When Shavuot was celebrated in first Temple times, what a celebration it was! It marked the end of the counting of the omer, begun with the barley harvest and the Passover holiday, meaning the wheat harvest was coming in and barley cakes were now joined in the Jews’ diet by real bread (pita and flatbreads), risen with natural yeasts and the gluten in wheat.
Flowers were blooming in the desert and the baby goats and lambs, born early in the spring, were weaned onto new grasses so their mothers’ milk could now be eaten by the people, made into yogurt and cheese. This plenty of the land was brought to the Temple from all over the territory of Israel in commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the covenant with Yahweh that made the Jews the people we still are.
Not surprising, of course, that a festival honoring the giving of the Torah would be jubilantly celebrated with food. During those times, most Jews were agrarian and bringing joyful offerings of new foods to the Temple was traditional and natural. We can imagine a lot of fun: Roasting new male lambs for the ritual sacrifices, so the Temple priests receiving their tithes of food also meant a big barbecue at the Temple for the people, meeting old friends for gossip and sharing news, and seeing how the children had grown over the weeks since Passover.
After the Diaspora, the need to keep Shavuot traditions alive created symbolic food associations among the different scattered tribes. The eating of cheese was associated with the holiday because Mt Sinai looks like a loaf of cheese, or the word for Hebrew word for milk, “chalav,” has the numerological sum of 40 — the same number of days Moses spent on Sinai receiving the Torah. The miracle of mother’s milk, which nourishes a newborn with everything it needs is like the Torah, which similarly nourishes the Jewish people.
Here are some recipes for Shavuot that celebrate both the old food traditions and the Diaspora: Recipes from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic cultures.
This is a Russian pancake pie, basically crepe-like pancakes layered with a simple mozzarella and ricotta filling, then baked, cut in wedges, and served with (what else?) sour cream and fruit sauce, like blintzes but much easier. Great for brunch or any Shavuot meal.
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cut into 1” pieces
4 oz. ricotta
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
2 Tbs. sugar or to taste
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 tsp. nutmeg or cinnamon (optional)
Place all ingredients in a food processor bowl or a blender jar and process or blend until smooth. Set aside, refrigerated.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups nonfat milk
4 Tbs. melted butter
Blend the eggs and milk in a food processor bowl or blender jar till smooth. Slowly add the flour mixed with the salt and sugar and blend just till smooth. Add the butter last.
If any lumps remain in the batter, strain through a fine strainer. Set the batter aside, covered, in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.
Making the pancakes
You’ll need about 3 Tbs. butter or cooking oil or non-stick spray and a 6” or 8” non-stick skillet.
Heat the pan over medium-high heat and just spray with non-stick spray or wipe lightly with melted butter or oil on a paper towel. When the pan is sizzling lightly, take the pan off the heat, scoop about 1/3 cup of batter (1/4 cup for a 6” pan) in a cup measure, and pour in a circle in the middle of the hot pan. Immediately tip and turn the pan around so the batter covers the entire bottom of the pan. Put back on the heat and cook until the top of the pancake has bubbled and cooked till it’s dry.
Just cook on one side and turn out onto a plate. Continue making pancakes until all the batter is used.
Grease an 8” cake pan or pie pan generously with non-stick spray, oil or butter. Place a pancake in the pan, spread with a little (about 2 Tbs.) filling and top with another pancake. Continue until the filling is used up. (If you have pancakes left, roll them up with sour cream or yogurt and jam for a really yummy treat!)
Cover the pan with aluminum foil, place in a 350º oven for 18 to 20 minutes until the filling is cooked and set. Take off the foil, place, loosen the sides of the pie with a small knife run around the sides and place a warm plate upside down on top of the pie or cake pan. Invert the pie onto the plate, cut into wedges and serve with sour cream, vanilla yogurt and any fruit sauce or syrup (applesauce of course is traditional but any fresh fruit, fruit sauce or compote is great). Enjoy!
Serves 6 to 8
Here is a traditional Turkish Anatolian soup often made with barley and leftover roasted chicken. I have modified it to use barley (for the end of the counting of the omer), mushrooms and the traditional yogurt finish.
If you like, you can replace the barley with faro, or spelt grains, an ancient wheat type that has less gluten than wheat and is appropriate for people who can’t tolerate the gluten in wheat. It’s available at PCC, Whole Foods and most grocery stores that sell bulk foods or “Bob’s Mill” packaged grains. Some historians claim that spelt was more commonly used in Biblical times than modern wheat and it is absolutely delicious. If using faro (spelt), increase the cooking time. Faro has lately become one of my favorite dishes. Try it if you can!
Barley Soup with Yogurt
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. white or crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 lb. shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
3 Tbs. butter, olive oil or margarine
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1 cup pearl barley or faro
10 cups water or vegetable broth or bouillon
Big pinch saffron threads
2 Tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley plus 2 or 3 Tbs. for garnish
4 Tbs. chopped fresh mint plus 2 or 3 Tbs. for garnish
2 cups plain yogurt (whole milk Greek-style is best)
3 Tbs. toasted pine nuts for garnish (optional)
In a four-quart soup pot, sauté the onion in 1 tablespoon butter, margarine or oil until soft and golden. Add all the sliced mushrooms, the rest of the oil (or fat) and the garlic and increase the heat to medium-high. Season with salt and pepper and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are golden brown and any liquid they have released has been re-absorbed.
Turn the heat down to medium, add the barley or faro and stir until all the grains are coated with oil. Add the water or vegetable broth or bouillon, stir the bottom of the pot to release any caramelization and bring to a boil. Crush the saffron with the back of a spoon on a little plate and stir it into the broth.
Turn the heat down and simmer the soup, partially covered, for about one hour or until the barley or faro is swollen and tender (faro will take about 15 to 20 minutes longer to become tender) and the mushroom flavor is pronounced. Add the parsley and mint and adjust the seasoning, remembering that the yogurt will add tartness. Add more liquid if the soup seems a little thick.
Just before serving, beat the yogurt in a bowl with a few ladles of the soup. Then pour the yogurt mixture back into the soup, beating vigorously with a whisk over low heat. Heat just until hot, stirring constantly. Don’t allow the soup to boil or it will curdle. Serve with more chopped mint and parsley and the toasted pine nuts if you like.
Serves 8 to 10