Homemade Goat Cheese For Shavuot

by Ronit Treatman

Mmmm Shavuot.  The sweet smell of cheese blintzes and the sound of butter crackling in the frying pan fill the house.  Bright red strawberry preserves are on the table, ready to be served with the delicious filled crepes.  Why do we have the tradition of eating dairy foods during Shavuot?  Shavuot is a celebration of the Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah to the Israelites.  King Solomon described the pleasure of Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11).  The first iteration of this celebratory meal was homemade goat cheese, sweetened with honey or fruit.  We can explore those primeval flavors as we indulge in the sweet study of Torah on Shavuot night.  
One of the first animals domesticated by early humans was the goat.  In Jericho, evidence of goats kept by Neolithic farmers demonstrates that they were part of the household between 8000 and 9000 years ago. Goats were the main providers of milk in Ancient Israel.  Milk, butter, and cheese were available seasonally, in the spring and summer.

Goat cheese has been made for as long as goats have been domesticated.  In Ancient Israel, raw goat milk probably curdled naturally. This process occurred thanks to two benign bacterial strains:   Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus.  These are soil-based probiotics, which are often present in the milk.  The curdled milk was poured into a cloth bag.  The whey (residual liquid) was drained out of the bag, and the remaining curds were pressed into a soft cheese.  Equally old was the tradition of storing milk in goatskin containers.  Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus are present on the skin of the goats.   These bacteria combined with the raw milk in the warm Mediterranean climate, causing it to ferment.  The milk curdled quickly, and was transformed into laban, a thick, sour milk.  A hard cheese was made with fermented laban.  The laban was poured into molds and left to harden in the sun.  Israelite shepherds accidentally discovered another way to make cheese.  When they heated the milk, they stirred it with fig tree branches.  Only a few drops of fig sap needed to get into the milk in order to coagulate it.  Fig sap contains ficin, an enzyme whose clotting activity in milk is thirty to one hundred times that of animal rennet.  The Mishna and Talmud describe using the sap of fruit trees to make cheese.  This process of making cheese was adopted instead of using animal rennet in order to comply with the prohibition of mixing meat and milk.  This recipe has been recreated at Neot Kedumim, Israel’s Biblical Landscape Reserve.

Ancient Israelite Cheese from Neot Kedumim

  • 1 Quart goat milk. You can buy goat’s milk at Whole Foods, or order it online.
  • 1 fig branch thoroughly washed.  Cut it right before using.

Pour the milk into a pot.  Squeeze 5 drops of sap from the fig branch, being very careful not to touch the sap.  Fig sap may cause a rash, like poison ivy.

Heat the milk until it boils, stirring it with the fig branch.  

Once the milk has curdled, allow it to cool.

Strain the curds through a cheesecloth.

Goats are very curious, intelligent animals.  Their favorite way to eat is to explore their surroundings, tasting weeds and shrubs.  They like to taste a variety of plants.  The plants consumed by the goats influence the flavor of their milk. If they eat bitter weeds, their milk will be bitter too.   Eating a variety of weeds gives their milk a more complex flavor.

Milk from goats has small, well-emulsified fat globules.  This means that the cream does not rise to the top as it does with raw cow’s milk, but rather remains mixed in with the milk.  As a result, goat’s milk does not need to be homogenized (mixed so that the fat droplets do not separate from the milk).  It is more similar to milk produced by humans than milk from a cow.  Due to this, goat milk is a good choice for young children, people who are ill, and anyone who has trouble digesting cow’s milk.  Goat milk contains 13% more calcium than cow’s milk, 25% more vitamin B6, and 47% more vitamin A.  

I learned how to make my own goat cheese from my friend Freyda Black.  Freyda bought her first Nubian goat from the partner of a chef at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York.  She taught herself how to make cheese.  When she took some of her home made chevre to the Moosewood chef and his partner to have a taste, they told her it was better than the award winning cheeses from France and Germany.  

Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Ricotta

  • 1-gallon goat milk (whole or skim)
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Baking soda

Pour the milk into a very heavy bottomed pot, or double boil it over a low flame.  Slowly heat the milk to 186 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the milk is 186 degrees, pour in 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar while stirring.

Stir until the milk starts to curd.  You should see large curds.  If it doesn’t start to curd, add more vinegar, one teaspoon at a time.

Put cheesecloth over a colander.  Pour the curds and whey into it.  

Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth, and drain for no more than one minute.

Pour the curds back into the pot and add one half teaspoon of baking soda.  This will neutralize the acid and stop the curdling.

Serve immediately.  

Freyda Black’s Goat’s Milk Queso Blanco

Repeat the process for Ricotta.

Omit the baking soda, and allow the Ricotta cheese to drain overnight.

This is a recipe that Sephardic Jews brought to the New World from Spain and Portugal.  They would pair the queso blanco with sweet preserved fruits, such as pears and quinces.  In South America, the queso blanco was also served with guava preserves.  

For an authentic Ancient Israelite Shavuot experience, flavor your homemade ricotta or queso blanco with raw bee’s honey, or Biblical date “honey,” available  online

Have fun preparing it with your family, and eat it while it’s hot!

If you would like to meet Freyda Black and her Nubian goats,  please come to Germantown Jewish Centre on June 5th, from 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.  She will demonstrate how to make fresh goat cheese.  There will be goat milk, cheese, and whey for everyone to taste.  Free!  Everyone welcome!

Dispatching the Goat

The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Hunt had this framed in a picture with the quotations “Surely he hath borne our Griefs and carried our Sorrows; Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of GOD and afflicted.” (Isaiah) and “And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited.” (Leviticus)

May you be sealed for a good new year. G’mar chatima tova.
Best wishes for a meaningful and easy fast.

— Rabbi Avi Shafran

One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the Two Goats.”

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal.  One lot read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.

Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they don’t dream.

I lay no claim to conversance with those truly deep meanings.  But pondering the “two goats” ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.

More after the jump

There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental.  Our existence is either a result of intent, or of accident.  And a corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.
If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left.  Human beings remain but evolved animals, their Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike.  To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial.  Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of mosquitoes.  

The Torah, of course, is based on the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.  Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.

Yet some resist that innate feeling, and adopt the perspective that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all that there is in the end.  The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place for Divinity.  It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those of us primed to perceive Him, but He has not left clear fingerprints on His Creation.

Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea that humans are beholden to something greater.  And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, would then allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.

It’s not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah – so strangely – as carrying away the sins of the people.

The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept.  Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.  

If, indeed, the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration born of its dispatching.  The animal’s being “laden with the sins” of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives.  The Talmudic rabbi Resh Lakish in fact said as much when he observed [Sotah 3a] that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.”

And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt.  And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by that thought to then turn and consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G-d.  So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have been able to better commit themselves to re-embracing the grand meaningfulness that is a human life.

We may lack the Two Goats ritual today, but we can certainly try all the same to absorb that eternally timely thought.