Shavuot is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The two day long holiday marks the end of the seven week Counting of the Omer– the time period between Passover and the day God delivering the Torah to Moses and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. It took Moses and the Israelites seven weeks of trekking through the desert to reach Mount Sinai. Shavuot literally translates to “weeks” in Hebrew, emphasizing the conclusion of this seven week journey. The timing of the holiday suggests that Shavuot may have been an ancient agricultural festival that took on special significance when the events at Mount Sinai occurred. Because of this, Jews will often “bring the outdoors indoors” by decorating the house and synagogue with flowers and greenery. Many Jews also celebrate the holiday by staying up all night on Erev Shavuot to study and symbolically prepare for receiving the wisdom of the Torah. This event is called Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (the Shavuot night watch).
One of my favorite parts of Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth. The story of Ruth has special significance to me and other Jews-by-choice– it is the story of the first conversion to Judaism. A famine forces Elimelech and his wife Naomi to flee from their Israelite home to the foreign country of Moab. Soon Elimelech dies, and Naomi is widowed in Moab. She continues living there with her two sons, who eventually marry two Moabite girls– Orpah and Ruth. Tragically, both sons also die, leaving Naomi to live with her two widowed daughters-in-law in a strange land. Naomi decides to leave Moab and journey to Bethlehem to live amongst the Israelites again. She encourages both Orpah and Ruth to return to their parents and remarry in Moab. Orpah reluctantly agrees, but Ruth refuses– out of love, she chooses instead to stay with her mother-in-law and embrace Judaism. This could not have been an easy choice, for Ruth had to leave behind everything she knew in order to stay with Naomi. Her kindness and obedience to God are eventually rewarded in Bethlehem, where she marries a wealthy farm owner named Boaz. Together they have a son named Obed, who becomes the grandfather of King David. My Christian readers will know that the Gospels trace the ancestry of Jesus to King David– so from the Christian perspective, Ruth’s choice to stay with Naomi and embrace Judaism also made her a part of this important lineage.
Ruth made famous the phrase, “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” The story of Ruth teaches us that unconditional love often requires sacrifice. Ruth makes a difficult choice, and her kindness is rewarded in the end. The message is that God blesses those who are good and merciful. For a more in-depth version of this story, please check out this cute Book of Ruth graphic novel published by the Jewish Outreach Institute:
Shavuot, like most Jewish holidays, has a food component. On Shavuot we celebrate dairy foods. It is a vegetarian holiday for kosher Jews, because the laws of kashrut forbid mixing milk products with meat. There could be a number of reasons for the association of dairy with Shavuot. There is a verse in the Song of Solomon (4:11) which says that the Torah is like “milk and honey under your tongue,” which might indicate a connection between the Torah-centric holiday and dairy foods. Some also believe that because the Israelites had not yet received the kosher laws, they had prepared foods on the first Shavuot that did not follow kashrut. When they received the Torah, they read the new laws of kashrut and realized their meat dishes were not kosher, in accordance with God’s will– so they opted to eat dairy dishes only. I read in the most recent issue of Tribe Magazine that the Hebrew word chalav (milk) has a numerical value of 40, which corresponds with the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Still others say that Shavuot occurs during the fertile spring period, when animal mothers produce lots of fresh milk.
Whatever the reason, a dairy holiday is a fantastic excuse to make one of my favorite indulgences– CHEESECAKE! (nom, nom, nom…)
As anybody who bakes regularly will tell you, cheesecake is an art form. It took me many tries to master cheesecake, but it was definitely worth the effort. I’m sharing my favorite cheesecake with you here today. It’s a family recipe that I’ve tweaked and perfected over the years. While my recipes are usually on the simple side, this one can be a bit tricky. I’m going to be as specific as possible with the instructions. Be sure to follow the steps exactly as written, or you might end up with a cracked, soggy, or strangely textured cake! (I tell you this from personal experience.) Also, keep in mind that making this cheesecake is a long process– so if you want to serve it for Shavuot, plan ahead!
This recipe creates a classic New York-style cheesecake, a great base to which you can add your own special embellishments. Feel free to top it (I’ve provided my blueberry topping recipe here), or mix in other ingredients to create new and exciting cheesecake flavors. Or, if you’re a cheesecake purist, serve it as-is… it should impress any true cheesecake aficionado. It has never let me down!
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- 10 full-size honey graham crackers
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- Pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp melted unsalted butter
- 2 lbs cream cheese (four 8 oz. packages)
- 4 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup half and half
- 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1/4 cup baking flour
- 2 tsp vanilla
Blueberry Topping Ingredients (optional)
- 1/3 cup water
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 4 tsp cornstarch
- 1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
You will also need
- Springform pan, parchment paper, food processor, roasting pan for water bath, a teapot.
To Make Cheesecake
- About 45 minutes before baking, take the cream cheese out of the refrigerator so it can return to room temperature.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place a piece of parchment paper over the bottom of a 9 inch springform pan, then seal the springform pan edge around the base. The base should be covered by parchment paper with edges of the paper sticking out from the sides of the pan. This paper will keep the cheesecake from sticking to the bottom of your pan. Grease the inner sides of the springform pan with butter or cooking spray, making sure the sides are fully coated. Do not spray the parchment paper on the bottom.
- IMPORTANT: Make sure your springform pan is fully locked and secure around the parchment paper! There is nothing worse than filling a springform pan with batter and having the pan fall apart or leak on you. If you have an older or lower quality pan that doesn't lock tightly, you may want to cut the parchment paper into a circle to line the bottom rather than letting the edges stick out, so there is no layer of parchment to interfere with the seal.
- In a food processor, pulse together graham crackers, powdered sugar, chopped walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until a crumbly powder forms (about 30 seconds of processing). Pour the melted butter over the crumbs and continue to process for another 10 seconds. Push the crumbs down the sides of the processor, stir them with a spoon, and continue processing for about 10 more seconds. At the end of processing, crumbs should be evenly darkened/moistened by the butter. Press crumb mixture firmly in an even layer across the bottom of the springform pan.
- Thoroughly clean and dry the food processor. Pulse together all of the cheesecake filling ingredients in the food processor, using short 1-second pulses to blend the ingredients for about 15 seconds total mixing time. Do not overmix-- this will cause the cheesecake's texture to change. Filling consistency should be smooth (no lumps), but not watery.
- Fill the teapot with water and heat it up on the stovetop. While water is heating, pour the cheesecake filling carefully into the prepared springform pan. Smooth the surface of the cheesecake filling with a spatula or spoon; pop any large bubbles that rise to the surface.
- When the teapot boils, carefully fill a wide roasting pan with the hot water (don't burn yourself!). Place the roasting pan on the bottom of the oven, and place the springform pan onto the middle rack of the oven above the pan of water. This creates a steamy environment in the oven, which allows the cake to bake more evenly (see note below). Close the oven and bake at 325 degrees F for one hour.
- At the end of one hour, take the roasting pan with water out of the oven. Close the oven, turn off the heat, and let the cheesecake cool slowly inside the oven for 3 hours. This slow cooling will prevent the top of the cake from cracking. (If you don't care about cracking, you can cool it out of the oven, which will bring it back to room temperature more quickly.)
- After 3 hours, remove the pan from the oven. Let it return to room temperature, then place the cheesecake in the refrigerator and chill for at least 12 hours. Gently remove the cake from the springform pan after it is thoroughly chilled. If using a topping, spread it on after chilling the cake. Serve cold.
- Note: I prefer the steaming method I described above to a traditional "water bath" or bain-marie-- it saves you having to wrap the springform pan in foil. I've tried this cheesecake both in a direct water bath and with this indirect steaming method, and the result is exactly the same-- plus, you don't have to worry about making the springform pan watertight. Less muss, less fuss. :)
To make Blueberry Topping
- In a small saucepan, heat 1/3 cup of water. Slowly dissolve sugar and cornstarch as the water heats up. When mixture boils, add blueberries. Stir slowly and constantly for 4-5 minutes until mixture is thick, syrupy, and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Let the topping return to room temperature, then place it in the refrigerator to chill for 1 hour. Stir well before spreading on top of the cheesecake.