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When Shavuot and American Cheese Month meet

Due to the natural clash between the lunar and solar calendar, Shavuot can fall out either in May or June. Imagine our delight when we discovered that May is American Cheese Month, and that this year Shavuot falls in May!

A cheese board with Spanish flavors (Wikimedia Commons)

Before you raise a ruckus, this month recognizes cheeses made in America, not the sliced, individually wrapped stuff ridiculed around the world (though, if we’re honest, works great in a grilled cheese!).

One homegrown cheese that America has become famous for around the world — in a good way! — is cream cheese, the quintessential stuff of Shavuot. In fact in some countries, such as Germany, this soft, spreadable cheese is called by its commonly associated brand name, Philadelphia. Much like Häagen-Dazs was never Scandinavian, the brand name Philadelphia was chosen for marketing purposes. Made in New York State when, according to Wikipedia, a dairyman accidentally added an excessive amount of cream in his attempt to replicate then-popular Neufchâtel cheese, the moniker Philadelphia was chosen because Philadelphia and its environs “had a reputation for its high-quality dairy farms and creamier cheese products.”

Philadelphia cream cheese (and its generic equivalents) revolutionized cheese cake, the dessert today most associated with Shavuot, which this year begins at nightfall on May 25. Before its advent, cheeses like the aforementioned Neufchâtel, the German Quark or Eastern European farmer’s cheese were used for cheesecake, resulting in crumblier texture, not the dense lusciousness of today’s cream cheese dominated varietal. The recipe that has become our go-to is from Matt Preston, restaurant critic and former judge on the hit series “MasterChef Australia.” Preston sees Philadelphia’s creaminess and raises it with a healthy portion of heavy cream that results in smoothest, richest cheesecake we’ve ever sampled.

Beyond cheesecake, there are many other ways to celebrate Shavuot’s overlap with American Cheese Month. If richness isn’t your thing, blintzes filled with lightly sweetened farmer’s cheese is another classic that works perfectly as an appetizer. Lifeway and Friendship (also made in New York) are two of our favorite brands.

When we read about American Cheese Month was what first came to mind for this Shavuot were cheese boards. These have grown in popularity in recent years, with their offshoot — butter boards — also becoming a trend. There’s no better time than Shavuot to serve one of these. They make a beautiful centerpiece too, and generate conversation and engagement among your guests.

A basic cheese board works off a trinity of cheeses — one hard, one soft and one blue. This can be adapted and broadened to suite your palate, but the key here is variety. While cheese may be the main event, the accompaniments can be just as important. You’ll want at least one fresh fruit — apple, pear, fresh fig, grapes are always good choices — as well as a dried fruit, such as apricot or cranberry. Roasted nuts are a must, with almonds and cashews good choices. Try a herb-roasted nut for additional flavor. A fruit jam such as red currant goes great with soft cheeses in particular. With your hard cheese, a savory mustard jam adds an unexpected flavor, but if you’re feeling less adventurous you can’t go wrong with whole grain mustard. Olives and gherkins will round your board out with an acidic touch. Of course, you’ll need the surface upon which to dollop all these goodies. Crackers and crispbreads are our preferred choice, but a baguette also works, especially if you are making this your Shavuot meal, and some people prefer breadsticks.

To source your cheeses, visit Pete’s Fruits and Vegetables and East Side Kosher Deli, both of which carry a variety of cheeses. Smaller selections can also be found at select King Soopers and at Trader Joe’s. Fresh cheeses certified kosher can be found at ethnic stores that purvey ingredients popular in Eastern European cuisines.

If you go the cheese board route, send us a snapshot of your display!

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