Kugel Recipes Carry On
Noodle or potato? Vegetable or fruit? This sweet or savory dish continues to be a versatile favorite.
By Ronnie Fein
In one of Sholem Aleichem’s beloved tales, Tevye the Dairyman praises his wife’s cooking. If you tasted her noodle kugel, he says, you would learn the meaning of paradise on earth.
Who could disagree? Good kugel ranks among life’s best pleasures. And it may even have mystical powers, at least according to some Hasidic interpretations of the Kabbalah.
Paradise! Mystical powers! No wonder kugel is one of the most beloved of Ashkenazi-Jewish dishes. A dish we expect, at least on holidays. A dish that Jewish women, even those who say they don’t like to cook, will volunteer to bring to a get-together. The one recipe—second only to brisket—they offer most for community cookbooks.
So what is this miraculous dish? Can you define it?
Until I was married, I thought kugel meant skinny, paprika-sprinkled, crispy-topped egg noodles mixed with mushrooms and onions and loaded with eggs and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat). That’s the way my grandma and my mother made it, typically for Shabbat dinner, with roasted chicken. My cousin Leslie, who lived with grandma, remembers it well because they ate it a couple of times a week. Sometimes grandma tucked in a few leftover vegetables—she was part of that generation who knew not to waste. This savory version is still one of my go-tos when I am at a loss for a side dish. It goes with every meat meal you can think of (make it vegetarian, and possibly healthier, by using oil and not the traditional chicken fat).
Kugel is a dish that can inspire fierce loyalties. You tend to stick to the one your mama made. In our family, it was the salty kind. Leslie’s mother and mine, close sisters, sneered at sweet kugels, so I was fully grown up, and married with kids, before I even tasted one of those. My friend Susan brought a sweet kugel to my first Yom Kippur break-the-fast. Her recipe is a thick and creamy wide-noodle version, rich with cheese, butter and sour cream, fragrant with cinnamon and crusted with buttered Frosted Flakes.
That kugel was my Proustian madeleine, a life changer. Rarely had I tasted any food that had me back for thirds, forsaking everything else available. It started me on my years-long kugel quest. It’s been a delicious journey.
Most people say kugel is noodle (lokshen) pudding. But it certainly didn’t start that way. The word comes from German and means ball or sphere (in fact, Christmas tree ornaments are known as kugels). At the beginning of kugel cookery, it referred to round, flour-based dumplings cooked with Sabbath cholent.
To this day, Jamie Geller, cookbook author and founder of www.joyofkosher.com, still bakes cholent kugel, although hers is potato based.
Like so many other recipes, Jewish home cooks adapted the dish with ingredients available to them, depending on geography and economy. They replaced flour with noodles. They used potatoes when they had no noodles. They changed kugel into a side dish and sometimes even a main dish with the addition of cheese, vegetables, fruit, and meat or poultry. Convenience became a factor later, as homemakers began to use packaged noodles instead of homemade and canned or frozen fruits and vegetables rather than fresh.
This is the beauty of kugel. It is one of the most versatile recipes in the Jewish culinary treasure box. Exactness and strict guidelines are not a factor.
Zach Kutsher, a fourth-generation member of the family who operated Kutsher’s Country Club in “the mountains” (Catskills) back in the day, says that how people define kugel is influenced by where their ancestors were from. Basically, it is a pudding based on noodles, potatoes or vegetables. The cuisine he serves at Kutsher’s Tribeca, his restaurant on Franklin Street in New York City, is a contemporary take on Jewish cookery. Thus, a modern-style kugel always appears on the menu (recently ratatouille potato kugel crisped in a cast iron pan). Innovation is key for Kutsher. “As long as you start with a potato or noodle base and can think of ways to make kugel taste good, more power to you!”
Modernizing kugel is one way to make the dish more appealing to the generation of younger men and women who like to avoid what they consider heavy, fatty, old-fashioned Jewish dishes and are unafraid of new ingredients and flavors. Jeff Nathan, chef-owner of Abigael’s on Broadway, a kosher restaurant in Manhattan, says that kugels made with innovative ingredients like truffle oil, wasabi, fresh herbs or mascarpone cheese are big winners for younger folks who “are proud to call themselves foodies.”
My friend Liz Rueven agrees. She writes about navigating the landscape of food, restaurants and travel in her blog, http://kosherlikeme.com/, and is a devotee of traditional dairy noodle kugel. But this year, to please her newly married son and daughter-in-law, she opted for a more au courant version loaded with caramelized onions and fresh herbs from her garden. It’s the kind of old-but-new dish that works perfectly with smoked fish for a break-the-fast or Chanukah celebration.
But what about kugel’s fat and calories? Its lack of nutritional value?
Nathan says it’s easy to switch out ingredients for healthier ones—for example, sour cream for yogurt. And Tamar Genger, dietitian and Director of Digital Media at www.joyofkosher.com, says that kugel is a perfect vehicle for adding vitamin- and nutrition-rich ingredients. She loads her crispy potato kugel with vegetables and says it’s a “sure-fire way to get my kids to eat broccoli, spinach, cauliflower or zucchini.”
But honestly, those old-fashioned, traditional recipes, the ones full of butter, full-fat sour cream and such, are special “because,” as Nathan reminds us, “they invoke memories of our youth, of family suppers and holidays spent with loved ones.” So he suggests eating them in smaller portions. They’ll “likely put a smile on your face,” he says.
Just ask Susan’s daughter Pam, now married and with children of her own. “Sure, it’s made with more butter than I would probably consume in a month,” she says, “but I never think about that as I search for the corner piece that is most definitely the crunchiest.” Ditto for Rueven, who told me that when it comes to butter-rich, cheese-loaded sweet kugel, “calories be damned!”
Kugel’s emotional appeal, that snippet of paradise that Tevye mentioned, is probably why Geller regards kugel as essential to “the Shabbat or Holiday experience.” And why she has so many different recipes in her cookbooks and on her website for this beloved dish. That sense of poignancy and reminiscence, of seeking heaven and finding it in a taste or two is also why my two favorite kugels remain the ones I’ve been eating a long time: grandma’s everyday dinner version and, for holidays, Susan’s sweet one. But throughout the year, I make all sorts of variations. Anyone who knows me knows I rarely make the same recipe twice, especially when it comes to food as easy to change as this. So, over the years, I’ve made sweet kugels and added apples, dried cranberries, dates, figs, blueberries, mango and papaya. To savory versions, I’ve introduced broccoli, carrots, peas, squash, spinach and, more recently, kale.
Like our ancestors before us, I adapt kugels in ways that appeal to my family’s current desires. I made a gluten-free version for a friend. I’ve made kugels with ingredients and seasonings my grandma may never have heard of and certainly never thought to use—like curry powder (there’s a recipe for a curry kugel in my book Hip Kosher), chili peppers, harissa, kumquats and tofu. I’ve substituted coconut milk for dairy products to make pareve (dairy-free) versions.
Recently my kids asked for a more nutritious and lower-fat kugel, so I replaced sour cream with Greek-style nonfat yogurt, used low-fat cottage cheese and, for good measure, tucked in some diced winter squash. We liked it so much that the next time I added a crunchy nut crust to give it more texture.
Leslie and her husband came over recently, and because Neil likes potatoes and anything super crunchy, I made a new-fangled potato kugel that was sort of a combination of my grandma’s traditional version and potato latkes: Crispy Potato Kugels with Mushrooms and Peas. I bake the “batter” in individual muffin tins because the extra surface area makes it extra crunchy (you could also make this in a jelly roll pan, and cook it at a slightly higher temperature). I also added the peas for color and noticed everyone ate them except Neil, who picked them out. So, I guess they aren’t mandatory. You could switch the peas for chopped spinach, instead.
A few years ago, I was asked to be one of the judges at a Noodle Kugel Cookoff at our local JCC. There were dozens of entries. Dozens!
I looked at all of them carefully. Each looked different. Each tasted different. I was wowed.
But why did that surprise me? Kugel is a creative endeavor. Each of us adds a little of this, a little of that. We make the family favorite. Or we create a new one each time. Kugel nourishes us, binds us together and lets us reminisce about days gone by. Year after year, generation after generation, we make it. After all, who would give up an opportunity to discover paradise?
Ronnie Fein is a food blogger, recipe developer, journalist and author of the popular cookbook Hip Kosher.