Exotic Celebratory Breads for Shavuot
How about some multicultural, dairy-filled celebration breads, billowy with yeast, for your Shavuot meals? Trust me, beginners like me can bake them. These three breads, a very ornate challah, a savory, cheesy main bread dish, and a sweet dessert, mix together the celebration of the wheat harvest of Shavuot, Chag Hakatzir (The Harvest Festival), with the customary focus on milk-based foods associated with the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai.
The breathtaking Seven Heaven Challah, known as Los Sieto Cielo or Pan de 7 Cielos, is a somewhat obscure Sephardi custom; a Georgian (Republic of) cheese-filled bread known as khachapuri can be served as a main course; follow it all with a cheese babka rooted in Poland. These breads will bring the diversity of Jewish experiences and palates to your table while celebrating the shared Sinai experience of old.
Seven Heaven Challah: Some customs place this challah as a centerpiece on the Shavuot table and reserve eating it for the midnight snack for the tikkun, the all-night study of Torah on Shavuot. The Seven Heaven Challah at Shavuot was popular throughout the 780-year traditions of Jews in Salonika until the Nazis destroyed the community. Rooted in Sephardi Spain, post-Inquisition the challah has been baked by Jews in Greece, Turkey, and areas of Morocco. It consists of dough shaped into “Mount Sinai” where the gift of Torah was given.
The dough mountain is then surrounded by seven coils of dough representing the seven heavens mentioned in the Talmud (Hagiga 12: B). These circular bands of the heavens then hold five symbols: an image of the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a Jacob’s ladder to recall the ascent and descent of angels to and from heaven, a hand or hamsa recalling the five books of the Torah, a bird representing the dove of the Noah story (Genesis 8:8), and a fish representing fertility. Other decorations could include Miriam’s Well, a Torah scroll and pointer, or a Star of David. Whichever you choose will be stunning.
Khachapuri: It makes sense that Jews living in the Georgian Republic adopted the popular, local cheese bread for their Shavuot meals. Sometimes made with phyllo dough or without yeast, here is a top knotted, circular shaped, yeast-raised khachapuri. While Georgian cheeses are hard to find in the States (check Russian markets), this recipe provides alternatives. Just before consumption, boat-shaped khachapuri is often topped with an egg to mix into the melted cheese.
Cheese Babka: The current craze for chocolate babka has overshadowed all others. Eastern European Easter celebrations often feature cheese babka or a variation thereof. These may have been the earliest babkas experienced by Jews. Today, store-bought “Jewish babkas” tend to be twisted and filled with some combination of nuts, cinnamon, and/or chocolate. This version uses a kugelhopf or tube pan, along with a mix of dried fruits, lemon and cheese, orienting our palates to early Jewish babkas.
This cornucopia of dairy-rich festive foods brings multiple historical and religious Jewish experiences together on your Shavuot table. From Sinai until now, whether Sephardi or Ashkenazi, we are braided into one people.
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Judaism around the world based on her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao” (second edition, Jewish Lights). She co-curated the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate” for Temple Emanu-El’s Herbert and Eileen Bernard Museum, New York City, now available to travel to your community. Most recently she has launched the #chocolatebabkaproject, an exploration of celebratory breads.