A way with curds

There is nothing like a bit of cheesecake at Shavuot. But why do we eat it?

By Denise Phillips, May 13, 2010
Say cheese: Shavuot has become known as the cheesecake festival

Say cheese: Shavuot has become known as the cheesecake festival

Like most Jewish holidays, Shavuot is known by a variety of names: the Feast of Weeks, the Festival of Giving of the Torah, and, more recently, the Cheesecake Festival.

The most popular explanation for the tradition of eating dairy foods at this time is that when the Israelites accepted the Torah, they became obliged to follow the laws of kashrut. However, these laws were new and they were nervous about following them correctly. So to be on the safe side they decided the best option was to stick to dairy foods.

And what could be more dairy than a fine cheesecake to round off a celebratory dairy meal? Cheesecake, with its creamy, delicious, melt-in-the-mouth taste is one of the great comfort foods.

It is believed to have originated in ancient Greece when it was served to the athletes at the first Olympic games held in 776 BCE on the Isle of Delos. The secret of this divine dessert then fell into the hands of the Romans, who renamed it "placenta" or "libum" and baked it on a pastry base and used it as an offering at their temples to their gods.

Evidence of its use in Roman times comes from a formal document written by a politician called Marcus Porcius Cato during the 1st century ACE. He included a recipe for "libum" consisting of 900g cheese crushed in a mortar, 450g of wheat flour and one egg. These ingredients were mixed together, made into a loaf, placed on leaves and cooked slowly in a wood-fired oven.

By 1000 ACE, cheesecake was being made throughout north west Europe. Today there are many types and flavours of cheesecake but there are some good general tips to follow:

● Bring all the ingredients to room temperature before mixing. This takes about 15 minutes.

● Mix the filling until combined - do not over-mix.

● Use a loose based cake tin lined with baking parchment to ensure it can be removed with ease and without damaging it.

● Do not open the oven door while baking.

● Cook slowly on a medium to low heat so that the cake sets inside without burning on top.

● Garnish a cheesecake no more than three hours before serving.

● Always serve it at room temperature

● If freezing, wrap securely with baking parchment followed by foil, and defrost overnight in the refrigerator.

Vanilla and Lemon Cheesecake

This is a delicious traditional cheesecake. I have added the combined flavours of vanilla and lemon as they work well together. It is perfect for a luxury tea or the ultimate Shavuot dessert.

Preparation time: 20 minutes.
Cooking time: 30 minutes.
Serves 8


● 1 packet trifle sponge bases - cut into slices
● 675g cream cheese
● Juice and zest of 1 lemon
● 55g soft margarine plus
1 tablespoon – to grease the cake tin
● 2 eggs separated
● 75g caster sugar
● 1 tablespoon cornflour
● 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
● 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
● 150ml double cream

To garnish:
● Zest of lemon and a dusting of vanilla sugar
● Thick yoghurt with vanilla seeds stirred in, or alternatively buy vanilla yoghurt


● Pre-heat the oven to 190° C/ 375° C/ gas mark 5.
● Grease a loose-based bottom 22cm/9in cake tin with a little margarine and line the base with baking parchment paper.
● Arrange the trifle pieces on the base of the cake tin overlapping where necessary.
● Put the cheese, sugar, zest and juice of lemon into a mixing bowl.
● Add the margarine, yokes, cornflour and finally the cream. Whisk together until smooth.
● Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl until they are at the soft peak stage. Add 1 tablespoon of caster sugar.
● Carefully fold the egg whites into the cheese mixture. Pour the mixture over the sponge base.
● Bake for 30 minutes or until the cake is set around the edges and slightly brown.
● Leave to cool in the oven for 2 hours and then transfer to the fridge.
● To serve: remove from the cake tin. Garnish with zest of 1 lemon and thick yoghurt with vanilla seeds or vanilla yoghurt.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, May 25 2011