It was a sacred tradition. We would load up our minivans with lots and lots of food and our kids and head to the desert to celebrate Z’man Matan Tora’teinu (the Time of the Giving of the Torah).
We all looked forward to our annual Shavuot Palm Springs pilgrimage, a reunion of friends who had met as young adults through the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC). We started as a small group, when our kids were young and as they got older, the crowd grew to include more than 100 Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Ashkephardic families.
Families would arrive at the hotel and compare notes on the drive out and their haul at the outlet malls and how close their villa was to the pool.
Every family received a welcome bag with a schedule of events and pool toys and candy and some fresh-baked biscochos.
As the sun set, the desert air would cool and a calm would descend, with only the occasional child whizzing by on a scooter. You could feel the anticipation in the air.
Did we mention there was food? Lots and lots of food. Rachel and our dear friend Esther Avrahamy would organize candlelit dinners under the stars. The first-night potluck would feature vast array of dairy dishes — enchiladas, quiches, blintzes, bourekas, lasagnas, macaroni and cheese and baked ziti. There was grilled salmon and fried fish. There were Israeli salads, Greek salads, green salads and even sushi salad. Other nights, the menu would feature traditional Moroccan fare and sometimes just good ol’ mouthwatering barbecue.
After all that eating, there would be a dessert potluck with a cheesecake competition. Well, it wasn’t much of a competition because our friend Shira Navon always won with her highly addictive Bourbon Butterscotch Cheesecake.
There was food, but more importantly, there was camaraderie and laughter, spirituality and purpose. There were incredibly fun watermelon-eating contests and hula hoop contests by the pool and there were competitive pool volleyball games with more than 20 players on each team.
There was spirited learning with Rabbi Daniel Bouskila and fun speeches by SEC President Neil Sheff. There were dvar Torahs delivered by our sons and daughters. There was the reading of the Book of Ruth. And there was the heartwarming scene of parents and children crowded in the synagogue, standing to hear the Ten Commandments. A link in the chain from Mount Sinai.
This Shavuot there will be a little less food (better for our waistlines). We hope you are inspired by our healthy recipes for grilled fish, spanakopita and lemony Greek potatoes. And we hope you indulge in our delicious, decidedly dairy and very creamy cheesecake.
This year the Sephardic Educational Center celebrates its 40th anniversary. A center for all Jews, the SEC looks forward to seeing you at live events very soon and hopes to welcome you at our next Shavuot Retreat in the desert.
GRILLED WHOLE SNAPPER
2-3 pounds whole snapper, gutted and scaled with head and tail intact
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
Fresh parsley and oregano, minced, for garnish
Place fish with all the ingredients into a large Ziploc bag.
Marinate for one hour or in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours, coating the fish in olive oil and lemon, allowing the flavors to be absorbed into the flesh.
Grill on clean, very hot barbecue or charcoal grill, or in a baking dish 450 F.
Grill fish 10-20 minutes on each side, depending on size and thickness. It’s easy to turn after it has cooked long enough.
Place on platter, drizzle with sauce from Lemony Greek Potatoes (recipe follows) and serve more lemon sauce on the side.
Garnish with parsley and oregano.
Makes 2-4 servings.
SPANAKOPITA IN A PAN
1 cup onion, chopped
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 pounds spinach
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup feta, crumbled
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 package of phyllo dough sheets
Olive oil to brush sheets
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Sauté chopped onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil till golden.
Mix in garlic, then spinach until wilted, turn off heat and cool for 15 minutes.
Add salt, dill, parsley, feta , ricotta and stir till all combined.
Grease pan or oven dish by brushing it with oil. Place three phyllo sheets in pan, generously brushing oil on top sheet, allowing sheets’ sides to fall over pan’s sides.
Repeat with two phyllo sheets, and brush oil on top sheet. Do this twice more by placing two more sheets and brushing oil on top and sides.
Place spinach filling in center and close overlapping phyllo sheets over filling. Generously brush top sheet with oil.
Place pan or dish on lower oven rack and bake for 25 minutes .
Makes 5-6 servings.
LEMONY GREEK POTATOES
2 pounds fingerling potatoes or small yellow potatoes, cut in half lengthwise
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 lemon, thinly sliced in rounds
1 cup olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh parsley and oregano, for garnish
Preheat oven to 450°F.
In medium bowl, combine potatoes, olive oil, salt and lemon slices and toss until potatoes are well coated.
Place potatoes cut side down on a heavy sheet tray.
Bake until skins are roasted, about 15-20 minutes.
Shake sheet tray and turn over potatoes with a spatula, then roast another 10 minutes until golden brown.
To prepare sauce, whisk oil, lemon juice and salt until it becomes pale yellow.
Place potatoes on serving dish, then dress with half lemon sauce; use remaining sauce on grilled fish.
Makes 4-6 servings.
BOURBON BUTTERSCOTCH CHEESECAKE
For the crust:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
For the filling:
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon zest
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 apricot, cut in half
1 peach, cut in slivers
Fresh mint, for garnish
Bourbon butterscotch topping:
4 ounces unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
Almonds, for garnish
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan.
In large bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter.
Stir until mixture is well blended and crumbs are moist.
Place crumbs in the pan and press until evenly spread on the bottom and 1 inch up the side of pan.
Bake for about 10 minutes, until golden. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 F. In large bowl, combine cream cheese, flour and salt. Set mixer to medium speed and beat until smooth and fluffy. Add sugar, sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest. Beat until well blended, scraping down sides frequently. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour mixture into the crust. Bake cheesecake for 60 to 70 minutes.
Let cool, then cover and refrigerate.
For fruit topping:
In a bowl, combine Greek yogurt, sour cream and sugar. Spread on cheesecake. Arrange sliced fruit as desired.
For bourbon butterscotch topping:
In medium pot, melt butter over medium heat until foamy.
Add brown sugar, stir well and cook for 3-5 minutes.
Stir in cream, bourbon, vanilla and salt, then continue stirring.
After mixture has bubbled and tripled in size, remove from heat.
Pour cooled sauce over cheesecake and garnish with almonds.
Rachel Sheff’s family roots are Spanish Moroccan. Sharon Gomperts’ family hails from Baghdad and El Azair in Iraq. Known as the Sephardic Spice Girls, they have collaborated on the Sephardic Educational Center’s projects and community cooking classes. Join them on Instagram at SephardicSpiceGirls or on Facebook group SEC food.