Jewish food is all-encompassing and expansive, transcending regional boundaries by somehow still maintaining and simultaneously hybridizing Jewish tastes with other cuisines and cultures. My grandparents were children of immigrants from the Russian Empire at the initiation of the Russian Revolution, so the recipes and tastes that ruminate during familial events or religious holidays are all very reminiscent of what was accessible to them regionally. Potatoes and onions are prevalent in main and side dishes, with potato kugel and cholent being the centerpiece of the meal on Shabbat and respective holidays. Slow-cooked stews and dishes like brisket and cholent evoke nostalgia of the old world of Eastern European Jewry, in line with cooking constraints outlined on Shabbat, while containing staple crops and cheaper cuts of meat. Bagels, pickled vegetables and fish are also centerpieces at family gatherings — indicative of the tastes consumed in the old world and transmitted through Jewish immigration to the United States.
Meat is exclusively consumed on Jewish holidays, with the exception of the upcoming holiday of Shavuot in which meat is forbidden from consumption. Specific to the holiday and regardless of one’s Ashkenazi or Sephardic origins, cheesecake in different iterations and forms finds its way onto the tables of Jews globally. In popular narratives, Shavuot is known as the Jewish holiday in which Moses ascended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, but is important in its emphasis on pilgrimage and wheat harvest. There isn’t one definite answer to the question of why Jews eat cheesecake and dairy on Shavuot, but it is speculated that the rules of kashrut, kosher dietary laws, for meat were not established yet, permitting the Jewish people to instead consume dairy.
Based on Alison Roman’s Citrusy Cheesecake published in the New York Times, this cheesecake recipe is more tart and custard-like and relinquishes all the strenuous steps traditionally associated with baking cheesecake. Given the fact that I intentionally queer all of my Jewish recipes, I couldn’t make a simple or conventional cheesecake. I used three kinds of soft cheeses and a generous amount of lemon juice and zest to make it incredibly tart and decadent, not too sweet but perfectly palatable for anyone.
For the crust:
- 1 1/2 cup cookies (sugar, Nilla Wafer, or Walker’s Shortbread)
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- Pinch of Kosher salt
For the filling:
- 2 cups cream cheese
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons lemon zest
- Pinch of Kosher salt
- Preheat the oven to 325 F.
- To make the crust, pulse cookies of your choice in a food processor until you’ve got a nice, fine crumb. If you don’t have access to a food processor, place the cookies in a resealable bag and crush or smash with a rolling pin or skillet until fine crumbs are achieved. Transfer the cookie crumbs into a medium bowl and add brown sugar, butter, and salt. With your hands, combine the ingredients with the crumbs until the mixture is evenly coated and the mixture achieves a texture that is slightly wet yet still retains some of the grainy texture of the cookies. If you are using a food processor, clean the food processor right after as it will be used for the filling.
- Press the crust onto the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch pie pan. I recommend using the bottom of a measuring cup or a small bowl in order to ensure the crust is stable and won’t break in the oven.
- Place the crust into the oven and bake until it is lightly golden brown at the edges for about 10-12 minutes, using your eyes to assess its readiness. The crust will be baked again, so don’t overdo it. Take out of the oven and let it sit until you need to pour in the filling
- To make the filling, combine cream cheese, sour cream, ricotta cheese and granulated sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until the mixture is extremely smooth and well-blended, for 1-2 minutes. Make sure the sides are scraped down in order to ensure no chunks for an uneven mixture. Add eggs, lemon juice, lemon zest and a pinch of Kosher salt, and keep on processing for another 30 seconds or so. The mixture should be smooth and creamy.
- Pour the filling into the baked crust and bake in the oven for an additional 35-40 minutes. The filling should not brown in the oven, and you should bake it until it is mostly set. A little jiggle is fine and necessary, as it will set once it cools.
- Turn the oven off and open the door a crack. Let the cheesecake sit in the oven for a few minutes before placing it on a wire rack or counter to cool. After cooling, place the cheesecake in the refrigerator to chill and set for at least 1 hour.
- Serve the cheesecake. I placed some lemon slices in the center of the dish, but feel free to omit the slices or adorn the surface with even more citrus slices.
A version of this article appeared on p. 10 of the May 25, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.
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