Shavuot: Lightly Sliced
A more healthful approach to a dairy-based holiday
On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and our success at keeping it and maintaining it throughout the generations. We do this by staying up all night and learning – and eating cheesecake.
However, many of us have inherited some not-so-welcome gifts over the generations, such as high cholesterol and blood pressure. And this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the vulnerability of those with chronic conditions, Shavuot should be more health-focused.
There are many theories for why it is customary to eat dairy on Shavuot.
The Torah is sometimes linked to milk and honey, a kind of nutritional comfort for the soul. Others say it was given on Shabbat. Being both the Sabbath and the first day that Jews were obliged to follow Jewish law, the Israelites were not permitted to make their cookware kosher or kill an animal for its flesh.
Whatever the reason, the quiches, cheesecakes, blintzes and other milk-based dishes are a delicious mainstay of the holiday.
“Things that have a high fat content give what’s called a ‘mouthfeel,’ a richness and silkiness that comes from butterfat or milk,” Adeena Sussman, author of the cookbook Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen, told The Media Line.
Sussman’s recipe for fluffy Israeli cheesecake with fresh plum compote follows this article.
“Now that I live in Tel Aviv, I make Israeli cheesecake, which is a quark-style-cheese more than a heavy-cream-cheese, American-style, New York-style cheesecake,” she said.
“The Israel-style cheesecake is slightly healthier,” she explained. “It has one cup of sugar as opposed to two. … You still have a cookie crust but it’s lighter and airier and you whip the egg whites and incorporate them back into the batter.”
Unfortunately, few, if any, traditional Shavuot cheesecakes are great for our cholesterol numbers. But there are ways to eat more healthfully during the holiday.
Vered Marom, a registered dietician who runs the website FuNutrition.co.il, which features nutritional games for kids, advocates using reduced-fat versions of dairy products.
“Use a can or half a can of white cheese for the cake. I would definitely decorate with fruit, either fresh or frozen, and have your kids help you – which encourages them to eat fruit,” she told The Media Line.
Marom also advises using canola oil as a substitute for butter in the crust.
“For people who are looking to have a more nutritious diet, you can, instead of sugar, use a healthier substitute like banana, dates or honey,” she said. “You get sweetness, but again, it’s with vitamins and minerals. If you’re looking to reduce calories, use artificial sweetener.”
However, Washington, DC-based Sandra Pinney, a registered dietician specializing in eating disorders, advises eating smaller amounts of unaltered recipes.
“Enjoy recipes as they were handed down, but just look at portion control,” she told The Media Line. “I would rather have fewer bites of something really good than adapt it and ruin the taste. Cheesecake is meant to be rich and creamy and delicious.”
Yafit Ben-Mordechai, a registered dietician and author of the book Yafit’s Secret Recipes, says that at holiday time, our calorie intake usually spikes.
“In festive meals, when we are dining with friends, people tend to consume much more calories, 60% more than they normally would,” she told The Media Line.
She offers other practical advice as well.
“Drink two glasses of water before the meal and don’t starve yourself beforehand. Make one plate and make sure half your plate is leafy greens, and if you’re a guest, bring a salad with less oil,” she said.
“Israel is rich with thyme, rosemary, mint and basil, which adds taste to food without calories,” she noted.
Nurit Pollak, a natural and functional nutritionist in Tel Aviv, advises us to reduce our intake of dairy products regardless of the holiday due to research indicating it might cause inflammation and lead to other health issues.
As the nonprofit research and advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says: “Milk and other dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the American diet, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.”
As such, Pollak advises using nondairy alternatives for what has become the holiday’s signature dish.
“You can use any nuts or seeds to create a cheese consistency,” she told The Media Line. “There are many recipes for… cheesecake made from cashews and macadamias.”
Bon appétit – or as they say in Israel, b’tayavon!
Adeena Sussman’s Fluffy Israeli Cheesecake with Fresh Plum Compote
(Courtesy of Avery/Penguin Books)
Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 6 hours 45 minutes (including minimum baking and cooling/resting time)
Every spring, Israelis raid the dairy case to prepare dishes both savory and sweet for Shavuot, a harvest festival that also commemorates the day the Jewish people were said to have received the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to legend, this is when they began observing dietary restrictions separating meat and milk. More than any Shavuot recipe, cheesecake defines the holiday. The classic Israeli version – which bears similarities to German Käsekuchen – virtually floats in comparison to its dense New York–style cousin. It starts with g’vina levana (“white cheese”), a uniquely Israeli spreadable cheese that’s most similar to German quark (if quark is hard to find, Greek yogurt mixed with sour cream yields similar results). Separating the eggs and folding the fluffy whites back in before baking ensures a levity I’ve come to treasure. If you’re a nocturnal baker, you’re in luck. Leaving this cake in the oven overnight after baking allows the cake to relax into itself without collapsing too quickly, further developing its unique texture. You will open the oven in the morning to discover a deeply browned surface and, if you’re lucky (yes, I said lucky), there may be a gorgeous crack somewhere on the top of the cake.
- One 8.8-ounce package of Biscoff (Lotus) cookies (32 cookies)
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for buttering the pan
- Generous pinch of fine sea salt
- 5 large eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 medium lemon
- 2½ cups g’vina levana (Israeli white cheese), quark, or 1¼ cups each full-fat Greek yogurt and sour cream
- 1 cup full-fat sour cream
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 vanilla bean, scraped, or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
(Makes about 1¾ cups)
- 5 ripe (but not too soft) plums (1 pound), pitted and cut into 6 wedges each
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Pinch of fine sea salt
Serves 10 to 12
Make the crust: Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
In the bowl of a food processor, process the cookies until fine crumbs form, 15 seconds (you should have about 1½ cups crumbs). Add the butter and salt and pulse until the crumbs are moistened, 10 pulses. Lightly butter the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan, then press in the crust, using a flat-bottomed glass to pack in the crumbs. Bake until fragrant, deep golden, and crisp, 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool completely, then butter the sides of the pan.
Make the cheesecake: Raise the oven temperature to 375°F (190°C). Position two racks in the oven, one as low as possible (this will be for the bain-marie, or steam bath, you will create for the cheesecake) and one centered in the oven.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and ¾ cup of the sugar on medium-high speed until fluffy and light, 2 minutes. Zest the lemon straight into the mixer bowl (reserve the zested lemon), then add the g’vina levana (white cheese), the sour cream, cornstarch, and vanilla bean seeds and whip until fluffy, 1 more minute. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.
Wash and dry the stand mixer bowl and whisk, then halve the zested lemon. Squeeze 1 tablespoon lemon juice onto a paper towel and wipe the inside of the mixer bowl and the whisk with the lemon juice to clean it of any oil. Add the egg whites to the mixer bowl fitted with the whisk attachment and whip over medium speed until soft peaks form, 2 minutes. Increase the speed to medium-high, gradually add the remaining ¼ cup sugar, and whip until the egg whites are glossy and form stiff peaks, another 1½ minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter until just combined (basically until you no longer see streaks of whipped egg white). Bring a large kettle of water to a boil for the bain-marie.
Place a 9 x 13-inch glass or metal baking dish on the lower oven rack and fill it with the boiling water. Pour the batter into the buttered springform pan over the crust, gently smoothing it if necessary. Place the cake on the higher rack and bake for 15 minutes. Without opening the oven, reduce the heat to 300°F (150°C) and bake for 55 minutes (it’s best not to open the oven during baking, but if you have a glass door and a light, you can see the cake will be a nice dark golden color on top and almost completely set while a little bit jiggly in the center). Turn off the oven and let the cake rest in the closed oven until the oven cools, at least 1 hour but preferably at least 6 hours. Remove the cake from the oven, cool completely if still warm, cover with plastic wrap, then chill in the fridge until the cake has settled into itself, at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours.
Make the plum compote: In a medium saucepan, cook the plums and sugar over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the plums soften a bit and release their liquid but you can still see the shape of the slices, 10 to 11 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice and salt, and cool completely. Covered, the compote will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week.
To serve, loosen the edges of the cake with a knife, release it from the pan, cut into slices, and serve with the compote.