Raise your hand if you’re not sure what Shavuot is about.
This very nice holiday commemorates the Jewish people’s receiving the Torah – from God! – on Mount Sinai. Needless to say a pivotal moment, and this was after they’d fled Egypt and slavery, and been traipsing around the desert for seven weeks trying to sort themselves out. That was quite a spring, full of momentous occasions, big decisions, and major commitments.
This year the holiday begins on June 3. If you’re so inclined, a few days from now you’ll be staying up all night in a Torah study group somewhere, which is what people do to observe Shavuot, and maybe still wondering what to cook, because of course there’s a meal before the all-nighter. Or you might be worrying about what’s on the menu, if you’re not doing the cooking, and with good reason. In Ashkenazi tradition, the night kicks off with a dairy fest: cheesecake, cheese blintzes with sour cream, and I don’t know what else. Everything served should be white and have started out inside a sheep, a goat or a cow.
Let’s get something out of the way. In this age of lactose intolerance I can’t imagine I’d like to start a long night of study having eaten nothing but dairy products, and even less so in a room full of people who’ve all just done the same.
Why the dairy binge? Because accepting the Torah also meant beginning to keep a kosher diet. (Separating milk from meat is the fundamental principle.) It’s to commemorate that decisive moment: Now you’re Jews. Study the Torah, keep kosher. Dairy now, and you can have your meat later.
Sephardim do things differently, including deciding which concepts or qualities we may choose to emphasize over others, and the way we express them. Of course there’s the all-nighter. But Shavuot happens to coincide with the first spring harvest, so Ottoman Sephardim eat things that come from the earth: bread; savory vegetable pastries; fresh fruit. (We’re always eating fresh fruit.) Also our ubiquitous ouevos haminados, maybe some biscochos, and yes, a little dairy, in the form of a very special, if misunderstood, pudding, sutlatch – which to make can feel like a major commitment. It does take some dedication.
Ask an Ottoman Sephardi to name a favorite dessert and if they’re “of a certain age” – my mother’s, for instance – they’ll probably say sutlatch, which is Turkish for rice pudding. Made from rice flour, milk and sugar, sutlatch has a light but luscious texture and a delicate sweetness. It’s nothing like any modern pudding you’ve eaten.
My mother, Suzette (she of the pandespanya recipe), has memories of eating sutlatch the day her sister was born, and of first going out of her mind with age appropriate impatience as she watched her uncles take turns stirring a big pot of the creamy white dessert for what seemed an eternity. It was a very special day. In addition to the new baby arriving, Mom’s two youngest aunts, Reina and Esther, arrived in New York from Rhodes. By another happy coincidence, her grandmother, Sultana, arrived on the same boat with my grandfather’s younger brother, David, who had gone back over from New York to escort her to the States. From the moment she set eyes on him, Great Aunt Reina was smitten with David, whom she hadn’t known in Rhodes. The feeling was mutual, an onboard romance ensued, and by the time they arrived in New York they were head over heels in love. Great Grandma Rahel, Reina’s mother, was known to mutter incantations, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she said something special over that pot of sutlatch. David left his girlfriend, Claire Turiel, he and Reina married, and their love affair endured for the rest of their lives. They were a darling and devoted couple.
My own earliest memories of sutlatch are of my grandfather standing over the stove in my mother’s kitchen, stirring a big pot with a wooden spoon. He never took his eyes off it, never stopped stirring it for a moment, and if it seemed to me, too, he was there all morning long, my aunt Rady (the one who was born that special day) assures me it’s because he probably was.
So many flavors and textures that need time to develop fully have been largely forgotten by home cooks. Modern cookbooks treat sutlatch like a throwaway, instructing to stir the pot for twenty minutes tops, or to reduce that time even more by adding a little cornstarch. My great grandmas would be scandalized. You’re not making breakfast cereal! Cook sutlatch this way and you’ll come away wondering who could even stand the stuff, let alone wax rhapsodic over it, and what the big deal is about Sephardic cooking.
The big deal is patience, and dedication.
Despite our modern expectations, not everything can be achieved at the speed of fiber optic cable. The fundamental differences between good cooking and great cooking are patience, to allow foods the time they need to be transformed, the dedication to do every step with care, and the discipline to keep paying attention. Otherwise you’re just heating stuff up.
Sutlatch is slow food. There are no shortcuts. It turns creamy, sweet and thick because the moisture cooks off, not because you’ve added sugar and starch. It needs time, a watchful eye, and, if you’re making a big batch, many hands to help stir the pot.
I was maybe up to his knee, but I remember my grandfather’s patient concentration as he stirred that pot all morning (he had the stamina to go it alone), Suzette and Rady remember their elders’ too, and we’ve each tasted the delicate, sweet result. If you don’t have such memories to convince you it’s worth the effort, let the name be your inspiration. Sutlatch, spelled sütlaç in Turkish, is a compound word. Süt means milk, and laç means drug. Oh. Now imagine that first spoonful, and the next, and the next…
I haven’t forgotten I was talking about Shavuot.
Babies don’t spring from the womb fully formed. They gestate nine months. Birth takes tremendous effort, patience, concentration, and helping hands, and raising children is a lifelong commitment.
If you want a marriage to work, that’s another major commitment of shared effort, devotion, and a whole lot of patience.
Learning the Torah? Ditto.
I love blintzes. I’m crazy about my mother’s cheesecake. But sutlatch reflects a commitment of time, patience and undivided attention that make it just right to celebrate babies, betrothals, and an annual all-nighter about the foundation of your religion.
That’s how a Sephardi approaches cooking and serving. Our recipes, even the most seemingly banal of them, are never merely about getting food on the table. Each can express ideas and qualities that aren’t always obvious, and the ways we transform them are as specific and meaningful as the dishes themselves.
You want to do the dairy thing for Shavuot? Fine! But if you want to do it the Sephardic way, slow down, pay close attention, and join forces to create something wonderful. Grab a partner and make sutlatch.