Sorry, New York: German-style Cheesecake Is Superior

For the perfect Shavuot dinner, try this ricotta and cream cheesecake, a creamy, light combination used in both Germany and Israel.

Vered Guttman

When baby Moses was pulled from the Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh, she looked for a woman to breast feed him. But Moses kept refusing any Egyptian woman. "The Talmud explains that his mouth needed to be kept totally pure, as it would one day communicate directly with God," explains Aish website in its special Shavuot section. When Pharaoh's daughter finally found the one, she turned out to be none other than Yocheved, Moses' real mother!

This is one of many reasons for eating dairy products in Shavuot. So many in fact, it makes one thinks none of them really apply. Is it because when the Israelites received the torah near Mount Sinai, which is what we're celebrating in Shavuot, they first learned about the laws of kashrut and had a dairy meal? Was this tradition inspired by the phrase from Song of Songs "Like honey and milk [the Torah] lies under your tongue"? Personally I tend to agree with Gil Marks who says in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food that for Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe this was the time of year when animals were able to graze and dairy products were in abundance.

The same Ashkenazim who kept the tradition of eating dairy in Shavuot also brought with them to Israel and America the German cheesecake. The original recipe used quark cheese, a smooth yogurt-like cheese that produced a dense but not fat cheesecake. Quark cheese, known as White Cheese, is still being used in Israel for making cheesecakes.

In the U.S. cottage cheese initially substituted the quark, and in the 1930's, says Gil in his book, Jews in New York City substituted cream cheese and sour cream for the cottage cheese and the New York style cheesecake was born.

I don't think I'll ever reach to an agreement with Gil as to which is better. There's no doubt in my mind that the German-Israeli version is superior. It's not as rich, but in a good way. But although I've tried and baked many good cheesecakes, I'm still searching for an almost forgotten taste, not too sweet, maybe with a crumbly texture, that I'm not even sure whether it was my grandmother's cake or not.

Living in the U.S., where quark cheese is not so easy to find, I tried to work with ricotta and farmers' cheese and both yielded really good cakes, not too dense, not too fat, just right. I mixed the ricotta with sour cream and heavy cream and the recipe is below.

To open your appetite, I included recipes for a radish, scallions, feta and caraway seed salad and eggplant, sweet potato and cheese quiche for a perfect Shavuot meal.

German style cheesecake

The combination of ricotta and cream is intended to replace the original quark cheese that is used in both Germany and Israel to make cheesecakes. The result is a creamy but not too heavy cake, just perfect!

Want to make it interesting? Add a chocolate ganache top by melting 5 oz. bittersweet chocolate with 5 oz. heavy cream and pour on the chilled cake. Cool for an extra couple of hours before serving.

Yields 9" round cake
For the crust
3/4 lb. tea biscuits
10 tablespoons butter, melted

For the cheese filling
1.5 lb. ricotta
0.5 lb. sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
4 eggs
4 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated zest of 1 orange or 2 lemons

1. Oven to 300 degrees. Spray a 9" springform pan with oil.
2. Put tea biscuits in a food processor and mix to create fine crumbs, add melted butter and mix. Pour into cake pan and using your hands press biscuit mixture to the sides and bottom of the pan. Set aside.
3. Put ricotta cheese in the bowl of a food processor and mix until smooth. Add sour cream, heavy cream, salt, sugar and flour and mix briefly to incorporate. Add eggs one by one, mixing briefly, then add lemon juice and zest and mix shortly again.
4. Pour cheese filling into pan. Bake for 70 minutes, the center of the cake won't be set yet. Turn the oven off, crack open the oven door using a folded towel and leave the cake inside for another hour.
5. Let cake cool at room temperature then put in the fridge overnight before serving it.

Antipasti quiche

Yields 10" quiche
For the crust
2 cups flour
12 tablespoons cold butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch nutmeg
1/4 cup cold water

For the filling
2 medium eggplants, peeled, sliced to 3/8" rounds
Kosher salt
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, sliced to 1/4" rounds
1 red onion, sliced to 1/4 " rounds
Oil spray
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Za'atar (optional)
3 oz. grated Manchego, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
3 oz. soft or ripe goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 eggs
2 egg yolks

1. To make the crust put flour, butter, salt and nutmeg in a bowl of a food processor 1/2 lb. French feta (or your favorite feta)
2. Mix to create fine grains. Add cold water and mix to create crumbs. Remove from food processor, mix crumbs with your hands shortly to create dough, and press it to the bottom and sides of a springform cake pan. Make the crust on the sides 2 inch tall. Prick with a fork, cover with aluminum foil and put in the fridge for 1/2 hour and up to 2 days.
3. Oven to 400 degrees. Put eggplant slices in a colander, sprinkling each layer with kosher salt. Set aside.
4. Line 4 large cooking trays with parchment paper. Arrange sweet potato slices on two and red onion on one, spray with oil and sprinkle with salt. Sprinkle onion with Za'atar (if using). Bake sweet potatoes for 15 minutes and red onion for 20 minutes.
5. Oven to 450 degrees. Wash eggplants under running water and pat dry with paper towels. Arrange on a cooking tray and bake for 15 minutes.
6. In a medium bowl mix two types of cheese, heavy cream, rosemary, eggs and yolks. Set aside.
7. Oven to 350 degrees. Put pie weights or dry legume on the aluminum foil lined quiche crust and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, remove aluminum foil and let cool for 5 minutes.
8. Arrange sweet potatoes, eggplant and onion slices overlapping in a circle around the quiche. Start with a sweet potato slice, then eggplant, another sweet potato and a few rings of onions, and repeat until you cover the whole quiche. Pour cheese mixture on top. Bake for another 30 minutes. Let set for 10 minutes before serving.

Radish, green onion, feta and caraway seeds salad

Serves 4-6
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
3/4 lb. clean radish
1 bunch green onion
1 bunch cilantro, leaves only
1 Serrano pepper, cleaned from seeds, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 lb. French feta (or your favorite feta), crumbled

1. Put a skillet over medium-high heat. Once skillet is hot, roast caraway seeds for 2 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside.
2. Using a mandolin or the slicer of the food processor (or simply a knife, why not?) very thinly slice radishes. Put in a large bowl.
3. Add green onion, cilantro, Serrano, olive oil and lemon juice to the bowl and mix. Sprinkle with crumbled feta and caraway seeds, mix gently and serve. 

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman