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;17 farmer cheese Käsekuchen from Germany; as well as Vienna’s most elegant Topfenoberstorte of coffee house and pastry shop fame.18 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.19 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.20 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.21 Today, even the Yiddish פֿאָרווערטס (Forverts), published a vegan cheesecake recipe for Shavuot!22 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,23 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.24
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.25 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)26.
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
- 1/8 tsp ground ginger (optional)
- 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
- Crust: Combine the biscuit crumbs, the sugar, the cinnamon and the optional ginger 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Decorate with edible flowers.
- 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."
- 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://JewishVienneseFood.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!
All too delicious! thank you for this! My grandmother made the best ceesecake and it was with the Ricatta too…. nice textrues and flavors! She lived in New York. But now I know more of the background! Cool article…and your logo is creative… nice!
Thank you for those compliments, Rusmir! Ricotta is lovely for cheesecakes. I love neapolitan pastiera.
That cheesecake looks amazing!
Thank you! In fact, it’s really quite easy to make and tastes heavenly!
Delightful pleasure !! I could almost feel the taste Nino !
Many thanks, Diana! In fact, it’s so easy to make, it’s a shame not to try it!
It is so interesting how every so often someone makes an observation about your own ethnic or religious background… in this case about cheesecake being a Jewish thing, and you can just feel completely surprised!
Bagels, chicken soup or chopped liver, YES, we readily admit is part of our Jewish culinary heritage. But cheesecake? Come to think of it, I (Ben) was born and raised in France, I am Jewish and the combination of the two traditions naturally converged on a single point, namely that ‘food matters.” And yes I do recall now that you mention it, that “Goldenberg” in Paris, the reputed Jewish delicatessen, had one hell of a cheesecake. Dense and firm and nothing like the creamy overly sweet and mushy kind that is now considered cheesecake fundamentalism.
And I (Peta) grew up in South Africa and am also Jewish and there was always cheesecake being served at Jewish holidays or celebrations in Johannesburg. However, I as well, did not make the connection with it being a Jewish “thing”. Potato latkes, kneidlach, tzimmes, yes, those are all Jewish foods, but cheesecake?? Well, one learns something new every day.
Now we live in Sri Lanka and strangely enough there is cheesecake in almost every restaurant. Turns out, that Sri Lankans love dessert and sweets and cheesecake is one of those desserts that is extremely popular here. Not that it tastes anywhere near as good as the Jewish cheesecake from both of our childhoods in Paris and Johannesburg.
Peta & Ben
Hi Peta and Ben,
Thank you for your comments and kind words!
I liked Goldenberg’s cheesecake too, but I didn’t know about the Sri Lankan’s love for it. If you make your own cheesecake, which you should, because it’s so easy to make and results are stunning, you are to decide how much sugar you put into it!
Hope to see you around! Did you check my other recipes? More, after the summer break…
Oh Nino I do make our own cheese cake. Not a very conventional one thpugh. It is a raw, vegan lime cheesecake that is delivious and healthy..No sugar, no eggs.
I invite you yo take a look at our blog and go back a couple posts to one entitled “Green Global Bites”, I think it will interest you.
Try this cake first! Then, if you really don’t like it, or don’t bother to try, IMO, they most definitely should do so! But why not directly ask them?
It’s is so yummy and look so delightful
Rubab, thank you for those kind words. I try to do me best. Hope you like the other posts too!
I LOVE the edible flower and/or greens idea!
Cheesecake is definitely not a Jewish dish. For starters, it wouldn’t be kosher to server it for desert after a meat meal. The classic Jewish pastry is rugelach, and no, it does not taste as good as cheesecake.
Jackson, On the holiday of Shavuot cheesecake is eaten precisely because it is dairy. Traditional circles, especially Hasidic ones, would eat dairy on Shavuot, wait half an hour, and then sit down for a second classic holiday meal, this time with meat. Please read the article for why cheesecake is The Jewish dish ;-)
This is an art! You are an artist, I wish and hope when I attempt to make these mine looks great like these!
I’m sure it will, Aryelle! It’s so simple. Just follow the instructions and throw a hand full of edible flowers on top.
I used to make a ricotta cheesecake that I first tasted in Hanover at my German pen friend’s house and this wonderful article/recipe has inspired me to try it once more. As as psychotherapist writing about food I was delighted by your take on cheesecake and i’m about to dip into your past posts. Thank you! (I also remember Goldenberg’s with great affection. )
PS The logo is just gorgeous
Thank you very much for those kind words! Did you have a look on my new post. I think you might like it too.
I love your footnotes, they really add a lot to the post. Ineffable, indeed! I will have to figure out what kind of cheese I can use here in Israel to make this. The Israeli style of cheesecake is really quite different from what I think of as the “classic” New York style, which your recipe seems to resemble. Have you had Israeli cheesecakes?
About the footnotes: I wasn’t sure in the beginning, but as you pointed out, it’s a way to give so much more information, and in the era of fake news, to ground things a little more in reality.
When we lived in Israel, we always used plain בינה לבנה and שמנת. Our friends do the same. This results in a lighter cheesecake than the traditional NY style, but comes very close to ours, to the one in the recipe on this page, which is a recipe similar to the one widely used in many of Vienna’s Jewish kitchens. It works perfectly well and tastes delicious.
Your explorations of Israeli cuisine over at your blog look very enticing too! Maybe come and see Vienna?
All the best
This looks delicious!
… and really is. Many thanks, Kate!
I had no idea about this. In Australia we make a lot of raw cheesecakes … lemon, sweetened condensed milk and cream cheese. I found your article very interesting, from a historical and culinary point of view. Thank you!
Thank you so much for those kind words, Rosemary. I have a few other posts that you might find equally interesting. Hope to see you around. All the best.
I find this post really intriguing and, of course, it made me hungry right away! I like the way you told a story with the recipes. Cant wait to check out the rest of your work!
Thank you, Kianna! As my new posts appear rarely and very irregularly it’s best you don’t forget to subscribe for important news and updates too. I hope to see you around.
wonderful and tasty – it looks so great, have to try it my own with that nice icing
Try it and let us know how it went. I hope to see you around!