The Jewish holiday of Shavuot comes in late spring or very early summer, after the end of the Hebrew school year. (This year it starts at sundown on Sunday, May 16.) Because of this unfortunate timing, it was never included in the holidays curriculum and we never celebrated it all together—which, I think, may have actually been a relief to our teachers since our Tu B’Shevat seders had a habit of devolving into massive food fights. (Hey, it happens when you give a bunch of bored, squirmy kids plates of figs and dates and other fruit that make great projectiles.)
So it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that Shavuot, which started off as a wheat harvest festival and now commemorates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, is traditionally celebrated with two of the things I like best: all-night bullshit sessions and cheesecake. Okay, technically it’s an all-night study session, but there’s never an exam in the morning or a paper due. Instead it’s a night of analysis and debate and shared inquiry—over a passage of Torah, it’s true, not the mystifying behavior of some dude or whether a circle is really a straight line (a favored recurring subject among my group of college friends), but more importantly, a good study session is about how to live, and on the night of Shavuot, the Jewish mystics believed, the heavens are wide open.
And, of course, as The Golden Girls has revealed to all of us, there is no better food for hashing shit out in the middle of the night than cheesecake. There are many explanations for why Jews eat cheesecake, blintzes, cream cheese, and other dairy foods on Shavuot. The most logical is that late spring/early summer was, in ancient Israel, prime time for cheesemaking. There are other, more convoluted explanations that involve close textual analysis (the Israelites were promised a land flowing with milk and honey!) and numerology. These things happen when you stay up all night.
Anyway, I’m not above turning down a good cheesecake. My grandmother was not much of a cook, and I’m sure she never celebrated Shavuot in her entire life, but she passed on four great recipes, and one of them is for a cheesecake. According to family legend she pilfered it from an Ann Landers column many, many years ago, but we claim it as ours now. It bakes up a little softer and sweeter than the classic New York cheesecake, maybe because we (and Ann Landers) are all Midwesterners. And in that spirit, I give it to you, even if you’re not Jewish and don’t do Shavuot. I, personally, usually request it for my birthday.
Grandma Malva’s Cheesecake
- 1½ cups crushed graham cracker crumbs
- 6 Tbsp. butter
- 3 (8-oz.) packages cream cheese at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar, divided
- 4 eggs
- 6 tsp. vanilla, divided
- ½ pint sour cream
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a pot on the stove over medium heat, melt the butter and mix it with the graham cracker crumbs to form the crust. Use the mixture to line the bottom and sides of a springform pan.
Combine cream cheese, 1½ cups sugar, eggs, and 3 tsp. vanilla and beat together until smooth. Pour into springform pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until the middle is no longer jiggly. Let cool for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine sour cream with remaining ½ cup sugar and 3 tsp. vanilla. Spread it over the top of the cake, and then return it to the oven for 10 more minutes.
Chill overnight before serving. Top with fruit, if desired.