Shavuot: Cold soups, non-cheesecakes, and more

Lonnie Sussman, special to the WJN

How do you mark time? I’ve been thinking a lot about how I mark time. I’ve just returned from a trip to Morocco, a trip that was more than three years in the planning and flew by in a minute. If you have children, do you constantly think of them as babies, toddlers, and then find it remarkable that they are taller than you and may even have babies of their own?Well, sometimes I think about the Jewish holidays and how quickly they arrive on the calendar and how quickly I forget (delay) to prepare. Shavuot is an important holiday, only two days long outside the land of Israel, and there are few restrictions and only a few traditions on home celebrations. It marks the traditional giving of the Torah, seven weeks after Pesach. It also marks the spring harvest, especially of the wheat.Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage holidays in Temple times. They are often called “Festivals” and I always imagine huge crowds of people walking to Jerusalem to celebrate the first harvests of the spring, sharing food, and having a great time. I’m not forgetting the prayers they came to the Temple to say but I am saying this was a joyous time. The traditions of dairy foods came from a few sources. Whatever your traditions are I hope they are tasty as well as meaningful. Here are some ideas for meals, some are traditional and some are not, but they all seem to me to be in the spirit of the Shavuot festival.

Cold Cherry Soup

The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, by Joan Nathan

I first had a cold fruit soup at my dad’s first cousin’s house in B’er Sheva, many decades ago. It was a hot day, and the cold soup was delicious, cooling, and a completely new experience for me. When I was young, the cold soup served at Shavuot and all summer was borscht. Cherry soup was the soup for the Jews with a Hungarian background and borscht was part of Eastern European Jewish traditions.

  • 2 20-ounce cans or 2 pounds of fresh pitted sour cherries
  • 1 cup sugar, or to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 cup dry red wine (optional)

Drain the cherries, retaining the juice in a saucepan. Set the cherries aside. Add enough water to the juice to make 3 cups. Add the sugar and the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and add the cherries. Partially cover and simmer over low heat for about 10–15 minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and blend the soup until it is smooth. Return to the heat and bring to a boil. Then cool the soup a bit and add the sour cream, letting it dissolve. Chill. If you want the wine, add it just before serving. You can also add another dollop of the sour cream to each bowl.

Wolfie’s Borscht

The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, by Joan Nathan

Serves 10.

This recipe originally came from Wolfie’s Restaurant in Miami Beach.

Borscht, or beet soup, is a Ukrainian tradition. In the warmer months it was served cold and in the winter months it was served hot. This recipe is dairy, as befits the dairy holiday of Shavuot. In the winter it was served with meat. If you don’t like beets, you might try Schav, another soup from eastern Europe served cold in the springtime, when schav (sorrel, a tart green leafed plant) first comes up. In the winter it is served hot, in a soup with vegetables. If you don’t like your soups red or green but can get over that prejudice to try something new, try Borscht. Save the Schav for next year.

  • 2 ½ lb beets, peeled and diced or quartered
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 2 ½ quarts water
  • ½ to 1 cup sugar
  • A pinch of sour salt (citric acid) or 1 tbs lemon juice
  • Salt to taste
  • 6 eggs, cracked and placed in a bowl and whisked until smooth
  • Sour cream
  • Sour cream and dill, optional

Simmer the beets, onion and celery in the water, covered, for about 40 minutes or until the beets are tender. Add the sugar and sour salt or lemon juice. Then, puree in a blender. Add the salt to taste. The juice will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Return to a pot and simmer again. Add 1 cup of soup to the eggs and slowly beat the eggs into the rest of the soup. Let cool before serving with a dollop of sour cream and dill (optional but pretty).

Tonno Fresco con Piselli, Fresh Tuna with Peas

Cucina Ebraica, by Joyce Goldstein

Serves 3–4 so maybe good for a more intimate dinner unless you double the recipe.

I have written about recipes from this cookbook a few times. It was originally printed in 1998. The author lived in San Francisco where she owned a restaurant, was a cooking instructor and cookbook writer. This recipe appeals to me because I like tuna and I like peas and I like stories about the Italian Jewish history and community.

  • 1¼ pounds tuna fillet
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 tbs olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 cup diced canned plum tomatoes
  • Water or white wine, as needed
  • 2 pounds English peas, shelled, or 2 cups green peas, frozen

Sprinkle the salt and pepper on the tuna. Warm the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, and parsley and sauté for a few minutes but don’t allow them to turn color. Add the tuna and cook on one side until half-cooked, about 4 minutes. Remove the tuna from the pan and set aside. Add the tomatoes, 1 cup of water or wine, and the peas. Cover and simmer over medium heat until the peas are tender, 8–10 minutes. Return the tuna to the pan, uncooked side down. Cook until done to taste, about 4 minutes for medium. Serve by placing the tuna on a platter and spoon the peas and tomatoes over the top. Another version of this dish is found in the Italian Jewish Cookbook by Edda Servi Machlin. She uses salmon and omits the tomatoes.

Sesame Asparagus and Carrot Chop 

Smitten Kitchen Keepers, by Deb Perelman

Serves 2–3 but I plan on making this for 6–8.

Deb Perelman has now written 3 cookbooks with this one being the latest. I discovered her from her food blog “Smitten Kitchen” and have enjoyed all her cookbooks. The recipes can be trusted and are usually pretty simple to make. Since Michigan asparagus arrives fresh in May this will be a go-to salad. It’s not something I’ve seen as traditional Shavuot food, but it appeals to me because it’s very much in the spirit of spring.

  • ½ pound asparagus (makes this recipe easy to double)
  • ½ pound carrots, slim if you can find them
  • 2 tbs unseasoned rice vinegar
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 2 tbs mayonnaise
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tsp Sriracha
  • 2 tsp low sodium soy sauce
  • 1 large firm-ripe avocado, diced
  • Toasted black and/or white sesame seeds, for garnish

Cut the asparagus and carrots diagonally into thin slices. Place in a large bowl and dress with the rice vinegar and a few pinches of salt. Combine the mayonnaise, sesame oil, sriracha and soy sauce in a small bowl. Whisk until smooth. When you are ready to eat add the dressing to the vegetables and stir to coat thoroughly. Add the diced avocados and gently mix into the salad. Taste for seasonings and garnish, if you like, with the sesame seeds.

Ricotta Gnocchi with tomato sauce

NYTimes Cooking, recipe by Mark Bittman

Serves 4.

He is a famous food writer but not necessarily a Jewish food writer with an expertise on Jewish foods. This recipe, like many others I’ve seen, includes a light cheese product that is not a kugel. I’m going to make it. How about you?

  • 1 15-oz container ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 ¼ freshly grated Parmesan plus more for serving
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • ¾ to 1 cup flour
  • 3 tbs unsalted butter
  • 10 or more sage leaves

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Combine the ricotta, eggs and Parmesan in a large bowl, along with some salt and pepper. Add about ½ cup flour and stir. Add more flour until the mixture forms a very sticky dough. Scoop up a spoonful of dough and boil it to make sure it holds its shape. If it doesn’t, add in more flour. Meanwhile, place the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When it melts and turns a nutty brown color, add the sage. While it fries, drop the ricotta mixture by the rounded tablespoon into the boiling water, working in batches of 6 or so at a time so as not to crowd the pot. When the gnocchi rise to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to the skillet. When all the gnocchi are done, toss, taste and adjust the seasoning and serve. This is good with a tomato sauce or even pistachio pesto or another topping of your choice.

Plum Cake

Jewish Holiday Cakes, by Hana Shaulov

350 degrees, 40–50 minutes

Honestly, I love a good cheesecake and there are a million recipes easily found online. There are plain cheesecakes, chocolate, lemon, striped, caramel, no bake and I can’t even tell you how many more. Here’s an alternative cake that is dairy, or could be made with margarine or another non-dairy substitute.


20 plums and about 6 tbs sugar or to your taste


  • 6 ½ oz butter, softened
  • 1 ¾ cups sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 tbs vanilla
  • 1 tbs lemon juice
  • 1 ¾ cups self-rising flour

Halve and stone the fruit. Sprinkle with sugar and set aside. Beat together the butter or margarine and 1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually beat in the egg yolks, vanilla, lemon juice, and flour. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites, gradually adding the remaining ¾ cups of sugar, until stiff. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture until no trace of white remains. Pour the batter into a greased 10×13 pan and arrange the halved plums on top. Bake the cake for 40–50 minutes until it is done.

Semolina Delight

Cook in Israel, by Orly Ziv

Here’s another non-cream cheesecake. It’s easy, tasty and worth a look and a nosh.

  • 2 cups milk
  • 4 tbs fine semolina
  • 3 tbs sugar
  • ½ tbs rose water
  • Almonds, optional

Put the milk, semolina and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Add the rose water and keep stirring constantly over a low flame for 2–3 minutes, until the mixture thickens. Pour into a serving platter, bowl, or rimmed baking sheet. Mark the serving portions with a knife. Decorate each portion with an almond, if you like. Allow the cake to cool, cover and allow to set in the refrigerator before serving.

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