Shavuot: French Dairy Delights
During the years I lived in France, I realized that Shavuot is a perfect time to enjoy such luscious French dishes as cheese soufflés, quiches with creamy fillings and sweet cheese tarts for dessert.
Alsace and southern France are regions in which Jews have lived for centuries. These areas are also known for their tasty cooking styles and have numerous dairy specialties, from Alsatian onion and cream cheese quiche to Gruyere cheese salad to Provencal vegetable casseroles topped with Parmesan. And, of course, many Jews live in Paris, the showcase of the country’s finest delicacies. My husband tells me that in the Parisian phone book there were more people named Levy than there were Dupont!
The creamy, cheesy French dishes are the ones that have always tempted me the most, and they are ideal for a festive Shavuot dinner. I love vegetable gratins baked in bechamel sauce, a smooth, nutmeg-flavored white sauce, and browned with a sprinkling of cheese. Pasta, vegetables and fish are especially wonderful when served with a mushroom sauce enriched with cream. It’s nearly impossible for me to resist the tarts with buttery crusts, from savory spinach and cheese tarts to strawberry tarts with vanilla pastry cream and shiny jam glaze.
The fabulous cheese shops of Paris are a special delight, with their huge bowls of thick crème fraiche, their tall blocks of fresh, yellow butter from which they cut a slab for you, and the rich variety of cheeses from every region of France. Israel also has a terrific selection of high quality cheeses, and you can find an appealing selection of them in many kosher markets in the US. For Shavuot, we feast on several choice cheeses and of course, we enjoy them with fresh, crusty French baguette.
The following treats are definitely not lean. But, after all, Shavuot comes only once a year!
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home (Morrow), 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley) and Jewish Cooking For Dummies (Wiley).
FRESH SPINACH TART
Pureed spinach gives this tart a vivid green filling with a firmer texture than that of a quiche. To ensure the delicate flakiness of the pate brisee, or French pie pastry, the tart shell is baked briefly before the filling is added. Prepare the pastry shell at least a few hours before baking the tart, to allow enough time to thoroughly chill it. You can keep the tart, covered, 1 day in the refrigerator; before serving, heat it in a 300F oven.
If you prefer a tart that is slightly less rich, omit the 2 egg yolks and use 4 whole eggs; replace 1/2 cup of the cream with sour cream–regular or low fat.
French Pastry Shell (see next recipe)
Dry beans or rice (for weighting pastry shell)
2 1/2 pounds fresh spinach, stems removed, leaves washed thoroughly (or use frozen - see note)
2 egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
Prepare pastry shell.
Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425F. Line pastry shell with parchment paper or foil and fill with dry beans or rice. Set shell on a baking sheet and bake 10 minutes. Carefully remove beans or rice and paper, and bake shell 8 to 10 more minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer tart pan to a rack and let shell cool. Move baking sheet to center of oven. Reduce oven temperature to 350F.
In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook spinach uncovered over high heat, pushing leaves down into water often, about 3 minutes, or until very tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain thoroughly. Squeeze by handfuls until dry. Chop finely in food processor or with a knife.
In a bowl, whisk eggs with yolks and pinches of salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in cream and chopped spinach. Taste a bit of the mixture and adjust seasoning.
Return tart shell, still in its pan, to hot baking sheet. Ladle spinach mixture slowly into shell. Bake for 30 minutes, or until filling is set. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 6 servings.
NOTE: Three 10-ounce packages frozen spinach can be substituted for fresh. Thaw spinach completely, squeeze it dry, and puree it in a food processor. Measure 1 1/4 cups puree.
FRENCH PASTRY SHELL
Use this dough for savory pies or tarts, and the variation for sweet ones. The dough is easy to make in the food processor or by hand in a bowl. A tart pan with a removable base is prettiest and easiest to use, but you can also use a pie pan. You can keep the tart shell, covered, up to 2 days in the refrigerator; or you can freeze it.
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons ice water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
To make dough in food processor: Beat egg yolks with ice water. Combine flour and salt in a food processor fitted with metal blade. Process briefly to blend. Scatter butter pieces over mixture. Mix, using on/ off turns, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Pour yolk mixture evenly over ingredients in processor. Process with on/off turns, scraping down occasionally, until dough forms sticky crumbs that can easily be pressed together but does not come together in a ball. If crumbs are dry, sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon water, and process with on/off turns until crumbs are sticky. Add more water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, if crumbs are still dry. Using a rubber spatula, transfer dough to a sheet of plastic wrap, wrap it, and push it together. Shape dough in a flat disk.
To make dough by hand: Beat egg yolks with ice water. In a large bowl combine flour and salt, add butter, and cut butter through until it forms fine crumbs. Add egg yolk mixture and toss until liquid is incorporated, adding more ice water by half teaspoons, if necessary, to form dough into a ball. Knead dough lightly with heel of hand against a smooth surface for just a few seconds and press it gently into a ball. Dust dough with flour and wrap it in plastic wrap. Shape dough in a flat disk.
Refrigerate dough 1 or 2 hours or up to 2 days.
Butter a 9 1/2- to 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable base. Let dough soften 1 minute at room temperature. Set dough on a cool, lightly floured surface. Tap it firmly several times with a heavy rolling pin to flatten it. Roll it out, flouring often and working as quickly as possible, to a circle about 1/8 inch thick. Roll up dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll it over pan. Gently ease dough into pan. (If dough tears, use a piece of dough hanging over rim of pan to patch it.)
Using your thumb, gently push down dough a little bit at top edge of tart pan, making top edge of dough thicker than remaining dough. Roll the rolling pin across the tart pan to cut off dough at edges. With your finger and thumb, push up top edge of dough all around pan so it is about 1/4 inch higher than rim of pan. Prick bottom of shell lightly with a fork and refrigerate shell 30 minutes.
Makes an 8- to 10-inch shell.
VARIATION: PASTRY SHELL FOR DESSERT TARTS:
Add 2 tablespoons powdered sugar to the dough mixture together with the flour.
INDIVIDUAL ONION SOUFFLES
When onions cook very slowly in butter, they acquire a wonderful, slightly sweet flavor. They are used as the base for these savory soufflés.
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 pounds onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour
3/4 cup milk
4 egg yolks, room temperature
5 egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saute pan over very low heat. Add onions, thyme, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Cover with a round of buttered foil and a lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, 30 to 45 minutes, or until onions are soft enough to be easily crushed with a spoon, If you used fresh thyme, remove sprigs. If there is liquid in pan, uncover and cook over medium heat, stirring, until dry.
Butter four 1- to 1 1/4-cup soufflé dishes, making sure to butter rims well. Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 425F.
In a small heavy saucepan, melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, about 2 minutes, or until foaming but not browned. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in milk and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking. Add a small pinch of salt and pepper, reduce heat to low, and cook, whisking often, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in onions. Bring to a boil, stirring.
Remove from heat and vigorously whisk in egg yolks, one by one. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, about 2 minutes or until thickened. Do not overcook or let boil or yolks may curdle. Taste and adjust seasoning. (Mixture can be kept, covered, up to 8 hours in refrigerator.)
Have four heatproof plates ready near oven. Put soufflé dishes on a baking sheet. If soufflés mixture is cold, heat it in a small saucepan over low heat, whisking, until just warm. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites with cream of tartar at medium speed until soft peaks form. Then beat briefly at high speed until whites are stiff but not dry. Quickly fold about one-quarter of whites into onion mixture. Spoon this over remaining whites and fold in lightly but quickly, until just blended.
Transfer to prepared soufflé dishes and smooth tops. Bake about 12 minutes, or until puffed and browned; when you gently move oven rack, soufflés should shake very slightly in center. Do not overbake or soufflés may burn on top and may shrink. Set souffle dishes on plates and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
POTATO SALAD WITH CHEESE AND TOASTED WALNUTS
This is a favorite lunchtime salad in French cafes. Walnuts are often used in France, but pecans are also good. You can use any slicing cheese that you like. I also like the salad with Israeli kashkaval cheese.
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 cup olive oil or vegetable oil
6 to 8 ounces Swiss cheese, cut in thin strips
1 head romaine or other green leaf lettuce
2/3 cup walnut pieces, lightly toasted
Scrub potatoes but do not peel them. Put them in a saucepan, cover them generously with water and add a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 25 minutes or until tender when pierced with a sharp knife.
Whisk vinegar with salt and pepper in a medium bowl; whisk in oil. Taste and adjust seasoning.
When potatoes are tender, drain them and leave until cool enough to handle. Peel potatoes, halve them lengthwise and cut them in slices. Put them in a large bowl. Rewhisk dressing. Spoon 1/3 cup dressing over potatoes and mix gently.
Leave to cool to room temperature. Add cheese. (Salad tastes best on day it is made but it can be prepared 1 day ahead, covered and refrigerated.)
Rinse and dry lettuce leaves thoroughly. Tear large leaves in half or in quarters.
A short time before serving, toss lettuce with 1/4 cup dressing, or enough to moisten. Arrange on a platter. Add enough of remaining dressing to potato mixture to lightly coat ingredients. Add all but 2 tablespoons of walnuts. Mix gently, taste and adjust seasoning. To serve, spoon potato salad onto bed of lettuce. Garnish with remaining walnuts.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
CAULIFLOWER GRATIN WITH LIGHT CHEESE SAUCE
A classic combination, cauliflower with cheese sauce can be served with a rice dish, such as rice cooked with peas, and a fresh vegetable salad. The luscious sauce is light in texture. You can coat the cauliflower with the sauce in its gratin dish and refrigerate it overnight, covered. Before serving, bring it to room temperature and bake it.
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups milk
Salt and white pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup heavy cream or additional milk
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, about 2 minutes, or until foaming but not browned. Remove from heat. Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, whisking. Add a small pinch of salt, white pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking often, for 5 minutes. Whisk in cream and bring to boil. Cook over low heat, whisking often, until sauce thickens and coats a spoon heavily, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add cayenne pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Dab surface of sauce with butter if not using immediately.
Preheat oven to 425F. Divide cauliflower into medium florets, discarding stalk and green leaves. Cook florets uncovered in a large saucepan of boiling salted water about 7 minutes or until they are just tender when pierced with a small sharp knife. Drain, rinse with cold running water until cool, and drain thoroughly. (See Note below.)
Before using sauce, bring it to a boil, whisking. Remove from heat. Whisk in 1/4 cup cheese.
Butter a heavy 5-cup gratin dish or other shallow baking dish. Arrange cauliflower florets in one layer in prepared dish. Spoon sauce carefully over them to coat completely. Sprinkle evenly with 2 tablespoons cheese. (Gratin can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator; bring to room temperature before continuing.)
Bake until sauce begins to bubble, about 7 minutes if sauce was hot, or about 10 minutes if ingredients were at room temperature. If top is not brown, transfer dish to broiler and broil with door partly open just until cheese is lightly browned, about 1 minute, checking often and turning dish if necessary so cheese browns evenly. Serve hot, from baking dish.
Makes 4 servings.
NOTE: To avoid crushing the cauliflower florets, drain them as gently as possible after cooking and rinse them under a thin stream of water so they will not fall apart.
LEMON-SCENTED CHEESE TART
For Shavuot, serve this easy to make French tart to cheesecake lovers. It has a light lemon-accented cream cheese filling in a delicately sweetened crust. You can bake the tart one day ahead and keep it in the refrigerator.
Pastry Shell for Dessert Tarts (see variation of French Pastry Shell recipe above)
Dry beans or rice (for weighting pastry shell)
6 oz. cream cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
5 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons all purpose flour
Use an 8-inch tart pan or pie pan. Prepare pastry and line pan following pastry shell recipe. Refrigerate lined pan 1 hour or up to overnight.
Set oven at 425F and heat a baking sheet in oven. Line dough with parchment paper or foil and fill it with dried beans or rice. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove paper and beans and bake 7 more minutes or until base is beginning to brown. Remove tart pan from oven but leave baking sheet in oven. Let tart shell cool. Reduce oven temperature to 375F.
Beat cream cheese with cream at low speed. Gradually beat in sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Stir in lemon zest, vanilla and flour. Return tart shell, still in its pan, to hot baking sheet. Pour filling into shell and bake 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325F and continue baking 20 to 25 minutes or until filling is firm. Let tart cool in oven, with door slightly open. Serve cold.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.