Virtual Picnic: Shavuot and Cheesecake

If you cast your mind back a couple of weeks, you’ll remember we told you about counting the 49 days between Pesach/Passover and Shavuot which is known as counting the Omer.

So after 49 days Shavuot comes around (and believe me it comes faster and faster each year) and Jewish families get to celebrate receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.   The Torah is a blueprint for how to live a good life and of course includes the Ten Commandments.  

The great thing about Shavuot is that it’s an easy festival to celebrate.  It doesn’t involve any fasting, it doesn’t involve cleaning your kitchen/dining areas to an inch of their life and swapping over all your eating utensils for a week.  There’s no lighting lots and lots of little candles on a Menorah and displaying it in a window – that’s Chanukah – a beautiful festival but a bit of a health and safety nightmare.  And there’s no DIY involved! (That would be Succot when we build a little hut in the garden). What it does involve is eating lots of yummy dairy food and decorating your houses and the synagogue with flowers.  

In Manchester when life was normal (that is before 2020) Jewish families would celebrate this two day festival with a special meal on the first night as it got dark.     Maybe they would invite family and friends to share this meal.    There would be a white tablecloth on the table and more flowers than usual around the house.   It would very likely be a dairy meal and dessert would be a variety of cheesecake and ice cream.   There’s absolutely no point dieting on Shavuot.   There is a tradition to stay up until the early hours of the morning learning Torah.  Some synagogues arrange a series of talks and seminars through the night to accommodate this.

The next morning there would be service in the synagogue attended by some very sleepy people.  The synagogue really looks its best on Shavuot.   (The synagogue I attend is known affectionately as “The Shrubbs”.)  It’s decorated with flowers. The dark curtain in front of the Ark where the Torah scrolls are kept are replaced with a white one.  The Torah scrolls are covered with a white mantel instead of a dark one. We searched our collection and found these two beautifully embroidered white Torah curtains which we think were used at Shavuot many years ago.

In my synagogue there is usually an ice cream party for younger children while the synagogue service is going on.

After the service its back home for another yummy dairy meal with family and friends. Later  some families might go for a walk in Heaton Park or Broughton Park which is smaller.   This is all repeated the next day with some differences in the synagogue service.   Shavuot is basically eat, pray, repeat!   Of course this year the synagogues will remain closed and no-one will invite people over to share a meal.  Maybe next year……………………………………

I bet you’re wondering what all the dairy food is about.    Here is one simplified explanation:  A kosher diet among other things involves not mixing dishes containing meat with dishes containing milk products.   When the Torah was given this was the first time Jewish people had been told about this.  It was a lot to take in.  So until they understood this a bit better the first few meals served after the Torah was given only involved dairy dishes.    

Typically shavuot meals consist of cheesy pasta dishes, quiches, cheese blintzes and lots of salads and of course cheesecake and icecream for dessert.

I’d like to share my favourite cheesecake recipes with you.  Most years I make Evelyn Rose’s Velvet Cheesecake which can be found on page 175 of The Complete International Jewish Cookbook 1976.  Most Jewish families have a battered copy of this cookbook somewhere.  

I also like to make a Soured Cream Cheesecake.  This recipe was given to me 30 years ago by a friend.  I still have the tatty pieces of paper I scribbled the recipe on.

Soured Cream Cheesecake Recipe

Use one very large or 2 small flan dishes.

Ingredients:

1 packet of digestive biscuits (10-12 ounces)

2-3 ounces of melted butter (my handwriting says 3-4 but I think that’s too much)

Half teaspoon of ground cinnamon

3 x 5 fluid ounces of soured cream

2 tins of strawberries or raspberries (drained)

1 cup of caster sugar

Method

Melt butter in pan

Crush digestive biscuits with rolling pin and add to pan.  Mix thoroughly into butter and add cinnamon

Grease flan dish/dishes and press biscuit mixture onto base and up the side using small spoon to flatten up the sides

Drain fruit and mix with soured cream and sugar.  Pour this mixture into flan dish/dishes.

Bake at 180 Cent or Gas No 4 for 20 minutes and then turn off oven and leave to cool in oven.  It will set as it goes cold.

Chill for half an hour and then eat.  Delicious.

What’s the reason for all the flowers on Shavuot?  Well it’s said the base of Mount Sinai exploded into colourful flowers to celebrate the giving of the Torah.      In school before Shavuot children are encouraged to create models of Mount Sinai covered in flowers.    Often children make crepe paper flower arrangements to give to their families after school.    I used to help collect four of my grandchildren from the same primary school and just before one Shavuot I can remember trying to get four lively kids with four school bags four coats and four very fragile paper flower arrangements back to the car without losing anything or anybody.  

Hope that’s given you some idea of what Shavuot is all about.    Please continue to send in your cheesecake recipes and Omer counting crafts.    We’d love to hear about dairy recipes from other cultures especially if we could adopt them.    We’d also like to see your attempts at making Mount Sinai models out of anything you have to hand.  And here is a link to some ideas https://tinyurl.com/ya32pjqb     The one made out of cake has to be the best use of time!    As before please send your pics to either Laura@manchestejewishmuseum.com or Daraa@manchesterjewishmuseum.com

Virtual Picnic

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