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Mediterranean Cheese Torta

Tina Wasserman

Eating dairy foods instead of meat to celebrate the holiday is the most prevalent Shavuot food association. Here are all the flavors of the Mediterranean in one layered dish! I created this recipe after seeing a prominent department store advertise a cheese mold that was extremely expensive. This recipe made six molds for the price of one. As part of your dairy meal, serve this as an appetizer or accompanied by a warm pita or bagels.

10 sun-dried tomato halves
3.5 ounces jarred roasted red peppers, drained
20 pitted Calamata olives
8 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces unsalted butter
6 ounces Gorgonzola or other blue-veined cheese
8 ounces mascarpone
8 ounces cream cheese
1 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves
2 large cloves garlic
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
8 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces unsalted butter
  1. Lightly grease one 4-cup mold or 5–6 six-ounce ramekins. Line the mold(s) with plastic wrap or cheesecloth and set aside. 
  2. Combine the first five ingredients in the processor work bowl and process until a smooth paste is formed. Pour the mixture into the 4-cup mold or divide evenly among the ramekins. Rinse the work bowl. 
  3. Combine the Gorgonzola with the mascarpone and cream cheese in the processor and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Pour the mixture evenly over the sun-dried tomato mixture in the mold(s). Rinse out the bowl. 
  4. Combine the basil with the garlic and oil in the processor work bowl and process until a fairly smooth paste is formed. Add the remaining ingredients and process until well combined and smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary. Pour this mixture over the other layers and smooth evenly. Cover with plastic wrap until firm.
  5. When ready to serve or package for gifts, unmold and carefully remove plastic wrap.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Cheese and cheese mixtures may be frozen as long as they do not have high moisture content. Freeze these tortas first in their molds, and then remove them with the plastic wrap and freeze in airtight freezer bags.
  • Put a straw into an almost sealed freezer bag and suck out all the air. Remove straw and seal quickly. This stops the formation of ice crystals.

Deluxe Noodle Kugel

Tina Wasserman

Eating dairy foods instead of meat to celebrate the holiday is the most prevalent Shavuot food association. My friends call this “killer kugel.” Joan Nathan ran this recipe in her New York Times column one year, and, as a result, I received many e-mails thanking me for sharing this recipe. I joke that this is a poor excuse for a cheesecake. Rich, creamy, and utterly delicious, a kugel in a 13 × 9-inch baking pan should serve 25 people. However, one reader said she made two kugels for 15 people and almost all of it was gone!

1/2 pound medium or extra-wide noodles (see note under Tina’s Tidbits)
1 pound cream cheese
1/2 pound unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 pint sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 eggs
1 small can mandarin oranges, drained
1 small can crushed pineapple, drained
4 ounces walnuts
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
  1. Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and place in a 4-quart bowl. 
  2. Combine the cream cheese and butter in a processor work bowl and blend until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Add the sugar and process until well combined. Add the sour cream, vanilla, and eggs and process until well mixed. Pour into the 4-quart bowl with the noodles. 
  3. Stir the fruits in by hand, and pour the mixture into a buttered 13 × 9-inch baking dish. The mixture will almost overflow. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  4. When ready to bake, uncover and place in a preheated 350°F oven and bake for 50 minutes. 
  5. Combine the walnuts with the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle on top of the kugel. Dot with the 2 tablespoons of butter and bake for 15 minutes more. Serve warm or at room temperature. This could be made totally in advance, but it won’t be as light.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Large noodles will be more visible in this kugel but will provide a more cheesecake-like consistency in some areas. Medium noodles will be distributed more uniformly. Either way this is delicious. 
  • The easiest way to dot butter is to freeze a stick of butter and then grate it over the top of your casserole. 
  • Refrigerating the mixture overnight allows the butter and cream cheese to solidify around the eggs and sour cream. This creates a mixture that will trap the air and puff up better when baked. 
  • If you don’t want to use nuts, try crushing cocoa crisp cereal, sprinkling it on top of the kugel, and then dotting it with butter. The original recipe, given to me over forty years ago, used this topping, but I can’t teach it or I would lose my credibility!

Passover Granola

Tina Wasserman

This recipe will make your Passover week! It is delicious with milk for breakfast, and a healthy snack for school or work.

3 cups matzah farfel
2/3 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup sweetened or unsweetened coconut
2/3 cup pecans, broken into large pieces
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or pareve kosher for Passover margarine
1/3 cup wildflower or clover honey
1 1/2 cups chopped dried mixed fruit of your choice including raisins or 7-ounce bag of dried fruit pieces
  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. 
  2. Combine the farfel, almonds, coconut, pecans, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a 3-quart mixing bowl. 
  3. Melt the butter and honey in a small glass bowl in a microwave for 1 minute until butter is melted and honey is more fluid. 
  4. Stir the butter mixture into the farfel mixture until all farfel is lightly coated with the butter.
  5. Spread the mixture over a large jelly roll pan with 1-inch sides and bake for 15 minutes until deep golden brown. Halfway through baking, stir to brown evenly.
  6. Remove from oven. Cool completely and toss with the dried fruit. 
  7. When totally cooled, store in a ziplock bag or airtight storage container for all eight days of Passover—if it lasts that long!
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • To prevent burning, never pre-roast nuts if they will be baked in the oven. 
  • This recipe can be made with old-fashioned oatmeal when Passover ends. 
  • Salt should always be added in a small quantity to a sweet mixture to bring out the flavors of the individual foods but not lend a salty taste to the dish.
  • If making ahead, leave out fruit until the day you want to use it so farfel doesn’t get soggy.

Fresh Figs with Goat Cheese and Honey

Tina Wasserman

On Tu BiSh’vat, it is customary to eat foods containing the Seven Species and to bless them. These are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, and olives. Upscale restaurants and caterers are serving this combination of fruit and cheese that Middle Easterners enjoyed thousands of years ago. Although this is a simple preparation, the quality of each component must be very high for it to taste fantastic. It is best when figs are at the height of ripeness.

This recipe is also great for the holiday of Shavuot, observed as the birthday of the Torah. The beauty of the Torah has been compared with the nourishment and sweetness of milk and honey.

12 ripe Mission or Brown Turkey figs, cut in half
4 ounces good-quality chèvre goat cheese
3–4 tablespoons wildflower or berry honey
French bread or crackers (optional)
  1. Place figs on a plate cut side up. 
  2. Spread some of the goat cheese on each fig. 
  3. Drizzle with some honey and serve with bread or crackers.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Alternatively, serve a plate with all of the ingredients and allow your guests to prepare their own. You can also serve them on a bed of lettuce as a first course. 
  • Mission figs are named for the California Franciscan missions where they have been cultivated since 1770.

Moroccan Sweet Couscous with Mixed Dried Fruits

Tina Wasserman

This dish is now a staple on my buffet table for all fall Jewish holidays, because I like to incorporate a new fruit (pomegranate) or fall fruits (raisins, apples, pears in their dried form) for Rosh HaShanah and Sukkot. In reality, this traditional Moroccan dish is served for Hanukkah, but I can’t relegate it to just that one holiday. I have streamlined the preparation time by using dried fruit that is already chopped, and you can use any combination of dried fruit that you want. This is a very kid-friendly recipe and a great way to get those iron-packed fruits into their diet.

1 cup Israeli couscous
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or pareve margarine
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
One 7-ounce package of chopped mixed dried fruit or 1 1/2 cups assorted dried fruits
1/3 cup whole almonds, roasted and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly roasted
1/3 cup milk with 3 drops of almond extract added
Cinnamon, pitted Medjool dates, pomegranate seeds, and/or apricot slivers for garnish
  1. Cook couscous in a large pot of boiling salted water for 7 to 10 minutes or until tender but still firm. Drain, but do not rinse, and place in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Melt the butter or margarine in a 1-cup bowl in the microwave for 35 seconds. Add the sugar and cinnamon and stir to combine. Pour the mixture over the couscous to coat thoroughly. 
  3. Add the dried fruit and roasted nuts. 
  4. Mix the 3 drops of almond extract into the milk. Add just enough of the milk to the couscous to moisten it. Do not add too much or the mixture will be runny. Reserve excess milk in case the couscous is dry. Remoisten before you garnish. 
  5. Pile the couscous into a mound or pyramid shape on a serving platter. Sprinkle with additional cinnamon and garnish with Medjool date halves, pomegranate seeds, and/or apricot slivers.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Israeli couscous is a large, milled ball of pasta approximately 1/8 inch in diameter. 
  • Coating couscous with butter or margarine prevents the mixture from clumping. However, it still holds together beautifully when mounded. 
  • Made with wheat berries, this dish is Greek koliva, and Sephardim serve this tooth-resembling grain to celebrate a baby’s first tooth.

Vegetarian Chopped Liver

Tina Wasserman

I was a child when Uncle Barney had his eightieth birthday party in a Jewish vegetarian restaurant. I still remember the mound of “chopped liver” on a bed of lettuce with some tomato slices. Over the years I compared recipes for vegetarian chopped liver, and I will say that my students like the taste of this mock chopped liver even more than the real thing. I know the ingredients sound bizarre in this day and age of fresh or high-quality frozen vegetables, but try it, you will be surprised how much you like it.

3 large onions, sliced
2 tablespoons oil
1-pound can cut green beans, drained
1-pound can green peas, drained
16 Ritz crackers
6 hard-boiled eggs
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  1. Sauté the onions in the oil until a dark golden brown.
  2. In a food processor, combine the green beans, peas, onions, crackers, eggs, and walnuts using a pulsing action to chop the mixture fairly fine.
  3. Season with salt and pepper, and moisten with a little mayonnaise if needed to have it resemble real chopped chicken livers. Serve with bread or crackers.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Because you cannot use chicken fat here, I would recommend the use of mayonnaise to season and bind the mixture together rather than oil.
  • Whipped salad dressings are never a substitutefor high-quality mayonnaise.
  • Never use fat-free or low-fat mayonnaise in this mixture unless you are planning to serve it right away. The cellulose used to thicken the mayonnaise to make it appear like the original variety will absorb moisture from the vegetables and make the mixture thick and gummy.

Ottoman Watermelon and Olive Salad

Tina Wasserman

For almost three thousand years there has been a Jewish presence in the region of the world now associated with Turkey. At one time the Ottoman Empire encompassed lands from the Persian Guld in the east to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Greece in the northwest, and from Egypt and palestine in the south to the Caucasus mountains in the north, with Istanbul designated its capital. I first tasted this wonderful combination of flavors on the island of Santorini in the Adriatic Sea. As bright as the iconic sun-drenched, white stucco walls and blue domed rooftops are on this island, this dish is vibrant with color and flavor to match its surroundings. Enjoy this dish any time of year but especially when watermelon is at its sweetest!

3 cups watermelon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 very small red onion, cut into thin rings (or 1/2-cup sliced half rings)
1/2 cup pitted Calamata olives
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons chiffonade of fresh mint
1 teaspoon sumac (optional)
  1. Arrange the watermelon, onion rings, and olives on a platter. Sprinkle with the crumbled feta cheese.
  2. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and sugar together in a small, screw-top jar.
  3. Sprinkle the mint over the platter, and drizzle the vinaigrette over the salad.
  4. Dust the salad with the sumac and serve.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • If preparing the salad in advance, keep ingredients in separate bowls so that the flavor of the onions doesn’t overpower the other ingredients.
  • It is important to dress the salad (pour dressing on it) at the last minute so that the watermelon won’t absorb the liquid and become mushy.
  • Sumac is a red berry grown on bushes throughout the Middle East whose flavor is tart like a lemon. Paprika may be substituted for color, but the flavor will be different.

Mamaliga (Romanian Polenta)

Tina Wasserman

When corn was introduced to Europe after the discovery of the New World, it was widely received. However, growing conditions were not favorable in many regions, and colloquial biases to certain grains such as oats or rye diminished interest in corn. The Romanians loved the corn and the porridge made from its grain, mamaliga. The Jewish community subsisted on the cornmeal porridge morning, noon, and night, adding slightly different ingredients to each meal to vary the taste. Their love for mamaliga was so great that Romanian Jews were referred to as “Mamaligas” long after they crossed the Atlantic.

2 cups milk, preferably whole or 2%
2 cups water, divided use
1 cup polenta or coarse corn meal
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste (depends on saltiness of feta)
10 grindings of fresh white pepper
2 tablespoons butter (salted butter is okay if desired)
2 ounces feta cheese, drained and crumbled
1/2 cup small-curd 4% fat cottage cheese
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
Sour cream (optional)
  1. Heat 2 cups of milk and 1 cup of water in a microwave oven for 1 1/2 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Combine 1 cup polenta with 1 cup of water, salt, and pepper in a 2-quart saucepan.
  3. Add the hot liquid to the polenta mixture and place over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk for about 7 minutes, until the milk has been absorbed by the meal. The mixture will feel thick but still runny. Remove from the heat.
  4. Stir in the butter, crumbled feta, and cottage cheese. Mix until butter has melted and cheeses are evenly distributed throughout the mixture.
  5. Preheat an oven to 350°F.
  6. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish. Stir the cornmeal to break up any lumps, and pour mixture into pan. Smooth top and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature, or chill and cut into slices and brown in butter in a frying pan. Serve as is or topped with a little sour cream.


Tina's Tidbits: 

Variations on this recipe include:

  • Use all water and pareve margarine and serve with stews or pot roast.
  • Add cream cheese instead of feta and 2 tablespoons of sugar and even add some raisins for a sweet, but not traditional, alternative.
  • At Walter Potenza’s restaurant I first tried the following polenta fritters stuffed with anchovy paste. Joyce Goldstein, in her book Cucina Ebraica calls them Rebecchine de Gerusalemme. Using this recipe for mamaliga, the fritters are even more rich and delicious.
    1. Place one tin of anchovy fillets with the oil in the can in a small frying pan, and cook over low heat, mashing the anchovies into a paste.
    2. Cut slices from the mamaliga that are 1/2-inch thick and as wide as they are tall.
    3. Carefully slice each square in half so that each side is 1/4-inch thick.
    4. Spread a little anchovy paste over one half, and sandwich both sides together.
    5. Beat 1 egg with 1 teaspoon of water in a shallow bowl, and cover a plate with 1/2 cup of flour.
    6. Heat a frying pan for 20 seconds. Add 1/4 inch of oil in the pan, and heat for another 10 seconds.
    7. Dip the polenta squares in the egg to moisten, and coat thoroughly with the flour.
    8. Add coated squares to the frying pan 3 or 4 at a time, and fry over moderately high heat until the squares are crisp and lightly golden. Remove from oil, drain on paper towel, and serve immediately or when still warm.
    9. Serves 4–6 if you don’t use all of the mamaliga and don’t double the anchovies.

Pasta with Salsa Cruda

Tina Wasserman

Italy is home to the oldest, continuously inhabited Jewish community in Europe. This pasta dish is a variation of the famous insalata Caprese made up of the season’s freshest tomatoes and basil and fresh mozzarella found on the island of Capri in the very fertile region of the Campania surrounding Naples. The essence of summer, this dish must be made with the freshest and sweetest produce and soft mozzarella. The original Caprese salad is a staple at every Roman Jewish restaurant I visited. The addition of pasta makes a hearty main dish or side for fish.

3/4 pound (2–3 large) tomatoes
1/2 pound, fresh soft mozzarella
1/2 cup lightly packed basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
8 ounces dried rotelle (spirals) or penne rigati
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch cubes, and place them in a 3-quart glass or ceramic serving bowl.
  2. Cut the mozzarella into 1/2"-inch cubes, and add to the tomatoes.
  3. Layer the basil leaves, and roll them up lengthwise like a cigarette. Slice thinly crosswise through the roll to make a chiffonade—thin strands of basil that “float” like chiffon—and add to the tomato mixture.
  4. Add the garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper to the bowl, and stir to combine. Cover the bowl, and set aside at room temperature for at least 1 hour.
  5. When ready to serve, cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. Drain and immediately toss with the raw tomato mixture.
  6. Serve at once with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and more black pepper if desired.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Pasta in shapes like macaroni, shells, or twists will hold onto small particles of food in chunky sauces better than long, smooth pasta.
  • The heat of the drained pasta will wilt the basil and slightly soften the cheese to bring out their full flavor. Therefore, do not rinse pasta, as it will cool it.
  • Eliminate the cheese for a meat meal or if you need to make the dish in advance, since the melted cheese will clump when cold.

Green Lentil and Bulgur Salad with Hazelnuts

Tina Wasserman

Bulgur is a culinary staple in the Middle East. Kernels of wheat are steamed, dried, and crushed into coarse, medium, or fine grain. Perhaps the best-known uses of bulgur are in tabbouleh salad and combined with spices and meat for kibbeh. Here the bulgur is paired with small, green French lentils and hazelnuts to create a very elegant and nutritionally balanced dish. 

2 large shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons tarragon vinegar, divided use
1/2 cup green French lentils
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup medium bulgur
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 stalks of celery cut into 1/8-inch dice
1/2 cup finely shredded carrot (purchased in bags), chopped
2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil or extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup toasted chopped hazelnuts
  1. Combine the shallots and 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in a 1-quart glass bowl. Set aside.
  2. Place lentils in a 1-quart saucepan, and cover 2 inches with water. Simmer the lentils for 14–20 minutes or until the lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain well.
  3. Add the hot lentils to the shallot mixture, and stir gently to coat the lentils. Season with salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.
  4. Place the bulgur, water, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan, and simmer covered for 12 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Transfer to a 3-quart serving bowl, and stir to cool (or place uncovered in the refrigerator to cool).
  5. When the bulgur is cool, add the lentil mixture and the remaining ingredients, and toss to combine. Season with additional salt and pepper if needed.
Tina's Tidbits: 
  • Green lentils are very small, round seeds that are more common in Europe than North America. They are the only lentil sold with their seed coat intact and therefore do not disintegrate during cooking.
  • To remove the bitter outer skin of the hazelnuts, toast the nuts in a 350°F oven for 7–10 minutes or until they are golden. Immediately encase some of the hot nuts in a terry dish towel and rub firmly. The texture of the towel should remove much of the skin. (I carefully take the towel outside to my herb garden and empty its contents to act as biodegradable mulch!)


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