Who moved my cheese? Ask the raw-food dessert chef

In the days before Shavuot, when cheese tastings and cheese-making demos are de rigueur, the Ferris household in Berkeley mixed it up one night by hosting a raw demo instead. Since most raw foodists are vegan, meaning they eat no animal products, this particular cheesecake was missing its normally essential ingredient: cheese.

In keeping with the holiday’s tradition of eating dairy, Chabad houses usually host some kind of ice cream party. “But in Berkeley, there are so many vegans, raw people or gluten free,” said Miriam Ferris, Chabad’s emissary in Berkeley along with her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Ferris. But, she added, eating dairy on Shavuot is a minhag, not a mitzvah, meaning it’s tradition but not a commandment. Tonight’s cheesecake would be made for those who wouldn’t eat the regular kind.

Minhag or mitzvah, about 12 people came to watch as Chaya-Ryvka Diehl shared how to make a raw lemon raspberry swirl cheesecake, with almonds and cashews standing in for the cheese.

While Diehl was raised in a culturally Jewish home, she came to Orthodox Judaism and raw foods later in life. (For a j. weekly profile of her, visit www.bit.ly/raw-food-diehl). Though she is about to move to Israel with her family, she has lived in the Bay Area for 14 years and for part of that time worked as a pastry chef at Café Gratitude, the raw food chain, perfecting her creamy, luscious, dairy-free desserts.

Diehl said she was dismayed by what passes for parve desserts in the kosher community, as they are often full of unhealthy foods like margarine. She was motivated to create some that were much healthier, using whole or unprocessed foods.

Though many people have preconceptions about raw food, she said, desserts are what she calls the gateway drug (in a positive sense), as dessert is often what tempts people to further investigate a raw lifestyle.

Going raw requires some special gadgets: for instance, a nut milk bag for making almond milk (and no, cheesecloth won’t do the trick) and the ultra-powerful Vitamix blender.

Certain ingredients appear again and again, like Medjool dates, which not only provide natural sweetness, but when mashed up with nuts easily form a crust.

Making a raw dessert from scratch is a time-consuming affair; Diehl admitted that when she was at Café Gratitude, all of her nut milks and other staples were made by prep chefs, and she recommends making almond milk the day before. But the reward is in the cheesecake, a delicious, creamy concoction that will satisfy most dietary restrictions (except those with nut allergies, of course).

While many raw desserts are certainly delicious, and healthier in some respects, they certainly aren’t low-fat. In fact, one observer noted that “this much fat kind of scares me away, but I’d eat it on a special occasion.” The cheesecake demonstrated that night may have had no cream cheese or sour cream, but in its place were 2 cups of almonds in the crust, 1 cup of almonds in the almond milk and another 3 cups of cashews in the filling.

SMALL BITES: Two Bay Area Jewish food bloggers have cookbooks worth mentioning. Gabi Moskowitz, a former Diller Teen fellow, Camp Tawongan and food columnist for j., began “The BrokeAss Gourmet” food blog in 2009 to reach a growing number of friends who were going through rough economic times, yet were used to eating well. In her book of the same name (“The BrokeAss Gourmet Cookbook: Recipes to Keep Your Taste Buds Happy and Your Wallet Thick,” Egg & Dart, $16.95), the San Francisco resident offers recipes along with a cost analysis of each ingredient so readers will know, more or less, how much each dish will set them back.

Her recipes range from comfort food, like mac and cheese, to more sophisticated fare, like sweet potato chicken mole. In addition, she offers quite a bit of flirty attitude (and not only in her photo on the cover). In a recipe for angel hair pasta with wasabi, peas and mint, she offers this hint at the top: “Try batting your eyelashes and asking your local sushi joint for extra wasabi the next time you order takeout. They’ll likely give it to you for free. Otherwise, look for it near the soy sauce.” (Note: While there are plenty of vegetarian options, this book has its fair share of traif items, as well).

The other local cookbook is San Jose resident Cheryl Sternman Rule’s “Ripe: A Fresh, Colorful Approach to Fruits and Vegetables” (Running Press, $25). The book features juicy photographs by Paulette Phlipot in this celebration of all things fruity and vegetal. Each ingredient is lovingly photographed in its raw form, followed by a recipe and a photo of the finished dish.

Among the standout features are sections divided into colors (the red section features pomegranates, cranberries, cherries and red peppers, for example), and a recipe for each of the fruits and veggies, along with three suggested “simple uses.”

In the recipe for green apples, she offers her spin on haroset, using Granny Smiths, pecans and a sweet Riesling instead of the traditional Manischewitz.

Rule, also a food blogger with her popular “5 Second Rule,” likes personifying her ingredients — “Poor artichokes. So misunderstood,” or “A boiled carrot is a travesty.”

Rule belongs to Los Gatos’ Congregation Shir Hadash, where the book recently was given to all of the religious-school teachers as their year-end appreciation gift. (This book is vegetarian and, therefore, kosher.)


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."