The Gift of Cheese
In 1802, the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts bestowed the gift of cheese upon President Thomas Jefferson – 1234 pounds of cheese to be exact, called the Cheshire Mammoth Cheese. In 1840, Queen Victoria was presented with a cheddar cheese wheel weighing over 1,000 pounds as a wedding gift. Although these examples are unique in the amount of cheese given, cheese has been given as a gift for thousands of years.
Historians and culinary experts are not really sure when cheese was first invented, but all enjoy retelling the mythical legend of its origin. One day, an Arabian merchant was supplied with milk to quench his thirst while he travelled between towns. He had nowhere to store it, except for a pouch made from the stomach of a sheep. After a long day of travelling across the hot desert, unbeknownst to him, the milk had separated into curd and whey. When the merchant took out the milk for dinner, he swallowed some of the whey and he found it good to drink, and then dined on the curd, which not only tasted wonderful, it was able to satisfy his hunger.
To fully appreciate this story, one would also need to understand how cheese is produced. There is an enzyme in the stomach lining of some mammals called rennet. When rennet is mixed with milk and heated, the milk curdles. These solid curds have historically been used to make cheese. I will leave the issue as to whether using rennet makes cheese non-kosher to the rabbi, but in case any readers are worried about possibly mixing milk and meat, there are a number of non-animal sources of rennet-type enzymes that are also used to make cheese. The discussion over whether cheese is kosher has been ongoing for generations, with Rabbienu Tam (רבנו תם) being deemed one of the foremost authorities on this subject, deliberating upon this topic as far back as the 12th century.
Writing about Rabbienu Tam reminds me of a Shavuot miracle concerning Rabbienu Tam and the gift of life, so I would like to quickly take a step aside and tell it to you:
During Shavuot in 1146, a mob of crusaders broke into the home he was staying, dragged him outside, and were ready to literally crucify him. Besides being the most influential rabbi of his generation (and the grandson of Rashi), he was also a money-lender whom dealt only with nobility. While the mob was getting ready to nail him to a cross, one of his clients, by chance, happened to be riding by and stopped the men. The nobleman knew that the mob would not be satisfied with anything less than the rabbi’s death. He thought for a moment, then convinced them that if they would give him the rabbi, he would do something even worse – he would make the rabbi convert. The mob, being satisfied with this solution dispersed. The rabbi was taken to the end of town by the nobleman and told to “walk.” The Rabbbienu quickly left and made his way to his home in the town of Troyes (France).
Now back to the show . . . .
Although the story of the travelling Arab merchant is fictional, it is probably not far from the truth – at some point in time, early man (or woman) left milk in a water skin containing rennet, and it turned the milk to curd. What we do know is that the earliest evidence of cheese being used by humans was found in Poland dating back to 5,500 BCE (there is also unsupported evidence found in Switzerland dating to 500 years earlier). Other archeological digs have found evidence of actual ongoing dairying to have existed in the Sahara from as far back as 4,000 BCE, as well as murals on Egyptian tombs depicting cheese making from around the same time. Although we all have a picture of a cow in our minds when we think about cheese, the first cheeses were probably produced from the milk of sheep or goats rather than from cows/cattle, since sheep and goats were domesticated at a much earlier date in time.
The Romans used, and produced, many varieties of cheese, and spread [no pun intended] the art of cheese-making to France and England during the Middle Ages. It is also believed that the process for making cheese also developed independently in Asia. Cheese was an early immigrant to the New World and landed with the Mayflower in 1620 when the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Harbor. While cheese-making was mostly a small-scale operation on local farms, cheese factories began to be erected early in the 19th century (the first one was built in Switzerland in 1815). However, it was here, in the United States (Rome, NY), that the first cheese factory to mass-produce cheese was constructed in 1851; most probably to the chagrin of the French. Today, cheese is produced and sold in varying quantities in almost every corner of the world.
Many regions of the world take much pride in the quality and wide varieties of cheese they produce. French statesman Charles de Gaulle had famously exclaimed “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese.” This bears one to wonder as to how many cheeses are there in the world? Cheese.com has classified 1,770 different varieties, and other sources claim that there are a little over 2,000 (although with sub-varieties, there are thousands of different types, with 1,000 in France alone). This includes varieties of both fresh cheeses and aged cheeses (aged includes salt, which acts as a preservative).
The giving of cheese has been a long-held tradition, and not only as a gift, but also as part of the presentation of victuals displayed to welcome guests upon the table. However, this story does not only pay homage to cheese, but it also concerns the act of giving gifts. Seven weeks after Passover, on the 6th of Sivan (this year the holiday begins the evening of May 23rd), the Jewish people celebrate the giving of greatest gift ever, the Torah, during a holiday named Shavuot (שבועות).
Shavuot is celebrated by prayer and Torah study, but when it comes to the culinary aspect of this holiday, it is a tradition to eat a dairy meal (although some also follow the custom of having a diary meal, followed by a break, then a meat meal). Scholars have provided different reasons why we eat a dairy meal during this holiday. Some of these reasons include:
- The Hebrew people were travelling around the dessert so long that all of their milk curdled and turned to cheese
- Israel, the promised land spoken of in the Torah, is also called “the land flowing with milk and honey” (אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל־) (Exodus 3:8)
- There was a correlation between the time the Torah was given and the time that calves were born, meaning more suckling and an overflow of milk at this time.
- One of the Kabalistic sages determined there is a correlation between the numerical value of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav (חָלָב), and the number of days (40) in which Moses spent on Mount Sinai.
I would like to believe that the act of eating dairy actually had a more direct correlation to the giving of the Torah itself. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they also accepted the laws therein, including the laws of Kashrut (כַּשְׁרוּת) (i.e., keeping Kosher). Since none of their cookware was yet kosher according to these new laws, they had to eat dairy.
There is no rationale for celebrating the gift of the Torah with a gift of 1200 pounds of cheese, but you may want to think of the dairy meal during Shavuot as a symbolic gesture of your acceptance for the laws of the Torah.
There are usually a number of traditional diary dishes on a Shavuot table to chose from. These include traditional classics such as: cheese blitzes; challah, bagels; cream cheese; various appetizers and shmears; and finishing off with cheesecake and coffee (with milk, of course). The meal can be as grand or as simple as the host would like. Many of the items may be fairly easy to make, but sometimes they may want to take it to the next level. There are various appetizers you can make and serve such as cheese pastries, vegetable tempura, and various creamy soups, and the entrées could be expanded to include: cheese and mushroom filled raviolis, eggplant rollatini, parmesan crusted fillet of sole, and homemade artisan pizza (to name only a few). You can make the kids smile by brandishing the most popular cheese recipe in the United States – macaroni and cheese.
For this month’s recipe, I have decided to provide you with a dish that is a re-versioning of the classic blintz, and perfect for the Shavuot meal. It tastes great, and because it is a holiday, the calories do not count. My mom, whom is one of my most significant cooking influences, makes this on various occasions, and over the years I have even made it myself a few times. The recipe and directions have been shared with below (copied from the typed (for you younger folk, they used typewrites before there were any computers) rolodex index card she gave me):
- 12 frozen blintzes (cheese, potato, cherry, blueberry)
- 1 ½ sticks melted margarine
- 6 eggs
- Cinnamon (as needed to sprinkle)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla
- 1 ½ cups sour cream
Coat frozen blintzes in melting margarine. Arrange in baking pan 1 inch apart. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Blend remaining ingredients in blender. Pour over blintzes. Bake in 350 degrees oven for 45 minutes or until browned. If desired, serve cheese with apple, cherry, blueberry pie filling and cheese and potato with sour cream.
Notes on preparation: I have made this dish with and without cinnamon (and prefer wit)h. I have whipped the ingredients together by hand, instead of using a blender, but a blender is much easier. All ovens are not created equally, so watch closely when it reaches the 40 minute mark. I personally prefer the cheese and blueberry blintzes, but you can put in whichever flavors prefer. I usually do not leave much room between the blintzes to fit more into the tray – but note, it will add to the cooking time. I also prefer sour cream as my topping of choice, but it can be eaten without any toppings.
Healthier option: This dish can be made a bit healthier by substituting a few of the ingredients as such:
- 12 frozen sugar free or organic blintzes
- 1 ½ sticks low or non-fat melted margarine
- 12 egg whites (note: I would recommend using 2 whole eggs with 8 egg whites for better consistency in the dish)
- Sugar substitute equaling ¾ cup sugar (most ratios are 6 packets = ¼ cup sugar, but check the box) or you can lower the amount of regular sugar to 1/3 cup
- 1 ½ tsp vanilla
- 1 ½ cups low or non-fat sour cream
I will leave you this month with the following quote from Clifton Fadiman: “Cheese: milk’s leap towards immortality”
Keep on cooking,
Chef Lon E
- “Brief History of Cheese” (National Historic Cheesemaking Center) @ http://www.nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org/cheesemaking-history.aspx
- “Cheese” (Cheese.com) @ http://www.cheese.com/
- “Cheese” (Wikipedia.org) @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheese
- “Dairy on Shavuot” (R’ Shimon Finkelman: Torah.org) @ http://www.torah.org/features/holydays/dairy.html
- “History of Cheese” (International Dairy Foods Association) @ https://www.idfa.org/news-views/media-kits/cheese/history-of-cheese
- “History of Cheese, The: (Today I Found Out) @ http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/the-history-of-cheese/
- “Mammoth Cheese” (Monticellol.org: 2010) @ http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/mammoth-cheese
- “Meat, Dairy and Pareve – Kosher (Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/82658/jewish/Meat-Dairy-and-Pareve.htm
- “Rescue of Rabbeinu Tam, The” (Wein, Berel: Jewish History Blog: 2010) @ http://www.jewishhistory.org/the-rescue-of-rabbeinu-tam/
- “Shavu’ot” (Judaism 101) @ http://www.jewfaq.org/holidayc.htm
- “Science of Cheese is Weirder Than You Think, The” (Michael H. Tunick: Wired.com: 2014) @ http://www.wired.com/2014/03/everythingyoudidntknowyouwantedtoknow-about-the-science-of-cheese/
- “Shavuot” (Aish.com) @ http://www.aish.com/h/sh/
- “Shavuot: The Giving of the Torah” (Chabad.org) @ http://www.chabad.org/holidays/shavuot/default_cdo/aid/111377/jewish/Shavuot.htm
- “Traditional Shavuot Dishes” (HubPages.com: 2012) @ http://bgpappa.hubpages.com/hub/Foods-Traditionally-Served-During-The-Jewish-Holiday-Of-Shavuot
- “Why Dairy on Shavuot?” (Lesli Koppelman Ross: MyJewishLearning: 2011) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/why-dairy-on-shavuot/
- “Why Dairy on Shavuot?” (Rabbi Shraga Simmons: Aish.com: 2006) @ http://www.aish.com/h/sh/r/48969771.html
A special thank you to Michael B for his help as a consultant on this article.