sugar slowly and mix well to incorporate.

8. Add the remaining ingredients to the work bowl and mix thoroughly.

9. Pour cheese mixture into the springform pan with the partially baked crust. Lightly tap pan on counter to bring trapped air to surface.

10. Bake cake for 1 hour. Cool thoroughly before refrigerating or covering with a topping. Keep chilled in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Serves 12-15

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • Processors generate a lot of heat so it is best to have your butter cold when making dough.
  • Never let the dough form a ball. At that stage the gluten has been activated and your dough could be tough and hard to roll.
  • When egg or egg yolk is the only liquid except flavoring, make sure that the two ingredients are combined first so that they will be uniformly distributed without overworking the dough.
  • Cream cheese must be smooth before other ingredients are added or the mixture will retain any lumps.

NOTE: For a nice fig topping in keeping with Shavuot:

1. Combine 1 cup of sugar with ½ cup water in a 2-quart saucepan.

2. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. If you happen to have a fig tree in your backyard, wash and add 1 large, unblemished fig leaf to the pan.

3. Cook only until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is clear. Remove from heat.

4. Slice fresh figs in half and add to the hot liquid.

5. Cool completely. Discard leaf, if using, and then pour over cake before serving or serve on the side.

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