Thursday, May 24, 2007

Unschooling Shavuot: A Lesson Plan in Experiential Learning

Often we think of cooking as a lesson plan only for the little ones. Food and dining, however, are very important experiential elements for human social intercourse and for the transfer of cultural memes from one generation to another.

Brain research has shown that people learn best when they are physically and emotionally comfortable. The sensory experiences involved in cooking and eating provide all of us, young and old alike, with these experiences. In all of our human traditions, we know this. When we want to teach something important, when we want to celebrate or commemorate something, we generally include food.

For our learning about Shavuot, we included a lesson on the preparation of the Erev Shavuot feast. N. and I planned the menu and researched the recipes. Our primary source was The Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Joan Nathan.

Those of you who cook a lot know that a good cookbook does more than list ingredients and give step-by-step instructions. Joan Nathan's book is a wonderful source for learning about the culinary customs for Jewish holidays and how they are derived from the religious imagination and practices of Jews over time. The practices of Judaism are derived from many different cultures that our people have lived in, giving us a rich background of experience to learn from. On Tuesday afternoon, N. was responsible for making Blintzes--a crepe wrapped around a cheese or fruit filling and baked or fried. It is a popular dish for the holiday of Shavuot--the Feast of Weeks.

When N. read the recipe aloud, we learned that Blintzes are derived from the Russian recipe for Blini, which are made from a risen bread dough. Blintzes, however, are made from crepes, so they are faster to make because you do not have to wait for the dough to rise.

The first step for Blintzes is to make the crepes. N. learned that crepes are small, thin pancakes that have more egg than flour. Since we chose to use the Grossinger's recipe, N. also learned about the Jewish kosher resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. These were originally founded to give Jews a place to get out of the city and have fresh air and abundant food. Many hotels, clubs and resorts on the east coast excluded Jews in the bad old days. History becomes a part of every Jewish cooking lesson!

In order to make crepes that really thin and light, so that they can be rolled up around the cheese filling in Grossinger's Blintzes, you have to beat the eggs well and then mix them into the other ingredients (milk, salt, flour and oil).
It is important to thouroughly beat the fat of the egg yolk into the protein of the whites. It is the protein that gives the crepes structure and the fat (and air mixed in by beating) that makes them light. A little salt brings out the other flavors in a baked dish.

Gaining an understanding of the physics and chemistry of food is important to successful cooking!

We fried the crepes on one side only in a small frying pan, and stacked them browned side up on a plate. We made a cheese filling from farmer's cheese, sugar, butter and vanilla.

Farmer's cheese is made without rennet (derived from the lining of a cow's stomach) that makes a cheese hard. Rennet would make a cheese unkosher and Jews cannot use hard cheeses made with it. Farmer's cheese is also commonly made in the spring, during calving season, when milk is plentiful. So it is perfect for Shavuot, which celebrates the waxing moon of early summer. Amazing what you learn from a cookbook!

Finally, we rolled a heaping tablespoon of the cheese onto the browned side of the crepe, and placed the newly-made blintz into a greased pan for baking. We baked them in a hot oven (425 F) until they were browned on the outside--about 15 minutes. MMMM! We wanted to eat right away!
But there was much more to do complete the feast!

When MLC came home from class, she decided to make a greens salad with strawberries and apples. N. said: "Strawberries and apples? In a vegetable salad?" MLC told him that since Shavuot is Chag haBikkurim, the holiday of first fruits, it makes sense to use spring fruits at the meal. She also told him that many people use fruits in salads. We discussed Waldorf salads, French country salads and other innovative salad recipes that use fruits.

I mentioned that I had read that one reason that Shavuot is the least celebrated Jewish holiday in North America is because we have not found a way to incorporate the celebration of the first fruits harvest in a meaningful home-based ritual.

MLC decided that she would even added some blueberries since I had gotten some for topping the blintzes. These salads are good with either a blush wine vinegarette or blue cheese dressings.

In the meantime, N. and I prepared some Wolfie's Borscht. As we made it we learned that Wolfies is a famous Jewish Deli in New York. We also learned that although Borscht is parve (neither milk nor meat) by itself, it is usually served cold with with sour cream as part of a milchlig (dairy) meal.

Here is our beautiful borscht served as the first course of our holiday meal. Egg is added to the beet base, and it is garnished with a dollop of sour cream topped by fresh dill.
Bruce insisted that we add boiled potatoes as that is how his grandmother Fanny made her Borscht! Tradition! Tradition!

The holy day candles have been lit, the wine for kiddush (sanctification of the day) is poured, and the table is decorated with greens (chive flowers) from our own garden.

During the soup and salad courses, we discussed Torah, Mishnah and Gemara portions related to the commandment to bring first fruits to the temple and to be happy at Shavuot. Our study was based on Deuteronomy 26: 10 - 11, and the study questions were taken from Torah & Company by Rabbi Judith Abrams. (Teen Tested. Teen Approved!).

But of course, everyone was waiting for the main course.

Poached salmon with lemon pepper and fresh dill.

And blintzes with sour cream and fresh fruit!

Ah! Now that's experiential learning!


Beth: said...

A delicious post! Now I am hungry lol

I learn so much from reading your blog -- thank you.

Megan Bayliss said...

E....set up the guest room. I am coming for a culinary Jewish delights tour!!!!!!


What fantastic learning. Hope you have a diswasher though!


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

As a matter of fact, I do have a dishwasher! And one virtue I am trying to teach N. is that of cleaning as you go.

Well, a mom can try, anyway!

Beth: said...

Elisheva ~ My camera is a Kodak EasyShareZ612, with a 12X zoom, and 6.1 megapixels.

I like it very much, and find it is well-suited to my nature and child oriented photography needs.

Kaber said...

Are you allowed to use cheese made with 'artificial rennet'.. chemically manufactured rennet? I read somewhere a lot of cheese producers use the artifical rennet these days

Melora said...

Wow! Those blintzes look delicious! A friend of mine at church told recommended The Jewish Holiday Cookbook to me -- now I'll definitely have to look at it.

I've never heard of Shavuot before today, and today I learned about it from the priest during the service (as relating to Pentecost) and here. Sounds like a great holiday!

I found you through KathyJo's blog, by the way, and I think you have a marvelous blog!

FatcatPaulanne said...

I enjoy reading your blog. I always learn a lot. That food looks wonderful!

Sherry said...

Yummy! A fantastic post. Really enjoyed your presentaion, and found it inspirational for further learning.