“No flour, no Torah; no Torah, no flour.” – Pirkei Avot 3:21
There are many explanations for the ancient, near universal custom of eating dairy on Shavuot. I’ve been collecting them for a while. One of the best-known and loveliest is a simile based on a verse from the Song of Songs: As honey and milk shall be under your tongue (4:11), so words of Torah will be in your heart.
As we’re entering the last week of the Sefirah, the period that begins on the second night of Passover and continues until the eve of Shavuot, there is much talk about food for the coming festival. The cheesecake makers will be doing a big business around here. I don’t think that I’ve seen a single announcement for a Shavuot event, whether it’s a communal meal or an all-night study program followed by the morning service at daybreak, that doesn’t flaunt its organizers’ promise of cheesecake for all. Then there are all the cheesecakes that will be served at the end of the traditional dairy meals in Jewish homes. For sure, there will be blintzes, borekas, and more than a smattering of cheese plates with or without fruit. Cheesecakes rule, especially those of the ultra-rich, often heavy, New York deli variety.
A good culinary historian with an interest in the eating habits of Jewish New Yorkers could explain the when and how of this dessert’s ascent to become, as it is now, the hamantaschen of this festival. I’m more concerned about what to do for a cheesecake alternative. It’s not that I don’t like cheesecake. I’m also happy to make it for others. As with hamantaschen at Purim, there’s a lot of it around almost anywhere that I’m likely to be just before and during Shavuot. For me, a few bites are really enough.
There are other compelling reasons for having a good cheesecake alternative for Shavuot. It’s difficult for individuals who avoid dairy, but still want to participate in holiday-themed feasting, to find good desserts. For those who follow the tradition of eating a dairy meal on Shavuot followed by a meat meal to represent the two special sacrifices brought to the Temple, the need for at least one parve dessert is obvious.
Enter the Parve at Sinai Cake. (Someone please come up with a better name! You will be richly rewarded with a public credit and a recipe that I haven’t posted yet). This cake is very similar in texture and flavor to an Italian-style cheesecake, but is dairy-free. It can be made gluten-free, too, with tapioca flour which is made from cassava, a tuber of the bitter variety of yucca. I’ve included measures for both tapioca flour and all-purpose wheat flour.
The secret and major ingredient in this baked dessert is tofu. An important note about this. I use 2 parts “silken” tofu : 1 part “soft” tofu to make 2 lbs. Do not use “firm” or “extra firm” tofu or a cream cheese substitute product, like Tofutti, for this recipe. The consistency of tofu varies considerably among brands. Your cake may look a bit different than mine, but it will still be delicious by itself or dressed up with a spoonful of Fresh Strawberry Sauce.
Preparing this cake might remind you of Passover baking with its separating of eggs and folding of stiffly beaten egg whites into the batter. This association is perfectly appropriate for this holiday which our Sages called ‘Atseret (M Rosh Hashanah 1:2; BT Pesachim 68b) and considered the conclusion of Pesach, just as Shemini ‘Atseret completes the festival of Sukkot.
If you’ll be in New York City for Shavuot, I’d love to see you at Congregation Shaare Zedek’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night experience of Jewish learning, where I’ll be leading an interactive session about the origins and elaborations of eating dairy on Shavuot. Rabbi Julia Andelman, who was recently named to The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, and other great teachers will address a variety of interesting topics, too. This event is co-sponsored by The Jewish Theological Seminary and Congregation Ansche Chesed. Study begins at 11 p.m and concludes at daybreak with a spirited morning service led by Rabbi Andelman. For more information and to register: www.sznyc.org
"The Torah begins and ends with acts of loving kindness."
– Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14aTake me to the Torah Morsels Archive