Celebrate ‘the cheesecake holiday’ with delightful dairy desserts

In our house, Shavuot is known as “the cheesecake holiday.” It’s a joyful time, full of cheese plates and dairy desserts — which always include cheesecake in one form or another. But why the dairy theme?

As Jews, “we don’t just tell a story, we ingest it and it nurtures us spiritually and physically,” said Rabbi Batshir Torchio, senior educator at the JCC of San Francisco.

During Shavuot, which begins this year at sundown on May 23 (the holiday always comes 60 days after the second night of Passover), we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Part and parcel of these new laws are the laws of kashrut. We know not to mix meat and dairy — we don’t boil a calf in its mother’s milk. But imagine learning this at the base of a mountain, when you have only one set of cooking utensils, if that, and certainly not two sets of dishes.

At least that’s one interpretation of why we eat dairy on Shavuot. It “reminds us that we didn’t have the tools, the hardware, to prepare meat at Mount Sinai,” said Torchio. We pay homage to that today.

There is no easier way to embrace the tradition than to serve one of the following make-ahead dairy desserts on Shavuot.

You can also dish up a sophisticated cheese plate, either before or after the meal, as recommended by Zach Berg, who runs the cheese counter at S.F.’s Bi-Rite Market on Divisadero Street.

Berg is also a member of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, and if you’re in San Francisco on May 27, you can learn even more about dairy craft and cultural heritage during “Cheese Craft,” a 7 p.m. talk and tasting with the California Artisan Cheese Guild at the JCCSF (www.jccsf.org/cheesecraft).

California Artisan Cheese Guild Appetizer Tray

Foggy Morning (Nicasio Valley Cheese Company) soft with subtle tang

Humboldt Fog (Cypress Grove Chevre) floral notes, herbal overtones

Fiscalini Bandage Wrapped Cheddar (Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese)  deep cheddar with a slight horseradish taste

Plum Chutney (Mimi’s Confitures)

Olive Oil and Sel Gris Flatbread (Rustic Bakery)

Banana Cheesecake Swirl Chocolate Brownies photos/josie a.g. shapiro

Banana Cheesecake Swirl Chocolate Brownies

Makes 16-20 squares

  • 6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, cut in small pieces
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1½ cups plus 3 Tbs. granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 very ripe banana
  • 3 tsp. vanilla, divided
  • 4 large eggs, divided
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3⁄4 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. baking powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 9-inch-square metal pan with foil. Spray the foil with cooking spray.

Melt the chocolate in a saucepan over low heat. Set aside to cool. While chocolate cools, make the banana filling by beating the cream cheese and 3 Tbs. of the granulated sugar together until light and fluffy — an electric mixer works best. Beat in the banana and 1 tsp. of the vanilla. Add 1 egg and beat at low speed until just mixed in. Scrape filling out of electric mixer into a smaller bowl. Clean mixer and use again to make the brownie batter.

In the clean electric mixer, beat the butter and remaining 1½ cups sugar until creamy. Lower mixer speed and add remaining 3 eggs, one by one, followed by 2 tsp. of the remaining vanilla, and all the cooled, melted chocolate. By hand or using the lowest speed of mixer, beat in the flour, salt and baking powder.

Scrape all but about 1 cup of the chocolate batter into the foil-lined pan and smooth it out. Spread the banana cream cheese filling over the chocolate mixture. Spoon the remaining chocolate batter over the cream cheese mixture. Pull a table knife through the layers of batter to create a marbled look.

Bake on center rack for 50 to 55 minutes or until middle is set. Place the brownies on a wire rack to cool. Let cool completely, then chill for a few hours or, if you have the time, overnight. These are even better the next day . Lift foil from pan, place on a cutting board, peel back foil and cut in squares.

Mini S’more Tarts

Mini S’more Tarts

Serves 12

Adapted from a recipe by Alexandria Brooks, JCCSF youth culinary instructor

  • 2 Tbs. Dutch processed cocoa powder
  • 3 Tbs. cornstarch
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2⁄3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups chocolate chips
  • 12 mini graham cracker pie crusts (you can buy these packaged at most large grocery stores)
  • 1 cup marshmallow fluff
  • ½ cup crushed graham crackers

In a large glass bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder, cornstarch and salt. Slowly whisk in the cream until the mixture is smooth. Whisk the egg yolks into the cream and cornstarch mixture.

Pour the milk into a 3-quart (or larger) pot. Add the sugar and warm over medium heat until frothy and steaming, whisking almost constantly. Don’t let milk boil! When simmering lightly, turn off the heat.

Whisking constantly, pour half of the hot milk into the bowl of cream and egg yolks. When well-combined, pour everything back into the pot. Warm over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until pudding comes to a full boil. Cook for 2 minutes, whisking constantly and vigorously. Get your whisk into all corners of the pot. Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Add the chocolate chips and let sit for 1 to 2 minutes or until chips melt. Whisk vigorously until the chocolate is fully incorporated.

Spread the pudding in a sealable container and press plastic wrap or wax paper directly onto the surface of the pudding. Cover with a lid and chill. To serve, scoop pudding into mini graham cracker pie crusts, heaping high. Add 1 heaping Tbs. fluff to each, and sprinkle with 1 tsp. graham cracker crumbs.

California Artisan Cheese Guild Dessert Tray

Bollie’s Mollies (Pennyroyal Farm) crumbly and creamy goat’s milk cheese

Red Hawk (Cowgirl Creamery) triple cream, strong flavor

Basseri (Barinaga Ranch) dense nutty sheep’s milk

Bay Blue (Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company) sweet earthy blue

Panforte (Napa Cakes)

Golden Raisin Fennel Baguette (Firebrand Artisan Breads)

Fresh cherries

Josie A.G. Shapiro

Josie A.G. Shapiro won the 2013 Man-O-Manischewitz Cookoff and is the co-author of “The Lazy Gourmet.”