A Different Taste of Shavuot
How to celebrate a holiday known for dairy dishes if you’re avoiding milk or simply watching your weight
My father was a staunch believer in always eating meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov because, as the rabbis in the Talmud taught, “There is no joy, except with meat and wine.” As a kid, I was an extremely picky eater, and meat was usually at the bottom of my list (except for cholent). That’s why my favorite holiday was always Shavuot, when it’s customary to eat dairy.
When I was a kid, my mother used to make some of my favorite foods, like blintz soufflé and macaroni and cheese, for Shavuot. I still love cheese and dairy products, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my body’s metabolism isn’t quite what it used to be; like many Jews, I have difficulty digesting milk-based products. In addition, if I want to avoid gaining weight, I’ve found that I need to limit my dairy intake.
But what about my favorite holiday? I decided to see how I could adjust my Shavuot menu to accommodate my grown-up needs, maintaining a meaningful connection to the holiday without sacrificing my health or my figure. After some research, I’ve come up with a menu that even an adult would love.
Eating dairy on Shavuot doesn’t come from a commandment in the Torah. Some say the tradition evolved because Shavuot commemorates the time when the Jewish people received the Torah, and the Torah is compared to “milk and honey” in Song of Songs, and the Torah also refers to Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Along similar lines, tradition relates that when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai—the event Shavuot commemorates—they also received the laws of kashrut and suddenly found themselves with no kosher meat, so they ate dairy food in celebration instead. Additionally, white foods like milk are considered symbols of purity. There are also agricultural reasons for eating dairy on Shavuot: The holiday falls in the spring, when animals are able to graze and dairy products are abundant.
I wondered if there were other culinary traditions on Shavuot that are not dairy-related. Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food expounds on the tradition of Shavuot food beyond dairy. For instance, he details the importance of bread on Shavuot, explaining that during the Temple period, Shavuot and the thanksgiving korban, or sacrifice, are the only two times when leavened bread was used as an offering in the Temple, specifically “two loaves of wheat bread [that] were ‘waved before the Lord.’ ” Therefore, the two challot used on Shavuot are given a special significance, with “Ukrainian Jews [topping] their long holiday bread with a five- or seven-rung ladder design, an allusion to Moses’ ascent on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah … five rungs represent the Five Books of Moses; seven rungs represent the number of weeks from Passover to Shavuot, as well as the seven spheres of heaven.” Some Jews from Tunisia and Morocco bake a seven-layered round bread called siete cielos (seven heavens). Others combine the significance of dairy with the significance of bread, Marks notes, creating dairy breads like the Greek honey-and-yogurt bread or the German-Jewish kauletsch, a cheese challah.
Shavuot is also known as Yom HaBikkurim because during the Temple period the Jewish pilgrims brought bikkurim, or the first fruits of their harvest, to the Temple as an offering. Because of this, it’s traditional in some European communities, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, to begin the holiday meal with a cold, refreshing fruit soup. While the Bible does not specifically say that these first fruits were supposed to come from the Seven Species (wheat, barley, grapes or wine, figs, pomegranates, olive or olive oil, and dates, which is often represented in the form of date honey), the Mishnah elaborates: “One does not bring offerings of the bikkurim (first fruits) except from the seven species.” (Bikkurim 1:3) Therefore, it seems very appropriate to eat some of the Seven Species on Shavuot, especially wheat, barley, and figs because the holiday falls at “the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest” and “around the time of the first of the two annual fig crops,” writes Marks.
Finally, because it is springtime and flowers are in bloom, according to Marks many synagogues and homes are decorated with flowers, and in some Sephardic communities in the Middle East synagogues are often decorated with rose petals—hence the alternative name for Shavuot, the Feast of Roses. Consequently, Marks writes, “Middle Eastern Shavuot fare is frequently flavored with rose water, and rose-petal preserves are commonly served with the meal.” For this reason, Turkish Jews eat a rice pudding dish called soutlach on Shavuot, which consists of milk, honey, rose water, and rice.
Armed with what I’d learned from Marks, my quest for a healthier but still meaningful Shavuot meal led me to create three dishes: a lower-fat version of my family’s beloved blintzes, a nondairy dish utilizing bread, and a vegan dish benefiting from the use of the Seven Species.
Eating cheese-filled blintzes on Shavuot fulfills tradition in more ways than one: Ashkenazim traditionally eat cheese blintzes on Shavuot because of the symbolic imagery—two blintzes side by side (because who can eat just one?) look like the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.
While my mother’s blintz soufflé used to take advantage of the ease of frozen blintzes, my mother dug up my bubbe’s blintz recipe for me, which I used as a base for my recipe. In order to make the blintzes healthier, my first move was to swap out the all-purpose flour for buckwheat flour, which is not a wheat flour at all (giving it the added bonus of being gluten-free), but a fine flour made from the grinding of buckwheat, a whole grain popular in Asia with a mild, nutty flavor. I’d eaten buckwheat crepes before, and the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food corroborated my theory when I read that “until relatively recently, buckwheat bletlach [a term for unfilled blintzes] provided an inexpensive base for common use, while more delicate ones made from luxurious white flour were typically reserved for special occasions.” I also swapped out the ricotta or cottage cheese filling with goat’s milk ricotta, which is much lower in fat—and lower in lactose, too. If you can’t find goat’s milk ricotta, farmer cheese is another low-fat but delicious option. Instead of mixing the cheese with sugar, I used honey, and in the soufflé mixture I cut the sugar by more than half—and it’s still plenty sweet. The recipe still reminds me of my mother and bubbe, but it probably has about half the fat and calories.
For those who want or need to cut out dairy altogether, I decided to focus on the significance of bread on Shavuot. While the ladder challot sound fascinating, I opted for something a bit less artistic: challah bread pudding. Most bread pudding does in fact have dairy in it—milk—but I found that soymilk works just as well, creating a tasty dish perfect for a Shavuot morning brunch or dessert.
And finally, for a vegan dish, I chose a grain salad incorporating the Seven Species in homage to the bikkurim brought to the Temple on Shavuot, as well as to the agricultural harvest during springtime in Israel. Featuring barley and farro (wheat), along with fresh figs, pomegranate seeds and juice, grapes, olive oil, and date honey, this salad would be a delightful addition to any holiday meal.
While the dairy tradition will remain with me forever, it’s heartening to know that I don’t have to put my digestive tract at risk just to enjoy Shavuot.
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Her recovery paralleled the holidays, from Purim to Passover to Shavuot