Making Special Foods for Shavuot

Try this easy recipe with your family.
Ellen Zimmerman

Do you love to make special foods for the Jewish holidays? Shavuot (which starts at sundown on June 3rd this year) can really inspire creativity in the kitchen. Or, if you prefer, it can be extremely simple.

The three main categories are dairy (cheese and milk), twin challahs (challot), and kreplach.

Eating dairy is a staple of Shavuot. In fact, I remember the complicated milk and honey cake that my friend Risa and I made one year – using almost every bowl in the kitchen. As I recall, it was remarkably unremarkable! (This, no doubt, was the fault of the bakers and not the recipe.)

But why dairy? One explanation is simple exhaustion: the Jews waited so long in the hot Sinai desert to receive the Ten Commandments from God that they were too tired to cook. That makes sense. An extension of this concept is that Jews did not want to prepare a meat meal, because that would involve slaughtering, kashering, and more work.

Harold Kushner, author of To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, refers to a legend suggesting that the Israelites were “embarrassed by their non-kosher dishes,” so “discarded them all, and ate only simple foods for the rest of the holiday.”

Yet another explanation is that the Jews’ milk turned sour and turned to cheese. Oh, dear!

Or, on a more positive note, there’s the hypothesis that Shavuot is the only season in the usually parched land of Israel when grass grows, supporting the production of milk from cows and goats.

My favorite explanation is that Torah should be compared to the sweetness of milk and honey. As it says in the Song of Songs 4:11:

“Honey and milk are under your tongue.”

The idea of the two challahs represents both the two tablets of the Torah and the two loaves offered in the Temple days. You can make your own or challah or cheese blintzes (try traditional blintzes or a blintz casserole) or, if you’re a non-baker who wants to serve a two-of-something for dinner, blintzes are also available frozen in many supermarkets.

Three-sided kreplach represent many threes, an important number in Judaism. (If you know the song, “Al Sheloshah Devarim,” you’ll probably start humming it now: “the world stands on three things – on Torah, on prayer and on acts of lovingkindness.”) Like the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God, Israel, and Torah. Plus the three parts of the Bible: Torah, Prophets, and Writings. Or the three types of Jews (priests or Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites.) In addition, the Torah was given to the Israelites in the third month, Sivan.

Want to be more adventuresome and try something different for Shavuot? Check your cookbooks for a recipe for cheese beiguele. I found one in Joan Nathan’s gorgeous book called The Foods of Israel Today. She describes the beiguele as a “slightly sweet, slightly salty” food meaning “small bread” in Yiddish. In her history of the recipe, probably “first made as a cheese knish in Bessarabia or Lithuania,” Nathan quotes a descendent of the first settlers in Argentina (refugees from the 1800s) as saying that this specialty is now eaten only by people from a certain part of Argentina.

In our family, we like a super simple cheese pancake recipe, shared below. It’s not quite as delicious as the pot cheese pancakes that my Bubbe made, but it still reminds me of sitting in her kitchen. And all generations seem to love it.

Cottage Cheese Pancakes
1 cup cottage cheese
2 eggs beaten a little
2 tbsp oil (or a little less)
2 tbsp corn meal (I adjust this according to the moisture of the cottage cheese; I usually add 2 heaping tbsp)

Beat everything together.  Drop onto hot griddle and make as you would regular pancakes. Serve with plain yogurt and fresh fruit – first fruits, like strawberries, would be great.