Fruit and Nut Couscous Cake, one of Faith Kramer's recipes for the seventh night of Hanukkah AKA Chag haBanot. (Photo/Faith Kramer)
Fruit and Nut Couscous Cake, one of Faith Kramer's recipes for the seventh night of Hanukkah AKA Chag haBanot. (Photo/Faith Kramer)

Baklava cheesecake and more for Hanukkah’s ‘Festival of the Daughters’

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Every night of Hanukkah is special, but one night, the seventh, is dedicated to women. Called Chag HaBanot, it celebrates the story of Judith, the heroine of the Book of Judith, and the connections between women, especially mothers and daughters.

This North African Jewish tradition, also referred to as the Festival of the Daughters, marks the start of the month of Tevet and is commemorated by singing, dancing, gift giving and telling stories of Jewish heroines.

Traditional holiday foods in the Jewish communities of Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco often include phyllo pastries and sweetened couscous. Dairy foods are served, since the story of Judith tells how she executed an enemy general after plying him with cheese to make him thirsty and wine to make him sleepy.

These recipes for baklava cheesecake, sweetened couscous and couscous cake reflect these customs and make great additions to any Hanukkah holiday dinner. There are parve and vegan variations.

Rose water and orange blossom water (sometimes called orange flower water) are available in Middle Eastern, Indian and specialty stores, and some supermarkets. The couscous called for in these recipes is the kind most often sold in the United States. (It is precooked, so it does not need steaming.)

Baklava Cheesecake

Serves 8

  • Cheesecake filling (see recipe), room temperature
  • About ½ cup vegetable or coconut oil (or spray)
  • ½ cup plus 3 Tbs. unshelled, unsalted, whole almonds
  • ¾ cup plus 3 Tbs. shelled, unsalted pistachios
  • ½ cup unsalted walnut halves or pieces
  • 2 Tbs. plus ½ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp. plus 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 6 sheets (about 13-by-17 inches) phyllo dough, room temperature (see notes)
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1 Tbs. orange blossom water or rose water
  • Have ready the cheesecake filling at room temperature. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Oil bottom and sides of deep baking dish, about 7-by-13 inches.  (If using coconut oil, heat until liquid if necessary.)

Roughly chop ½ cup almonds in food processor. Add ¾ cup pistachios and walnuts with 2 Tbs. sugar and ½ tsp. cinnamon. Pulse until the nuts are in about ¼-inch pieces. Remove to bowl.

Place remaining 3 Tbs. almonds in processor. Process until almost powdery and finely ground. Set aside.

Set down a phyllo sheet with long side facing you. Fold in half vertically so it’s about 13 inches long and 8½ inches wide. Place in greased pan, centering phyllo and folding any excess over to fit. Lightly brush or spray with oil. Scatter a heaping ¼ cup of chopped nuts and sugar on top. Place another folded phyllo sheet on top. Lightly oil. Scatter another heaping ¼ cup of the nut-sugar mixture.

Baklava Cheesecake (Photo/Faith Kramer)
Baklava Cheesecake (Photo/Faith Kramer)

Place a third folded sheet on top. Do not oil. Scatter reserved finely ground almonds on top. Cover with cheesecake filling.

Fold the fourth phyllo sheet, place on top of cheesecake-filling layer. Lightly oil and scatter heaping ¼ cup of nut mixture. Do the same with the fifth sheet. Fold the last sheet, place on top and oil thoroughly, making sure edges are well oiled. With a sharp knife, score the top layers only (be careful not to cut into cheesecake layer) into 8 rectangles.

Place in middle of oven. Bake for about 50 to 55 minutes (rotating pan in oven for even browning, if needed) until golden brown and the cheesecake layer seems set but a little jiggly when you press down on top.

While baklava is baking, make syrup. Place ½ cup sugar, water and lemon juice in a small pot. Do not cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook 5 minutes. Turn heat to low and simmer about 7 minutes or until syrupy and thick. Take pan off heat, stir in orange blossom water.

Remove baklava from oven and place pan on rack. Immediately pour syrup evenly over top. Allow several hours for the dessert to completely cool (which helps the cheesecake set) in pan on rack. Once cool, sprinkle with 1 tsp. cinnamon and remaining 3 Tbs. pistachios (chopped if desired). Cut into serving pieces along scored lines. Refrigerate any leftovers.

Notes: Phyllo dough can be found in the freezer section of many supermarkets and in Middle Eastern, kosher and specialty markets. Follow package directions to bring to room temperature. Unused sheets can be rerolled, wrapped and frozen for future use. Keep exposed phyllo sheets covered with a damp kitchen towel when assembling baklava.  Choose raw, not roasted, nuts.

Cheesecake Filling

  • 2 packages (8 oz. each) of brick-style cream cheese, softened
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. ground cardamom
  • ⅛ tsp. salt

For best results, cream cheese must be very soft (you should be able to easily smush it). If it needs further softening, boil water and fill a large metal bowl. Discard water. Put room-temperature cream cheese on a plate, then place the heated bowl over the plate. Let sit until bowl cools. Repeat as needed.

Beat cream cheese on high with electric mixer until smooth. Beat in eggs, lemon juice and vanilla. Add sugar, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. Beat until well mixed.

Can be made 2 days in advance and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature. Stir well before using.

Sweetened Couscous

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1½ cups water
  • 1 Tbs. plus ¼ cup butter
  • 2 Tbs. sugar
  • ⅛ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup couscous
  • ½ cup plus 1 Tbs. powdered sugar
  • ½ cup raisins or chopped dried fruit
  • ½ cup unsalted, slivered almonds (raw or roasted)
  • ½ cup unsalted, shelled pistachios (raw or roasted)
  • ½ tsp. plus 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. orange blossom water or rose water, optional
  • Garnishes (see below)
  • Milk or cream for serving
Sweetened couscous (Photo/Faith Kramer)
Sweetened couscous (Photo/Faith Kramer)

Place water in small pot with 1 Tbs. butter, 2 Tbs. sugar and salt. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in couscous. Cover and remove from heat. Let sit 4 to 5 minutes until couscous has absorbed water. Fluff with fork and break up any clumps. Place couscous in large bowl.

While couscous is cooking or sitting, melt ¼ cup butter. Stir melted butter into couscous. Stir in ½ cup powdered sugar, raisins, almonds, pistachios, ½ tsp. cinnamon and orange blossom water. Mix well.

Pile mixture in middle of a platter and use hands to shape into a dome, cone or pyramid, being careful not to compress grains. Sprinkle with 1 Tbs. powdered sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon. Decorate with selected garnishes. Serve with milk or cream on the side, for pouring over the top of individual servings.

Garnishes: Press on or sprinkle with additional almond slivers and/or pistachios, pitted date halves, raisins, chopped dried fruit, pomegranate seeds or other garnishes as desired.

Vegan/parve variation: Replace butter with vegan margarine. Serve with almond or other nondairy milk.

Fruit & Nut Couscous Cake

Serves 8

  • 1¾ cups whole milk
  • 6 oz. (1½ sticks) butter plus extra for greasing pan
  • 1 Tbs. plus ⅔ cup sugar
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 2 cups couscous
  • 1½ cups golden or other raisins (or a mix of raisins, dried-pitted cherries, dried cranberries and/or dried blueberries), divided
  • ¾ cup chopped unsalted almonds or walnuts (raw or roasted)
  • 2 Tbs. vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbs. rose water or ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1¼ tsp. baharat spice mix (see notes)
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 to 3 Tbs. powdered sugar
  • Topping (see below)

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut a circle of parchment paper to cover the bottom of 8-inch springform pan. Grease the top of parchment paper and sides of pan with butter.

Place milk, butter, 1 Tbs. sugar and salt in saucepan. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in couscous. Cover and remove from heat. Let sit 4 to 5 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Fluff with fork and break up any clumps. Place in large bowl.

Add ⅔ cup sugar, 1 cup raisins, almonds, oil, rosewater, baharat spice and lemon juice, and mix well.

Separate eggs. Whip whites in a medium bowl until more than doubled in volume, glossy and shiny white. (Do not whip into peaks.) Beat yolks in a separate small bowl. Stir egg yolks into couscous. Gently fold whipped whites into couscous in 2 batches. Pour into prepared pan and bake until mixture is firm but not at all hard to touch and the edges have browned and pulled away from edge of pan, about 40 to 45 minutes (be careful not to overbake to avoid drying out cake). Place on wire rack and let cool in pan. Remove pan sides (if desired remove parchment paper and pan bottom) and then place on serving platter. Sprinkle powdered sugar and remaining ½ cup raisins on top. Decorate with dollops of topping (see below). Serve with extra topping on the side.

Topping options: Sour cream, plain or vanilla yogurt, whipped cream or rosewater-flavored whipped cream (whip half pint heavy cream with 2 Tbs. sugar and ½ tsp. rose water until soft peaks form). Plan on 2 to 3 Tbs. of topping per serving, plus additional for decorating.

Notes: Look for baharat, a North African spice mix, in Middle Eastern, spice and specialty stores. If not available use ½ tsp. ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp. ground cardamom, ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg, ⅛ tsp. ground allspice and ⅛ tsp. ground cloves.

Parve variation: Substitute parve margarine or solid coconut oil for the butter and almond or other unsweetened, nondairy milk for the whole milk. Use nondairy yogurt or whipped topping.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is Contact her at [email protected].