The Pursuit of Cheesecake

When Lawrence of Arabia visited the Tomb of Ezra the Scribe in 1916, he remarked that “the blue-tiled dome and courtyard of yellow brick and beautiful glazed brick of a dark green color built into the walls….is the most elaborate building between Basra and Ctesiphon.”

Located in the Southern part of Iraq, on the western bank of the Tigris River and shaded by lush palm trees, the Tomb is a symbol of the centuries long coexistence between the Moslem and Jewish faiths. In the Twelfth Century, Benjamin of Tudela visited the Tomb and wrote of the special observances of Jews and Muslims at the site, because behind it’s battlement walls, on either side of the prophet’s grave, are a Shiite mosque and a synagogue. In the early 13th Century, the Andalusian poet Judah al-Harizi wrote about witnessing the illumination that lights up the night sky over Ezra’s grave, causing “many people to make pilgrimage to him.” Middle Eastern Jewish merchants who travelled to India stopped in Al-Azair to pay respects on their journeys home.

When Ezra returned from the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Second Temple in Jerusalem, he reinforced the observance of the Torah laws amongst the Jews living there. To honor Ezra’s legacy, over the centuries, hordes of Jews from Baghdad and Basra made pilgrimages to the Tomb to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.

For centuries, Sharon’s family were the Shamashim, the keepers of the Tomb of Ezra Ha’Sofer, Ezra the Scribe. The Iraqi Jewish diaspora expanded to Calcutta, Mumbai, New Delhi and Shanghai. Some of the cousins of Sharon’s grandmother were born in Shanghai and landed up in Los Angeles. They never forgot that they came from Al-Azair and were thrilled to reconnect with the family, becoming good friends over the years. One was the incredible matriarch Moselle Hendeles. The other was Abe Abraham, a stalwart member of Kahal Joseph Congregation, who had a wealth of information about Iraqi Jewish laws and customs.

In the way that history coils and twists, Rachel and Neil Sheff became “family” with Abe. He would invite them and their children for amazing Chinese feasts and they shared many Shabbat and holiday meals together. Every Shavuot, Abe would bake a dozen cheesecakes for friends in the community.

Rachel would get a phone call from Abe. “Darling, which cheesecake can I make for the children?” Rachel always requested the special mango cheesecake because her kids loved it so much. And she would be blown away by his amazing generosity.

We searched and searched for the recipe, asking everyone who knew him for the recipe to no avail. It seemed that the recipe was lost. And then last week Rachel found it in a file. Just in time to share it with you, our dear reader.

The cheesecake itself is the typical graham crusted, cream cheese and sour cream version, but what takes it to heavenly heights is the garnish of delightfully citrusy bright orange sauce and sweet mango. In our version, we added coconut to make it even more tropical.

However you make your cheesecake, we wish you a happy Shavuot!

2 cups Graham cracker crumbs
1 stick butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 325°F.
Grease a 9 inch springform pan.
Combine Graham cracker crumbs, melted butter and sugar, until it has the texture of sand.
Press mixture into the bottom of the cake pan and about 1 inch up the sides.
Bake for 10 minutes, until lightly browned.

Cheesecake mixture
2 8 ounce packages of cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons orange liqueur
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 ripe mangoes, peeled and sectioned

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar until softened and creamy
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Add sour cream, liqueur and vanilla until well blended.
Pour batter into cake tin.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the center jiggles slightly when shaken.

Orange Sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
2/3 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons orange liqueur

In a small pan, mix sugar and cornstarch.
Add orange juice and orange liqueur and stir well over high heat, until mixture begins to bubble.
Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm temperature.
Pour half the lukewarm sauce over cheesecake, making sure to leave a one inch border around the sides.
Layer mango sections in an overlapping pattern.
Pour remaining sauce over the mango.
Refrigerate cake until serving.

Rachel Sheff and Sharon Gomperts have been friends since high school. They love cooking and sharing recipes. They have collaborated on Sephardic Educational Center projects and community cooking classes. Follow them on Instagram @sephardicspicegirlsofficial and on Facebook at Sephardic Spice SEC Food.


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