with a recipe for cheesecake-torte
Cheesecake isn’t just nice – it’s the essence of the holiday! Read why:
JEWS the world over (but famously in New York and Chicago) love cheesecake and all its local variations. Those delicacies include the ricotta-based archetype, pastiera from Naples;1 farmer cheese Käsekuchen from Germany; as well as Vienna’s most elegant Topfenoberstorte of coffee house and pastry shop fame.2 All are related to ancestors of the contemporary star made with cream cheese (schmear kaez in Yiddish) and graham crackers. Indeed, European Jewish immigrants were instrumental in the making of modern-day cheesecake.3 Let’s see how this cake still holds a few deeply buried secrets, with a recipe that tells all.
Cheesecake is a divine reason to indulge in one’s Jewishness. (If you aren’t Jewish, it’s a divine reason to indulge, period.) Traditionally, cheesecake and other dairy specialties are served for the holiday of Shavuot, which is seven weeks after Passover. But cheesecake is the favorite dessert for Shavuot.4 This holiday celebrates the Sinaitic theophany, the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai, from where, according to the prevailing Pharisaic belief, all the oral Torah originates. One reason given for eating dairy on Shavuot is that the Torah itself is compared to milk. Another popular explanation is that for the occasion the people didn’t have time to prepare kosher meat, according to the new teachings that Moses had passed on to them.
Apparently vegan wasn’t an option here, neither in biblical nor rabbinical times – though some strongly contend that view.5 Today, even the Yiddish פֿאָרווערטס (Forverts), published a vegan cheesecake recipe for Shavuot!6 In a vegan Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers’ Rufus T. Firefly would have said, “Gentlemen, this vegan cheesecake here may not contain cheese, nor taste like it did. But don’t let that fool you! It really is no cheesecake.” Yet, it represents a cheesecake. And though it may mock a cheesecake, it can still be delicious.
Either way, as a devout foodnik, I must argue that it ultimately was in anticipation of cheesecake that the usually dry mount Sinai was suddenly blossoming with flowers when, according to rabbinical literature,7 Moses brought down the tablets of the covenant. Decorating a cheesecake with edible flowers, therefore, seems like the single most appropriate occasion to use edible flowers. It is actually a widespread custom to embellish synagogues and homes with greens and flowers in honor of this holiday. A big salad of leafy greens and edible flowers would be suitable too.
What actually happened to Moses on the top of the mountain is contained in an observation about the other traditional dairy dish for Shavuot. It’s the blintzes, the Yiddish crêpes, also called Palatschinken in Vienna (from the Latin word placenta, a flat cake). They are often served as a pair to symbolize the Stone Tablets. But however accustomed you might be to that presentation, deep down in every child, there’s the craving for more than two, for another one, a third one. I say that can’t simply be blamed on the widely-held belief that humans prefer being served odd numbers of food items on their plates.8
Now we know from Mel Brooks’ 1981 movie A History of the World: Part 1 that a terrible thing happened to Moses up there on Mount Sinai when meeting up with God, a mishap that has been covered up ever since. A third tablet slipped out of his hands and broke into tiny pieces. But see the movie’s one really fun moment for yourself: The scene is called: “The Old Testament“ and shows Moses, who upon receiving the tablets announces, “The Lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen…” whereupon one of the three tablets drops to the ground and shatters, “Oy… ten! Ten Commandments, for all to obey!”
Another disturbing fact has been pointed out: There are well-known references to more than two tablets in the Quran.9 Because, just like the Hebrew language, Arabic has not only a singular and a plural form but also a dual form. Thus, the text doesn’t indicate two tablets or even hint to specifically three tablets. Rather, the Arabic grammar suggests there were more than two tablets. How many is up to your imagination.
Who wouldn’t want to know what was written on the third tablet – at least on the one used in the movie? Well, until writing these lines, I didn’t give it a thought. Surely the movie’s prop master must have simply copied one of the two other tablets, or just put some Hebrew letter gibberish on it anyway. Turns out, I seriously underestimated the Mel Brooks movie. At Jewish Humor Central the lost Five Commandments have finally been found by simply pausing the movie and zooming in on the third tablet. Here’s what I read:
לא תעבר (Lo Ta’avor): You shall not pass.
לא תצחק (Lo Titzkhak): You shall not laugh.
לא תקנה (Lo Tikneh): You shall not buy.
לא תלרט (Lo “tolerate”): You shall not “tolerate” (English transliteration)10.
לא תשבר (Lo Tishbor): You shall not break.
But, of course, break they did, even if we forget about Brooks’ broken, lost and found fifteen commandments for a moment. Because even according to the conventionally accepted storyline, Moses smashed the first set of tablets in anger over the impatient and rebellious children of Israel anyway. Shards here, shards there, shards everywhere.
Hence, it must be nothing but mere coincidence that modern-day cheesecake, after being appropriated by European Jewish immigrants in New York, and traditionally served on Shavuot, isn’t made with a pastry crust any longer, but with broken up graham crackers. Isn’t it peculiar, to serve a cake made of smashed bits to commemorate the Stone Tablets that an enraged biblical Moses shattered to pieces? This coupled guilt, Moses’ anger and Israel’s sin of the Golden Calf, figures in the Bible and remains baked into the Jewish cheesecake.
In Moses and Monotheism (Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion), Freud scandalously suspected a much bigger crime to be hidden in the sacred text. It was a collective sense of patricidal guilt at the heart of Judaism that he had investigated through psychoanalysis, with the same method of interpretation that he used to reconstruct his patients’ forgotten and repressed memories. His book was published in 1939 upon fleeing almost too late to an idealized London from hated Vienna, where he had lived for 78 years, a place which more than one had started to smash to pieces in their dreams, Stephansdom and Heldenplatz included. For the moment though, only Jewish Vienna’s shops, books, and lives lay murdered and shattered to pieces.
Is this reading too much into Mel Brooks’ little sketch? Probably yes, but regarding cheesecakes, I don’t think so. Do you remember Freud’s daughter’s fantasy of eating strawberry cake? She loved to eat it essentially because her parents loved to watch her eat it. But wait, I have to leave you here because it’s time to call the children to make some cheesecake with our family recipe.
Recipe for Blossoming Topfen Cheesecake-torte with Tablet of the Law Crust
Take the biscuits you like most, though whole grain is preferred here because it adds an additional layer of depth to the taste and can thus compete with the farmer cheese and the sour cream.
Instead of Austrian Topfen, you can take most any farmer cheese or cottage cheese. Everything will be held together by the eggs.
It’s the sour cream icing with gelatine or agar-agar that makes this cake a real torte.
For one 9 inch / 23cm cheesecake
18 (4.4oz / 125g) whole grain Butterkeks biscuits, crumbled (or your preferred biscuits)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup melted butter
2 tsp brown sugar
17.6oz / 500g Topfen, or a rather dry farmer cheese or cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tsp (1 sachet) vanilla sugar (or 1-2 tsp vanilla extract)
1 lemon, juiced
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup + 2 Tbsp sugar
3 large eggs + 2 egg yolks
2 cup sour cream
2 Tbsp vanilla sugar (or 1-2 Tbsp vanilla extract + 2 Tbsp superfine sugar)
2 Tbsp sugar
0.3oz / 9g gelatine powder or 6 leaves of gelatine (or equal amount of Agar-Agar powder. The quantity should be sufficient for 500ml of liquid)
edible flowers for decoration
fruit preserve (strawberry is a classic)
1 lemon, juiced
1.) Crust: Combine the biscuit crumbs, the sugar, and the cinnamon ingredients. Blend the mixture with the melted butter and press into a buttered 9-inch (23cm) springform pan to form a crust at the bottom.
2.) Bake the crust: Place the crust into a 350°F (175°C) oven and bake for 7 minutes or until browned. Let it cool in the springform pan.
3.) Cheese-mixture: Thoroughly stir together all ingredients but lemon juice, which should go in last. Add the lemon juice and pour over the crust in the springform.
4.) Bake the cheesecake: Bake at 350°F (175°C) for 1 to 1 1/2 hours depending on the moisture of the cheese you were using for the mixture. You will know when it’s settled when you stick in a knife and it comes out clean. Do not overbake or the cake will be too dry and large cracks will appear. Let cool to room temperature and refrigerate, still in the springform pan.
5.) Icing: Mix all the ingredients. Prepare the gelatine (or agar-agar) by completely dissolving it in a couple of tablespoons of warm (but not boiling!) water and blend it thoroughly into to the icing but try to avoid creating air bubbles. Pour on top of the cheesecake and refrigerate for a couple of hours until settled.
6.) Decorate with edible flowers.
7.) Serve: Mix the fruit preserve with enough lemon juice to make it slightly runny and a bit acidic. Drizzle a bit over the individual slices and serve the rest on the side.
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- Even in The Classic Dolci Of The Italian Jews Edda Servi Machlin writes: “Cheesecake, the authentic rich fare, is not part of my repertoire. However, for Shavuot, I do make a cake that very much resembles New York cheesecake, although the main ingredient is ricotta rather than cream cheese.”
- About this illustrious whipped-cream and cheese cake often also called Schlag-Topfentorte in Vienna, Marcia Colman-Morton simply noted in here endearing “Viennese Pastry”, published in 1969 in New York: “And here is the most ineffable cheesecake of all.”
- Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food has it all.
- As if this needed any proof, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s English edition’s food section ran this article in 2015: “Say Cheesecake: The Top Seven Recipes for a Sweet Shavuot. Get ready for the holiday with the ultimate recipes for everyone’s favorite Shavuot dessert.“
- For different views about Veganism and Vegetarianism as they relate to Judaism, have a look at these books: https://schibboleth.com/books-culinary-therapy/#Jewish_vegetarianism_(and_even_veganism)
- Rukhi Schechter and Eve Rochnowitz over at Forverts, the Yiddish Forward, show a recipe for a vegan cheesecake with chocolate and coconut!
- Traditional sources include Mishnah Berurah 494:12; Talmud, Bechorot 6b; Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (HaElef Lecha Shlomo – YD 322).
- Odd versus even: a scientific study of the ‘rules’ of plating
- S. 7:145; S. 7:150; S. 7:154
- Transliterations use the Hebrew letter tet for the English “t”-sound. The leading tav is used to match the series. But I’m not sure whether to read one or two letters after the resh, a nun and a vav, or only a tet. Your input is welcome!