Milk and dairy. Credit: adonyig/Pixabay,
Milk and dairy. Credit: adonyig/Pixabay,
featureJewish & Israeli Holidays

Shavuot brings a tableau of riches, from the table to the Torah

Besides the wheat harvest and the reading of the Ten Commandments, one of the oldest customs is that dairy dishes are served during the holiday.

Shavuot begins this year at sundown on Tuesday, June 11, and ends after nightfall on Thursday, June 13. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is rooted in the agricultural season. Originally, it was the beginning of the wheat harvest. Before the fall of the Temple, thousands of Jews traveled to Jerusalem with thanksgiving offerings. The High Priest, representing the Jewish people, placed twin loaves baked from newly harvested wheat on the altar. Families arrived carrying baskets laden with bikurim, the “first fruits” or Israel’s Seven Species (figs, grapes, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives and honey). The holiday also marks the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and so at synagogues the world over, Jewish adults and children hear them read. Shavuot has always been a special observance and a joyous celebration.

Besides the wheat harvest, one of the oldest customs is that dairy dishes are served on Shavuot. One explanation is that at Shavuot time, animals give birth, and there are tender, new grasses to feed on. Thus, milk is plentiful. Another reason is that milk products are white, symbolizing the purity and sanctity of the Torah. White rice dishes are popular at Shavuot among Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who also call the festival “The Feast of Roses.” Dairy dishes are set out on tables decorated with leafy branches and colorful flowers, a beautiful custom bringing a fresh spring look to the two-day holiday.

In Russia and Eastern Europe, milk and dairy products were abundant in spring, so cheese, eggs and cream were key ingredients in Shavuot cooking. Think rich, filling kugels heavy on eggs, sour cream and butter. The number seven is considered to hold special significance in Jewish mysticism. The first sentence of the Torah has seven words in Hebrew, and the number is repeated in other cycles of Jewish life. In the recipe below, feta cheese is steeped in a seven-ingredient marinade. The combination of dairy and seven ingredients makes for a traditional dish and takes just minutes to prepare. As for the Butternut Squash Casserole, this recipe was given to me by a Viennese friend after I got married. It’s delicious, fail-safe and also makes for a succulent fall dish at Sukkot time.

These days, more and more people have trouble tolerating dairy. And so, there should be something on the table for guests who have trouble digesting lactose products. Try this dairy-free “cheesecake” using ingredients that were never available to past generations.

Mushrooms. Credit: Congerdesign/Pixabay.

Biblical Mushroom Soup (Dairy)

Serves 4-6

Cook’s Tips:

*Wild mushrooms grow abundantly in Israel, but in America, it’s safer to buy from the market. Many wild mushrooms are poisonous and can even be fatal if eaten.


2 egg yolks

2 tablespoons sherry

1 cup plain yogurt

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound mushrooms such as cremini, shitake and/or porcini, coarsely chopped

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon matzah cake meal or matzah meal

1½ cups milk

¼ teaspoon dried pepper flakes or to taste

1 tablespoon snipped fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sherry and yogurt. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and onion.

Cook for 7 to 8 minutes, or until vegetables are softened.

Add the matzah cake meal or matzah meal, and cook, stirring for 1 minute.

Add the milk, pepper flakes and thyme. Bring to a simmer, stirring often. Remove from heat.

Gradually pour in the egg-yolk mixture, whisking constantly until combined.

Return to stovetop. Heat through to thicken but do not boil.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Butternut Squash
Butternut squash. Credit: webdesignnewcastle/Pixabay.

Butternut-Squash Casserole (Dairy)

Serves 4-6

Cook’s Tips:

*To make pareve, substitute margarine for butter, and nondairy creamer for milk.


1 (10-ounce) package of frozen mashed squash, thawed

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, melted

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

2 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon cinnamon


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spray a 1½ quart casserole with nonstick baking spray.

In a large bowl, mix the squash, butter, flour, sugar, eggs, milk and cinnamon.

Pour into prepared casserole. Bake in preheated oven until set in center, about 1 hour.

Serve hot.

Bulgur. Credit: sahinseker/Pixabay.

Bulgur with Summer Herbs (Pareve)

Serves 4

Cook’s Tips:

*Bulgur wheat is wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed; it’s a nutritious staple in the Middle East.

*A bit more herbs in this “bursting with flavor” recipe always work.


boiling water

1 cup bulgur wheat

1 cup each of loosely packed fresh parsley, mint and basil, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

2 teaspoons lemon-pepper seasoning


Place bulgur in a medium heatproof bowl. Pour enough boiling water to cover. Soak for 15 minutes to soften.

Drain well, squeezing with your hands to remove as much moisture as possible.

Stir in parsley, mint, basil, olive oil, vinegar, salt and lemon pepper. Add more seasoning, if desired.

Serve at room temperature.

Feta Tofu Marinade
Feta-Tofu Marinade. Photo by Ethel G. Hofman.

Feta Cheese in Seven-Ingredient Marinade (Dairy)

Serves 3-4 as an appetizer

Cook’s Tips:

*May use firm tofu.

*Prepare ahead and chill overnight.


8 ounces of feta cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes

Seven-ingredient marinade:

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

½ teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

2 bay leaves, crumbled

1 teaspoon dried sage or thyme

½ teaspoon chopped garlic from a jar

½ cup lightly packed, shredded basil leaves


Place feta in a serving dish. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, place all ingredients except basil.

Heat over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Remove from heat.

Stir in the basil. Pour over the feta cheese.

Serve while hot or chill for flavors to develop.

Apple Cheesecake Pie
Apple Cheesecake Pie. Photo by Ethel G. Hofman.

Apple Cheesecake Pie (Dairy)

Serves 6-8

Cook’s Tips:

*Use a graham-cracker crust pie shell instead of making your own.

*Process nuts and cookies in a food processor.

*Freezing the shell prevents loose crumbs from mixing with the filling.


½ cup ground walnuts

1 cup cookie crumbs

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 pound cream cheese at room temperature

½ cup sugar

2 eggs

1½ teaspoons vanilla extract


2 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch slices

3 tablespoons brown sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon


Spray a 9-inch pie dish with nonstick baking spray. Set aside.

In a bowl, place the walnuts, cookie crumbs and butter. Mix well to moisten thoroughly.

Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of the prepared dish. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Filling: In a large bowl, whip together the cream cheese and sugar till fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, until smooth and blended. Beat in the vanilla. Pour mixture into crust.

In a medium bowl, toss the apples with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Arrange over the filling.

Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce to 350 degrees. Bake until set, about 35 minutes longer (filling should spring back when pressed lightly). Loosely place aluminum foil over the dish for the last 35 minutes of baking.

Cool on a wire rack. Then refrigerate until chilled.

Cut into wedges and serve.

Dairy-Free Cheesecake
Dairy-Free No-Bake Cheesecake. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

Dairy-Free No-Bake Cheesecake (Pareve)

Serves 6-8

Cook’s Tips:

*Prepare the crust ahead. Cover and refrigerate.

*Dairy-free items may be found in organic stores such as Moms or Whole Foods.

*Freezes well but cut into wedges first.


3 tablespoons vegan butter, melted

1½ cups dairy-free cookie crumbs

1 cup dairy-free heavy whipping cream

16 ounces dairy-free cream cheese, softened slightly

6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

finely grated peel of 1 large lemon or orange (optional)

4 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice

6 large strawberries to garnish


Spray the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie dish with olive-oil cooking spray. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir the melted butter into the cookie crumbs. Mix well. Press the mixture into the bottom and sides of the prepared pie dish. Chill for 45 minutes or until firm.

In a medium bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form.

In a larger bowl, whip together the cream cheese, sugar, orange juice and grated orange or lemon peel (if using). Fold the whipped cream into this cream-cheese mixture.

Spoon into the pie shell, smoothing the top. Chill for 6 hours or overnight.

Before serving, garnish with sliced strawberries.

Ethel G. Hofman is a widely syndicated American Jewish food and travel columnist, author and culinary consultant.

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