Shavuot’s tableau of riches, from table to Torah


Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Tuesday, June 11, is rooted (like Pesach) in the agricultural season (originally, the beginning of the wheat harvest).

Before the fall of the Temple, thousands of Jews traveled to Jerusalem with thanksgiving offerings. The High Priest 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 dates). 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 a dairy-free “cheesecake” using ingredients that were never available to past generations.

Biblical Mushroom Soup (Dairy)

Serves 4 to 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 Tbsp. sherry

1 cup plain yogurt

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1/2 lb. mushrooms such as cremini, shitake and/or porcini, coarsely chopped

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 Tbsp. matzah cake meal or matzah meal

1-1/2 cups milk

1/4 tsp. dried pepper flakes or to taste

1 Tbsp. snipped fresh thyme or 1 tsp. 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 Casserole (Dairy)

Serves 4 to 6

Cook’s Tips: To make pareve, substitute margarine for butter, and nondairy creamer for milk.


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

1 stick (4 oz.) butter, melted

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

2 cups whole milk

1 tsp. cinnamon


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 1-1/2 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 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 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp. cider vinegar

1 tsp. coarse kosher salt

2 tsp. 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 Cheese in Seven-Ingredient Marinade (Dairy)

Serves 3 to 4 as an appetizer

Cook’s Tips: •May use firm tofu. •Prepare ahead and chill overnight.


8 oz. of feta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Seven-ingredient marinade:

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp. sesame oil

1/2 tsp. dried crushed red pepper

2 bay leaves, crumbled

1 tsp. dried sage or thyme

1/2 tsp. chopped garlic from a jar

1/2 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 (Dairy)

Serves 6 to 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.


1/2 cup ground walnuts

1 cup cookie crumbs

2 Tbsp. butter, melted

1 lb. cream cheese at room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs

1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract


2 medium apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch slices

3 Tbsp. brown sugar

1/2 tsp. 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 No-Bake Cheesecake (Pareve)

Serves 6 to 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 Tbsp. vegan butter, melted

1-1/2 cups dairy-free cookie crumbs

1 cup dairy-free heavy whipping cream

16 oz. dairy-free cream cheese, softened slightly

6 Tbsp. confectioners’ sugar

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

4 Tbsp. 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.