...never again

Spending the Jewish holidays in a hotel rather than at home is a mistake I will not repeat again.

dan ta hotel 298 88 (photo credit: www.danhotels.co.il)
dan ta hotel 298 88
(photo credit: www.danhotels.co.il)
Several years ago some friends persuaded me to join a synagogue group whose members prefer to spend Jewish holidays in a hotel environment rather than inviting guests to festival meals. It probably works out a lot cheaper, and it certainly saves time and energy, which is why it is becoming increasingly popular, so much so that at Pessah, hotels right across the country are full to the rafters with religiously observant groups that include three- and four-generational families. In my case it was Shavuot. I hadn't been on one of these vacations before, but my friends spoke of the experience in glowing terms. Reasoning that if so many people were so keen on the idea, it must definitely have its merits, I agreed to go along. Big mistake. Not wanting to create any difficulties and also because of the shortage of rooms, I agreed to share a room with a friend. Admittedly it was cheaper, but I wouldn't have objected to paying the extra in order to have a room to myself. Well, we were as different as chalk and cheese - and I wouldn't want to repeat the experience. However, the complex was spacious and beautiful with rolling lawns and well-tended gardens, so I didn't have to spend much time in my room. What most bothered me and most of the other members of the group was the absence of traditional Shavuot delicacies such as cheesecake and blintzes. We had imagined that in a hotel there would be several varieties of cheesecake on the menu, and we had signed on to this vacation expecting to ingest the extra calories. Our disappointment when we saw no cheesecake or blintzes on the dessert buffet is indescribable. There had been various cheeses on the main-course buffet, but they did not compensate. There were several excellent cooks and bakers in the group and some of them went to the kitchen offering to make up for the lacuna, but the chefs would have none of it. We were miserable meal after meal, thinking about the cheesecake that we couldn't eat. The experience put me permanently off group travel for Shavuot. One woman on that fateful occasion tried to concoct something by way of a dessert from mixing some of the cream cheeses on the buffet with sugar. Of course there was no vanilla to enhance the flavor. Not that many people bake their own cheesecakes these days. There is such a wide variety of choices of baked and refrigerator cheesecakes available in pastry stores, that unless one is a dedicated baker, it hardly seems worth the effort to choose homemade. Cheesecakes, depending on their nature, can be very treacherous. If you watch them through the glass door of the oven, you may see them rise to the very rim of the cake pan - but if you open the oven or turn it off too soon, your cake will sink like a ship going to the bottom of the ocean. This is especially so with spongy cheesecakes in which the whites and the yolks of the eggs are whipped separately and the whites are gently folded into the cheese mixture. Until I came to Israel, I'd never actually eaten that type of cheesecake, and it hasn't grown on me. It crumbles too easily and it seldom tastes sufficiently cheesy. Of course I was spoiled by my mother's cheesecake, which has a rich velvety texture. Perhaps it's doing a disservice to my late mother to attribute this cheesecake recipe to her - because she was a much more gifted baker than I. Her cheesecakes - usually baked in a rectangular metal pan - featured a perfectly arranged glazed latticework of pastry across the top. But no matter how hard I tried to emulate my mother, my pastry strips always fell into the cake mix and had to be fished out. In the end I came up with an alternative solution. My cheesecake is much richer than my mother's because I cover it with cheese frosting, which is absolutely delicious but sinfully fattening. Also I prefer to make my cake in a round springform rather than a rectangular cake pan, because I prefer the cake to come out higher. Part of the cake may come "unstuck" when the tin is opened, but the cheese frosting may camouflage a disaster. CHEESECAKE Pastry: 1 cup self-raising flour 1 Tbsp. white sugar 1⁄2 cup chilled butter cut in thin slices 1 tsp. vanilla extract 1 egg Pinch of salt 1⁄4 cup cold water 2 tsp. powdered cinnamon Filling: 500 gr. white cheese, preferably 9% 5 eggs 3⁄4 cup sugar 2 Tbsp. self-rising flour 1 Tbsp. melted butter, cooled 1 tsp. vanilla extract Frosting: 250 gr. white cheese 1⁄4 cup white sugar 1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract Chocolate sprinkles Preheat the oven to just over 150 C. To make the pastry, pour the flour onto a kneading board. Make a well in the center for the sugar the egg, the vanilla extract and the pinch of salt plus a little of the water. Place the slices of butter around the outside of the flour well and begin folding ingredients together with the palm of the hand until all have been combined and the dough is smooth. Add remaining water gradually, if necessary. Roll the dough in a ball, cover with wax paper or plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for half an hour. Remove and roll out dough to the thickness of just under half a centimeter. Lightly grease the base and sides of the baking dish with butter, roll out the dough with a rolling pin, moving from the center to the edge and turning the dough around accordingly. Line the baking dish with the dough and lightly dust the surface with cinnamon. Place the dish in the refrigerator while preparing the cake mixture. Place cheese and sugar in a bowl and using a wooden spoon, mix well, add eggs one at a time and fold into the mixture. Add the flour, a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla extract and melted butter and mix again. Remove the cake pan from the refrigerator and fill with the cake mixture. Shake the pan gently to make sure the mixture is evenly distributed and place in oven. Bake for approximately 1 hour or until golden brown. Turn off heat but do NOT open the oven door until the oven has cooled completely. Once the cake has cooled, prepare the frosting by whipping up the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla extract with an electric beater. Spoon the mixture onto the top of the cake until the whole surface is covered. Then take a fork and create a pattern in the frosting with the prongs. Shake some chocolate sprinkles over the top and place in refrigerator for at least an hour before eating. It usually tastes better the next day. If you have used a springform tin, double the ingredients for the frosting so that you can spread the mixture around the sides of the cake as well. This topping stays fresh for longer than whipped cream. ANOTHER EQUALLY delicious version of a baked cheesecake, perhaps not quite as calorific, was one that I culled from a former colleague, with whom I worked not long after my arrival in Israel. Her name is Joanie. She came from Canada and she baked her cheese cake for almost anyone's party. JOANIE'S CHEESECAKE. Pastry: 125 gr. cookie crumbs 1⁄4 tub of margarine, melted 1⁄4 cup sugar Filling: 500 gr. 9% white cheese 3 eggs 3⁄4 cup sugar 1⁄2 sachet vanilla instant pudding Topping: 3 containers sour cream 6-8 tsp. sugar 1 tsp. vanilla extract Mix all the pastry ingredients together and bake for 10 minutes in pre-heated 150 C oven. Place all the ingredients for the mixture in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Spoon the cake mixture over the crust. Bake for half an hour. Gently remove cake, lower heat in oven slightly and cool cake for 10 minutes. Mix all the ingredients for the topping and spread gently over the cake. Return the cake to the oven for five minutes so that the topping will set without browning. NO-BAKE refrigerator cheesecakes seem to be more popular in Israel than those that come out of the oven. The beauty of refrigerator cheesecakes is that they leave so much room for improvisation; they taste just as good with no-fat cheese as with cheese that is rich in fat; and almost always work out well providing that the gelatin is properly dissolved. (It is imperative that the gelatin be dissolved separately before it is added to the rest of the mixture. If the gelatin is lumpy, the mixture will not be as smooth as it should be, and the lumpy bits will spoil the taste and texture of the cake.) The basic ingredients for a refrigerator cheesecake are cheese, sugar, gelatin, sour cream and vanilla extract. Usually the mixture is placed on a cookie crumb base, but it tastes much better and richer if the base is made of stale chocolate or butter cake or even sponge cake that has been soaked in wine and flattened on the base of the cake pan. The cake or cookie crumb base can be covered with canned, dried or stewed fruits prior to the pouring over of the cake mixture. The cake mixture can be enriched with whipped cream and butter or margarine. Another variation is to substitute jello for gelatin. If you do this remember to use only half the quantity of boiling water to dissolve the jello than is recommended on the directions on the packet. BASIC REFRIGERATOR CHEESE CAKE Base: 125 gr. cookie crumbs 1⁄4 tub of margarine 1⁄4 cup sugar Filling: 750 gr. white cheese 2 containers sour cream or plain yoghurt 1⁄2 cup sugar 1 tsp. vanilla extract 1 sachet gelatin 3⁄4 cup boiling water Topping: Cookie crumbs or fruit topping For fruit topping, select the fruit you want, put it in a saucepan with 1⁄2 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Stir and simmer till liquid has been absorbed. Cool and pour over the top of the cake, gently spreading it evenly with a spatula or the back of a soup spoon. To make the base, melt margarine and add to the cookie crumbs and sugar. Spread over the base of the cake pan and refrigerate. Mix the first four filling ingredients, and let stand. In a separate bowl, dissolve the gelatin. Allow it to cool slightly and pour into the cake mixture. Blend thoroughly. Remove the crumb base from the refrigerator and pour cake mixture over it. You can have a crumb topping or cover the top of the cake with strawberries, kiwis or canned peaches, apricots or pineapple, or a mixture of any of the above. Refrigerate - preferably overnight, but at least six hours before serving. CULINARY traditionalists, blintzes are no less integral to Shavuot than cheesecake. My mother used to fold her blintzes into neat little envelopes. In most Israeli coffee shops in which blintzes are on the menu, they are served open-ended with a sprinkling of powder sugar on top and a dollop of sour cream at the side. Mine are sealed at the ends, but they're more like spring rolls than traditional blintzes because I like them to be crisp. My mother's blintzes were silky soft because she fried them in butter. When I first came to Israel, I fried them in margarine, which made the texture of the crepe a little firmer, but not nearly as crisp as frying them in oil. CHEESE BLINTZES Batter: 200 gr. sifted flour 1/2 cup milk 2 Tbsp. cream 3 eggs Pinch of salt 1 Tbsp. sugar 2 Tbsp. oil Butter, margarine or oil for frying Place the flour in a bowl. Add all the other ingredients . Beat until smooth. Set aside for an hour and beat again. The mixture makes around 20 crepes. If you wish you can substitute water and a tablespoon of melted butter for the milk and cream. Fry the crepes in a teflon frypan. Continue beating the batter while the crepes are cooking. Cheese filling: 500 gr. cream cheese 2 egg yolks 2 Tbsp. sugar pinch of salt pinch of cinnamon 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract 2 Tbsp. raisins optional 2 Tbsp. cornstarch optional Mix all ingredients together well. Place the crepe on a flat surface. Place a tablespoon of cheese mixture below the center and wrap. Store blintzes in a pan. They can be lightly pre-friend in butter, margarine or oil and later heated in the oven or the microwave or served cold. MOST JEWS, in sharp contrast to their eating habits on other Jewish festivals and Shabbat, eat dairy foods on Shavuot, but not all of them know why they adhere to this custom. Several reasons have been advanced. Once they accepted the Torah, the Children of Israel were obligated to observe the rules of Kashrut. But as the Torah was given on Shabbat, they could neither slaughter cattle nor kosher their utensils, so they ate dairy. Another reason is that the Torah is likened to milk ("Honey and milk beneath your tongue" - Song of Songs 4:11), as is the Promised Land. A further reason suggested is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk (halav) is 40 (Het is eight, Lamed is 30 and Vet is two), and Moses was on Mount Sinai 40 days receiving the Torah. Shavuot itself is the celebration of receiving the Torah.