Phyllis Glazer recalls a morning in the 1970s when she, her mother, and three sisters packed a picnic lunch and drove to a kibbutz in an old Citroen.
"It was one of those beautiful sunlit spring days in the hills of Menashe, in the Galilee," says Glazer, author of "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking" (HarperCollins, ‘004).
"The wagons rolled in, heaped to the brim with freshly harvested wheat. Baskets overflowing with homegrown fruits and grains were laid out on the table, and the entire community was singing. Even the dairy cows were decorated with wreaths. It was the festival of Shavuot, and the whole kibbutz was celebrating."
In her mid-‘0s, Glazer had just moved to Israel. Standing there among the kibbutzniks, she was amazed by the joy of this bucolic custom.
"This was a world apart from any Shavuot we had ever celebrated in America," she says, recalling her childhood in Belle Harbor, a seaside village in New York’s Rockaways, where no one mentioned the holiday’s relationship to nature.
"Harvest festival?" Glazer muses. "Shavuot had always been the time" when God presented the Torah to the ancient Israelites. For that reason, on the kibbutz she and her family saw another side of the holiday: "We realized we were witnessing the Bible brought to life."
Shavuot falls right after the barley harvest, celebrating the late spring wheat harvest. Initially, it entailed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Glazer explains. "Our ancestors brought wheat and barley, and the very first fruits unique to different areas of the country, but primarily revolving around the Seven Species."
Years ago, Glazer wrote a biblical cookbook and found her favorite chapter concerned the Seven Species: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, barley, wheat, and honey (actually dates). These seven foods, so tied to Shavuot, are cited in the Bible as most characteristic of the Land of Israel.
"My research taught me that the Seven Species filled the ancient Israelites’ basic needs and were the foods and beverages that provided medicinal, symbolic and religious significance."
"I also read ‘Nature in Our Biblical Heritage,’ a book by Israeli botanist Noga Hareuveni," says Glazer. "He described how the original biblical holidays revolved around the harvests, the rains, the changing of the moon, and the signs of nature that guided our ancestors through the year. That’s when I knew that in addition to traditional holiday fare in my recipes, I wanted to recapture the ancient flavors that our forebears enjoyed on those festivals."
Because modern life is hectic and nature is a distant concern, Glazer feels that diaspora Jews have lost touch with the taste of foods from the land of our birth. Right now in Israel, wheat abounds, causing cows and goats to gush with milk. No wonder dairy dishes are linked with Shavuot. Offering more than recipes, her cookbook revolves around the connection between the origin of Jewish festivals and the foods harvested in Israel at specific times of year.
For Shavuot, she created dairy recipes, such as yogurt cheese, cream cheese, and butter all prepared as they were in biblical times.
"I learned to make biblical cream cheese from a little old Bedouin woman in the Galilee," she says, explaining that this easy recipe replicates the flavor of an actual cheese that our ancestors savored. Once you try it with bagels and lox, you’ll never settle for store-bought cream cheese again.
"Spring green salad with tangerine and fennel seed vinaigrette reflects the fresh green leaves and fennel fronds that blanket Israeli hillsides every spring," she says. This salad is a medley of lettuces, plus asparagus and snow peas, drenched in a heavenly citrus dressing.
Spinach feta quiche with fresh basil is reminiscent of spring’s deepest green. This tasty dish can be an hors d’oeuvre or entree.
"I originally developed my double ginger granola cheesecake recipe for a dairy company at Shavuot," Glazer says. She recommends going for broke and preparing this confection with biblical cream cheese. "It’s better to have a small piece of a really good cheesecake than a larger piece of a fat-free, low calorie, artificially sweetened impostor made with stabilized cream cheese."
Glazer wrote "Jewish Festival Cooking" with her sister, Miriyam Glazer, a Conservative rabbi and literature professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
While both sisters contributed historical information, Miriyam Glazer researched the biblical, talmudic, and modern religious texts to understand how and why Jewish holidays evolved. She was also an enthusiastic sous chef and recipe tester.
Phyllis Glazer feels fortunate to live in Israel, where she relishes the local produce. "I think it’s more authentic to celebrate the holidays with the same seasonal foods our biblical ancestors did, and it’s a lot more meaningful."
After the fall of the Second Temple, when Jews began migrating around the globe, they had to accommodate to the foods available where they settled.
Sadly in many places, holiday foods no longer reflect the biblical origins of our festivals, Glazer explains. "They were created as a reaction to the seasonal and economic realities of exile."
On the upside, today’s global economy affords American Jews the opportunity to buy Israeli olives and olive oil, goat cheese, wine, and other fare.
"These foods," Glazer says, "give us the taste of the land in which our holidays and nation were born."
Biblical Cream Cheese
‘ pints dairy sour cream (Use a full-fat product that doesn’t contain stabilizers, available in Middle Eastern stores)
1/’ tsp. salt (optional)
Line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and place colander over a bowl. Pour the sour cream and salt into the strainer and allow to drain for 1 hour. Gather up the edges of the cheesecloth and tie them, lightly squeezing out as much moisture as possible. Hang bag over the kitchen sink, and leave for several hours or overnight. For a softer-spreading cheese, check after 3 to 4 hours. Refrigerate until the desired consistency is reached.
Yield: 3 1/4 cups
Spinach-Feta Quiche with Fresh Basil
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup cold butter
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach
6 small scallions, including ‘-inch green tops, chopped
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/’ cup cottage cheese
‘ tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/’ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/’ cup milk
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare crust: Put the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Cut butter into chunks and add to the flour. Process in on/off pulses, until coarse crumbs form. In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolk and yogurt, and add to the flour mixture while processor is running. Remove dough and shape into a neat ball. (The dough should not be sticky. If it is, knead it briefly on a floured surface.) Flatten the ball and, using thumbs, press into a 10-inch pie plate, distributing the dough equally. Flute the top. Use a fork to pierce the bottom and sides of the dough, so it will not rise. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, or until just lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
Prepare the filling: Thaw the spinach and put in a wire mesh strainer to drain. Press and squeeze out any excess liquid. In a food processor, chop the scallions and add the rest of the filling ingredients, except for the spinach. Process for 30 seconds or until blended. Add the spinach and process briefly in on/off pulses. Pour the filling into the partially baked crust and bake for 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 350 degrees. Bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes, or until the quiche is set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out moist but not wet. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Yield: Serves 6 as an entr?e
Double-Ginger Granola Cheesecake
Butter for lining pan
3 cups granola
1 tbsp. light brown sugar
1/’ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/’ cup butter, melted
(Remove ingredients from refrigerator 1 hour before preparation)
‘ lbs. cream cheese at room temperature (Philadelphia brand, or use part commercial brand with Biblical Cream Cheese)
‘ tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
‘/3 cup heavy cream
1 cup dairy sour cream
‘ tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Affix to the bottom with a little butter. Cut a 3-inch-wide strip of parchment paper and affix to the side of the pan with butter.
In a food processor, finely grind the granola and transfer to a bowl. Add sugar, cinnamon, ground ginger, and melted butter. Mix well and press evenly into the bottom and halfway up the side of prepared pan. Use the bottom of a wide drinking glass to press evenly and firmly into the bottom and corners of the pan. Chill in refrigerator.
In the meantime, in the bowl of a standing electric mixer, on low speed, gently beat the cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar until smooth, scraping the bottom and side of the bowl often to make sure cheese is blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating lightly after each addition. Pour in the heavy cream and mix briefly. Pour batter into chilled crust and level out the top with an offset spatula. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, but slightly moist. Don’t overbake. (The center will sink and the cake will shrink slightly from the sides of the pan.) Turn off heat and let cake sit undisturbed in the oven for ‘0 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. (During cooling, avoid drafts, which cause cracking.)
Remove cake. Lower oven temperature to 300 degrees. In a small bowl, beat sour cream and sugar and pour over the top of the cake. Level with a small offset spatula and bake for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Sprinkle with crystallized ginger and chill cake until firm. Cover with plastic wrap after top has firmed up, and chill at least 4 hours.
For a slim Shavuot: Low-Calorie Cheesecake
The following recipe was chosen by renowned Israeli chef Benny Saida during a recent Tnuva recipe contest.
‘.’ lb. Tnuva Creamy Soft White Cheese 5%
3 eggs, separated
‘ tbsp. instant vanilla pudding
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1/’ tbsp. dietetic sweetener
Whole lemon peel, grated
1 packet of vanilla sugar
Mix the cheese, egg yolks, lemon peel, pudding, corn flour, and sweetener.
Whip the egg whites with the vanilla sugar until firm and fold into the cheese mixture until it’s combined well. Pour into a round 10" Pyrex dish.
Bake cake for 10 minutes on 340 degrees, lower the oven to 3’0 degrees, and bake for another 45 minutes.
Turn off the oven and release the cake from the pan and put cake back in the oven for an hour. Cool before serving.
Yield: 1′ servings
Preparation time: about 30 minutes
Calories per serving: about 1’5