Shavuot holds a double purpose in the Jewish liturgical year. It commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai, during the long sojourn in the wilderness. This aspect of the holiday is often celebrated by the preparation and eating of dairy dishes. There are several reasons given for this tradition, including the symbolism of the journey to the Land of Milk and Honey, the gematria (numerology) that equates the value of the word for milk (chalav – חָלָב) with the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai, and the need to eat only dairy food while waiting for the dietary laws concerning meat. Also, the Torah, like milk, is a complete nourishment for the people. Just as a baby thrives on its mother’s milk, so the people thrive on the words of Torah. Other explanations abound, and for every person you ask, you will likely get two or three answers. Personally, I don’t think we need a reason for cheesecake. It is a reason all by itself! But I digress.
Shavuot is also the Festival of First Fruits, when individuals could first bring their offerings from the first harvest to the temple. My main memory of Shavuot from when I was a child in Israel was a school-wide celebration, with all the children dressed in white, adorned with flowers in our hair, carrying baskets of fruit. I can still see the flames from the small braziers set up around the school grounds for the evening ceremony and feel the warm breezes coming off the Mediterranean, just a few short blocks away. This image is vivid, where others have faded.
When I began thinking about what treats I wanted to make this year for Shavuot, both of these aspects of the holiday came to mind. I will certainly make a cheesecake, because, well, cheesecake! But there are so many other treats and delights for the taste buds, and I always love exploring foods from around the world.
I decided to experiment with a fruity version of Mahliabi, an Arab boiled milk custard. I got this recipe from my friend Michal, who made it for me once as part of a bread pudding, with orange-syrup-soaked challah and topped with pistachios and silan (date syrup). This version omits the bread (but feel free to experiment) and replaces the nuts with a fresh fruit salad. Mahlabi is light and refreshing, and only lightly sweet, but you can adjust the sweetness to your tastes. Also, while it is traditionally a dairy treat, I particularly enjoy the pareve and vegan version I’ve given below.
Mahlabi Custard with Fresh Fruit
For the custard:
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 850ml coconut milk (or dairy milk or almond milk or …)
- 1 can coconut milk or cream (or 400ml heavy dairy cream or other non-dairy cream)
- 1 TBSP vanilla
- 1/3 – 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 TBSP orange blossom water (you can also use rose water)
- In a medium saucepan, mix the cornstarch with a small amount of the milk until it is smooth and there are no lumps of cornstarch remaining. Cornstarch is stubborn. Don’t let it win.
- When it is all dissolved, add the remaining ingredients and stir well. I use a whisk.
- Cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to boil, stirring constantly. This can take a while, so be patient.
- When thick, pour the mixture into small cups or a serving bowl, leaving plenty of room on top for the fruit. Let cool. Cover any larger bowls immediately with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. When cool, refrigerate till ready to serve.
This part doesn’t come with a recipe. Use whatever delicious fruits you love and chop them into small enough pieces that they’ll sit beautifully on top of your custard. I used raspberries, kiwis, blueberries, grapes and melon for my fruit salad. Mango would be delicious. Pomegranate would be most appropriate too, as it is closely associated with the Torah.
Just before serving, top your custard with a healthy serving of the fruit you’ve chosen. If you wish, drizzle the entire dessert with silan (date syrup), or for a distinctly Canadian flavour, maple syrup, and serve.