The Land of Milk, Honey and … Cheesecake

BY Lee Saunders   DATE 17/05/2018

1 Comment

In the 1980s US sitcom The Golden Girls, there was no problem that could not be solved by cheesecake.

This weekend in Israel sees the arrival of the festival of Shavuot, when enough cheesecake will be consumed to put the world to right. Tenfold.

You could easily be forgiven for not knowing too much about the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), It does not attract as much attention as the solemn empty streets of Yom Kippur or the huts of Sukkot, but Shavuot is actually one of Judaism’s most important holidays, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, celebrating the event that turned the Hebrews into the Jewish people: the giving of the Torah around 3,300 years ago.

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Seasonal wheat harvest

Celebrated seven weeks after Passover, Shavuot coincided with the end of the wheat harvest in the land of Israel and commemorates the custom of bringing offerings to the Holy Temple from the first fruits of the harvest. Like many other festivals, it revolves around food, and particularly dairy. In Israel, described in the bible as “the land of milk and honey,” you may not have considered that it might be perfectly valid to celebrate a holiday by staying up all night and eating cheese, but at Shavuot, sleep deprivation and cheesecake are the way to go.

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Mascarpone and Raspberry Cheesecake at Dan Gourmet

Observant Jews will honor Shavuot with the tradition of staying up all night and learning, which derives from when the Children of Israel stayed awake the whole night in anticipation of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
But why dairy? The spring harvest comes at a time when animals grazing on lush green pastures from winter rains produce an abundance of milk. As such, it has become tradition to enjoy blintzes (thin-rolled pancakes), bourekas (thin flaky pastries) kreplach stuffed with cheese and various salads that have added cheese, as well as the legendary cheesecake, which, was once made with milk and honey, in Greece, and fed to Olympian athletes.

At most synagogues across the country, and in particular the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (Frishman Street 23), near the Dan Tel Aviv, you will find festive evening meals with mouthwatering cheesecake, followed by learning in Hebrew, English and some places French. Join a dawn sing-a-long on the beach, as the waves lap gently on the shore.
The following day, head down to Nahalat Binyamin 32 to celebrate the harvest festival with a folk dancing marathon. Don’t forget to try the variety of phenomenal cheesecakes on offer at many of Tel Aviv’s blissful bakeries. Piece of Cake (Levontin 30) dishes up the Alfajores cheesecake combines cream cheese and dulce de leche with white chocolate mousse, coated with caramel cookies.
If you have room, visit Lehamim Bakery (Hashmonaim 103) and try the Tropical Cheesecake, a crispy crumble with vanilla Chantilly cream and tropical fruits.

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Specialty Cheesecake at Peice-of-cake Bakery. Credit: Dror Einav

There can arguably be no place more symbolic for the giving of the Torah than the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Head down before sunrise to experience dawn breaking at this holy site, a spiritual moment to rival few others. Once your senses have been awakened, Beit Avi Chai (King George Street 44) offers a culinary workshop, a special talk on the significance of the holiday foods and the vitality of agriculture in Israel.
Then go eat! Head down to the iconic Mahane Yehuda market where the smell of freshly baked goods lingers permanently in the air. Sample many of the cheesy bourekas or blintzes on offer here, or the cheesecake in a jar at Beit Yaakov 10 inside the market, or head down to Cafe Kadosh, a veteran Jerusalem institution, to enjoy their unbeatable pastries and desserts, all a healthy walk down from another Jerusalem institution, the King David Hotel.

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Agricultural procession through the streets of Zichron Yaakov

At Shavuot, this is a terrific opportunity to also step out the city and visit many of the country’s Kibbutz collective farms and Moshav family cooperatives, which are open to tourists and locals as they demonstrate how the dairy industry is indeed one of Israel’s strongest agricultural pillars. Sample many of the country’s renowned artisanal cheeses, seize the chance to learn about milking cows, plowing, sowing and harvesting the fields and enjoy rides on tractors and horses.

To stay somewhat healthy during a festival full of sweet dairy delights, we have a special recipe including cheese from our Dan Gourmet cooking school:

Beet and blue cheese salad, with apples and walnuts – Sasi Shaulzon
For 4 people

Ingredients:
3 Peeled and cooked Beets
200 gr Blue cheese
200 gr Walnuts
1 Green apple (not too sweet)
Salt
Pepper
Olive oil
Preparation:
Cut Beets into wedges
Thinly slice the apple
Peel and crush the walnuts (big pieces)
Break up the cheese (with your fingers) into small pieces
Place all the ingredients gently on a plate in this order: Beet, Apple, Nuts, Cheese
Dress with a little salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil
Serve at room temperature

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Beet and blue cheese salad, with apples and walnuts from Dan Gourmet

Shavuot takes place from the evening of Saturday 19 May and finishes in the evening of Sunday 20 May.

Written by  Lee Saunders