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How To Make Your Own Cheese in Celebration of Shavuot

How To Make Your Own Cheese in Celebration of Shavuot

A Conversation with Celebrated Jewish Cheesemonger Jill Zenoff

A variety of cheeses spread out on a table

Jill Zenoff, a Jewish environmental educator and chef, won the top prize at this year’s Cheesemonger Invitational. Zenoff, who an alumna of Reform Jewish summer camp URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI, also founded The Gan Project, an award-winning Jewish food and farming organization that served the Chicago area from 2010-14.

A professional cook since 2014, she is currently the sous chef at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, CA. In advance of Shavuot, a particularly dairy-heavy Jewish holiday, I caught up with Jill to talk about home cheesemaking and a very special kugel recipe.

ReformJudaism.org: What do you see as the connection between Judaism, agriculture, and food preparation?

Jill Zenoff: Holidays such as Shavuot, which magnify our roots as a people of the land, provide wonderful opportunities to explore and organize around contemporary issues of justice, environmentalism, and food security. I would encourage individuals and communities to get to know the independent and small dairy ranches, creameries, and cheese shops in their areas.

How incredible would it be if for the weeks leading up to Shavuot, our communities were out on the farms and ranches learning about the human, environmental, and fiscal resources it takes to produce the products we consume at our ritual tables: the land management, animal husbandry, ranchers and their workers who, more often than not, don't make a living wage, the artisans and craftspeople who transform raw goods and infuse them with added value and nutrition...

Let’s invite them to come and share their knowledge and their wisdom with us as we stay up all night in our tikkun leil Shavuot (study sessions) and learn about the issues that are affecting them and their livelihoods. Then let’s organize our communities to support them both with our purchasing power and our people power.

What are the best ingredient sources?

Source as local and as fresh as possible – and organic for sure. Do not use ultra-high-pasteurized anything; it just doesn't work right for cheesemaking. Use unbleached, fine-weave cheesecloth, which can be washed and reused several times.

Which books do you recommend for beginning home cheese makers?

I recommend Kitchen Creamery: Making Yogurt Butter & Cheese at Home by Louella Hill, and Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses by Ricki Carrol.

What are the easiest cheeses to make for blintzes, kugel, and other traditional Shavuot dishes?

I would encourage people to make their own fromage blanc, creme fraiche, ricotta, and/or goat cheese. Their beauty is not only in their simplicity and ease of production, but in their ability to harness the incredible flavor and quality of the milk being produced in each region.

For something more savory, try labneh (yogurt cheese). To make it, buy one to two quarts of plain whole milk yogurt, and empty the contents into a fine mesh unbleached cheese cloth over a bowl. Tie the cloth together and hang from a cabinet handle over the bowl. Let the whey drain from the yogurt for a few hours. Place the contents of the cheesecloth onto a shallow platter with a rim, then drizzle it with high-quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and a lot of fresh herbs or zatar.

Instead of pouring the leftover whey down the drain, you can use it in soaps, lotions, and salves, or put it in a soup or stew,. You probably won't have enough whey to make a secondary cheese just yet, but it is possible to make cheese from whey.

Any other favorite Shavuot recipes to share with us?

I’m happy to share the kugel recipe my Grandma Dorothy passed down to me.

Grandma Dorothy’s Kugel

Ingredients:  

  • 1 - 8-oz package wide noodles, cooked
  • 2 Tablespoons organic cultured butter
  • 2 well-beaten organic pasture-raised eggs
  • 3 heaping tablespoons organic fair-trade cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup Cowgirl Creamery Crème Fraîche (or sour cream)
  • 1 cup Cowgirl Creamery Clabbered Cottage Cheese (a.k.a. curd’s and cream or full-fat cottage cheese)
  • ⅓ cup whole organic milk

Instructions:

  1. Cook noodles in salted boiling water to al dente and drain, add butter, then stir.
  2. In separate bowl, beat eggs, sugar, crème fraîche, and salt.
  3. Blend in clabbered cottage cheese, then milk and vanilla.
  4. Stir noodles into mixture.
  5. Put into a well-greased 9x13 pan (use butter to grease).
  6. Bake at 325°F for 25 minutes or until golden brown.

Recipe may be doubled. If doubling to freeze, parbake the kugel until just set in the middle, let cool completely, cover with foil and place in freezer for a later date. To finish:

  1. Remove parbaked kugel from freezer night before. Heat oven to 325°F.
  2. Splash top of kugel with a bit of milk, cover with foil, and bake about 10 minutes.
  3. Remove foil and continue to bake until top is golden brown and crunchy on the tips.

Photo: Jill Zenoff

Learn more about Shavuot and find history, recipes, activities, and more at reformjudaism.org/shavuot.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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