Shavuot Surprise: From Cheese-filled Calzones to Lemon Cheesecake

Tzfatit cheese-filled calzones from Tiberias and Safed, and a lemon cheesecake recipe will satisfy the sweetest of tooths.

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Calzones filled with Tzfatit cheese.
Calzones filled with Tzfatit cheese. Credit: Guy Eisner

Calzone fever begins in Tiberias two weeks before the Shavuot holiday. The locals use a hard Tzfatit cheese from the Kadosh Dairy in Safed to fill these dough pockets. “Without this cheese, there’s no point making calzones,” says Ofer Eliahu of Beit Hagvinot Vehahamutzim, a small deli on Hayarkon Street, which is the only place in the city where the original cheese is sold.

In the last few days, he and an employee have been busy transforming hundreds of large round cheese wheels, coated with coarse salt, into slivers of shredded cheese. “I stock this cheese all year round, but the two weeks before the holiday are madness,” he says. “The line starts in the early morning and, as the holiday gets nearer, I work all day until 11 or 12 at night. I’d say that 70 percent of the families in Tiberias still make calzones for Shavuot.”

Between the talk of the unseasonable heat and grumbling about the endless roadwork in the city center, everyone in Tiberias seems to be talking about calzones. They are traditionally made at home, and there is fierce competition as to which cook, and neighborhood, makes “the best calzones in town.”

But there are also a few places, such as Burekas Istanbul on Hayarkon Street, that prepare tray after tray of the traditional delicacy and offer them for sale, frozen, before the holiday.

Like other foods made from stuffed dough, calzones became associated with a holiday because of the amount of toil required to make them. Nowadays a pasta machine is used to flatten the dough into thin sheets, but in olden times the dough was rolled out with a rolling pin atop sheets laid out on the floor. The women of the family, who spent long days preparing the calzones by hand, carefully pinched the edges of each one to give them an attractive finish. In Latin, the word “calzone” means “pants” or “lower garment.”

“The calzone is a popular Shavuot food in the Syrian-Jewish community, especially in Aleppo but also in Damascus,” says Edna Asis, a food researcher from the Ben-Zvi Institute. “In the 17th Century, Italian and Spanish Jews began coming to the Syrian communities from all over the Ottoman Empire, and they probably brought the calzone with them, because there is no similar food in the local cuisine. The food survived and took root as a part of the local cuisine because it became part of the religious ritual, connected to the Shavuot holiday.”

Baked or boiled

Calzones are also eaten in Jerusalem and other places where descendants of the Jewish communities of Italy and Spain settled. But in Safed and Tiberias, a local and seasonal twist was added in the form of Tzfatit cheese. Today the dish is made by Tiberians of all ethnic groups.

“The women of Tiberias used to go up to Safed to receive a blessing during the hilula of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Lag Ba’omer, and then they would bring back the Tzfatit cheese and use it to make calzones,” says chef Avigail Aharon, owner of the Avigail Potahat Shulhan restaurant and whose family has lived in Tiberias for 10 generations.

In Safed, the calzones are usually cooked in boiling water and served with olive oil or butter, with grated Tzfatit cheese on top. In Tiberias, the calzones are boiled and then put into the oven with grated cheese on top until nicely browned.

At the Kadosh Dairy in Safed, the two weeks before Shavuot are also an ongoing celebration. People keep streaming in to buy cheese for the holiday, and the family-run dairy’s shop becomes a salon where Yoav and Haim – descendants of the dairy’s founder – entertain customers and friends. In the room next to the shop, the cheese is made and then put into the “cave” – a room in the basement of one of the thick-walled buildings built during the Ottoman period. This is where the cheese wheel is coated with coarse salt and left to ripen at room temperature for three to six months.

The result is a hard, salty cheese with a strong flavor and fragrance. The salt coating – one of the most ancient cheese-preserving techniques – is what allows it to keep for such a long time (the so-called “Tzfatit cheese” produced by industrial dairies has little in common with the traditional cheese).

Safed elders speak proudly of the reputation that jibni safdiya (“Safed cheese”) gained in Lebanon and Damascus, and cite the old story of how, in bygone days, a male traveler from the region would always take along three things – a tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin and a slab of Tzfatit cheese.

Tzipora Harosh, wife of Shimon Harosh, whose family goes back 13 generations in Safed, walks into the dairy shop and is stunned to see calzones on display two weeks ahead of time. “I just wanted to give the visitors a taste,” explains Leah Kadosh, mother of Yoav and Haim. “I tried to make them a month ago, too,” another woman chimes in, “but the taste just wasn’t the same.”

The strong feelings surrounding calzones can also be traced to historical processes and the logic of the agricultural seasons. Shortly before Passover, young lambs are born and the mothers’ udders fill with milk; fresh cheeses are made from the sheep’s milk and, on the Shavuot holiday – just a few weeks after Tiberias residents have been to Safed for the traditional Lag Ba’omer celebrations – the cheeses are ripe enough to be used in various delicacies.

Calzones are the food most identified with Shavuot, but there are others too. “The holy quartet of the Shavuot table includes calzones; macaroni – my mother used to string the dough on a steel thread to create the opening; egg noodles with butter and cheese; and squash stuffed with Tzfatit cheese and cooked in tomato sauce,” says Rivka Harar, who was born in the city during the British Mandate period and has Tiberian roots that go back seven generations. Her husband Yitzhak’s family also goes back many generations, and both have sweet memories of the Shavuot holiday in the city.

Surprisingly, the well-preserved tradition is hardly known outside of Tiberias and Safed. People in Safed are wistful for the bygone days of the “Little Hours” club and the good neighborly relations among the winding alleyways. In Tiberias, people lament the disappearance of the Old City and tourists, but in both places people are still very happy about the calzones that have survived the upheavals of time.

Lemon cheesecake recipe

Ingredients (using a 26cm diameter cake pan):

For the dough:

70 grams butter
1/3 cup (60 gr.) sugar
1 1/4 cup (180 gr.) flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 medium egg plus one egg yolk
1/3 of a packet of vanilla sugar, or a little vanilla
1 tsp. vinegar
For the lemon mixture:
4 tbsp. (35 gr.) cornstarch
1 cup water
1/2 cup lemon juice
Grated peel of 2 lemons
1/2 cup (100 gr.) sugar
60 grams butter
2 egg yolks
For the cheese:
1 kilo 9% cheese
3/4 cup (150 gr.) sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
For the meringue:
4 egg whites
3/4 cup (150 gr.) sugar
1 tsp. water


For the dough:

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Cut the butter into cubes and put into the bowl of a mixer. Add the eggs, sugar and vanilla sugar and mix with the K-hook (called the “guitar hook” in Hebrew). Start at a slow speed and then gradually increase it. When the butter is smoothed out, add the vinegar. Add the flour and increase the speed. Grease a cake pan, transfer the dough to the pan and flatten it out by hand. The dough will be sticky, so wet your hands with a little water before handling it. The dough should be very thin and cover the sides up to a third of the height of the pan. Make sure there’s not too much dough where the bottom of the pan meets the side. Put the pan in the refrigerator while you continue with the other preparations.

For the lemon mixture:

Dissolve the cornstarch in a small amount of water. Put the rest of the water, the lemon juice and the grated lemon peel in a pot over a low flame. Add the dissolved cornstarch while stirring to prevent lumps. The liquid should thicken while boiling. When the mixture has boiled for about a minute and has thickened, take the pot off the fire and let it cool a little (take care to see that it remains liquid).In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs, sugar and butter. Gradually add the hot liquid while beating with a whisk.

For the cheese:

Mix the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the lemon mixture and combine until smooth. Pour over the dough.

Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for 45-60 minutes, depending on the oven. The inner part of the cake should be a bit wobbly. It will stabilize when it cools.

For the meringue:

When the cake has been baking for about half an hour, start preparing the meringue. It can’t be prepared too far ahead of time because it will start to break down. Whip 4 egg whites with sugar to obtain a stiff foam. Dribble on a teaspoon of water and continue whipping for just a few more seconds. Add the meringue to the cake for the final 15 minutes of baking. Use a fork to make swirls in the topping.

After the cake cools, refrigerate for at least seven hours before serving.

Calzones filled with Tzfatit cheese. Credit: Guy Eisner

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