OURS IS A food-centered culture. The Yiddish language is replete with food-based idioms. We say “a gantza tsimmes,” meaning making a production out of something. If something is inexpensive, we say it’s “billig vi borscht,” cheap as beet soup. A busybody is a “kochleffel,” a cooking ladle, and here’s my personal favorite: “Meshugenah genz, meshugenah gribenes”: crazy geese, crazy rendered goose fat, the Yiddish way of saying “like father, like son.” The Sephardic language Ladino also has its share of food idioms. I love this one: “Ni Pesah sin matzah, ni ija sin mazal”: No Pesach without matzo; no girl without luck.
Jewish food is a cuisine borne from happy borrowings. Outside of matzo and the long-cooking Sabbath stew called cholent, there really is no such thing as Jewish food created by Jews. Wherever Jews have lived, they have absorbed the cuisine of their neighbors, modifying it according to the kosher laws and making it their own. Even our beloved braided challah was borrowed from the Germans. A lot of the foods we think of as Jewish were actually Russian, Polish, German, Hungarian, Romanian – you get the idea – dishes like potato latkes, blintzes, borsht, knishes and kugel, the ultimate Jewish comfort food.
In the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” Gil Marks quotes an 1825 letter from the German writer and poet Heinrich Heine to the editor of a new German Jewish periodical: “Kugel, this holy national dish, has done more for the preservation of Judaism than all three issues of your magazine.”
The earliest appearance of the word “kugel” in Webster’s Dictionary defined it as “a suet pudding,” which is ironic, because suet is not usually kosher. Updated later, the definition became “a baked pudding.” Eight centuries ago early kugels were bread dumplings added to the Sabbath stew, Marks explains. “Whether spelled kugel (by Poles and Lithuanians), koogle (by Germans), or keegal (by Galitzianers in southern Poland), this dish certainly ranks high in the pantheon of Jewish foods.”
While recipes vary, all kugels are baked puddings with a starchy base—potatoes or noodles are most common—bound with eggs, enriched with fat (butter, margarine, chicken fat or oil), and peppered with an endless variety of colorful and tasty additions, such as vegetables, fruit and/or cheese. While today a kugel is usually served as a side dish, in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where meat was rare and expensive, a starchy kugel could become a filling meal.
As Ashkenazim traveled eastward, they brought the kugel with them, adding local ingredients and making changes along the way. By the 12th century, the bread dumplings hitched a ride, along with the stew they were cooked in, to Germany, where Jewish housewives adopted the German practice of steaming puddings in a clay pot called a “kugeltopf” (“kugel” meaning “ball” and “topf” meaning “jar” or “pot”), turning the dumpling into a pudding. In western Europe this pudding was called a “schalet,” while in eastern Europe it took the name “kugel.”
Through the centuries, cooks began substituting farfel and noodles – and, on Passover, of course, matzo – for what was essentially a ball of bread. Sweet kugel recipes were developed by Ashkenazi cooks beginning in the 17th century with the proliferation and growing affordability of sugar.
During the Middle Ages, only the wealthy could afford a home oven. Most foods were cooked over an open fire or brought to a communal bakery to be baked. By the middle of the 19th century, with the more widespread use of home ovens, cooks began baking kugels rather than stewing them, and the baked kugel casserole, as we know it, was born.
The dish is not exclusive to Ashkenazim, however. Sephardim, too, have their own kugels called “pyotas.” Nina Yellin in “The Kugel Story” includes a recipe for Pyota Greek Style Farina Kugel that includes Cream of Wheat sweetened with sugar and honey. “In Israel, kugel is also called ‘pashtida’ (another name too for potato pancakes),” she writes. “Their kugels have ingredients such as farina, eggplant, and barley. They generally use a wider variety of herbs and spices than Ashkenazic cooks. Layered kugels are said to be of Sephardic origin.”
While Miriam Pascal’s Apple Upside-Down Lukshen Kugel from her new cookbook “Real Life Kosher Cooking” (Artscroll, $34.99) could easily serve as dessert, her family prefers to use it as a side dish. Pascal is the publisher of the popular blog OvertimeCook.com, which features family-friendly kosher recipes that fit the lifestyles of busy people who want to serve nutritious and delicious meals – with an emphasis on easy-to-find ingredients in interesting combinations – for Shabbat, holidays, celebrations and everyday meals. A self-taught cook, Pascal benefitted from what she calls her parents’ unique cooking style and food preferences. “It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to realize that the norm (what most of my friends grew up eating) was gefilte fish for Shabbos, whereas my parents served smoked salmon, topped with good-quality olive oil and capers,” she explains.
Susie Fishbein, the wildly popular author of the Kosher by Design series, offers a savory potato kugel in Kosher by Design Brings it Home (Artscroll, $34.95), a recipe she borrowed from her friend Ancie Cohenson, a Holocaust survivor who lived with her family for a short time. “She had endured many hardships but always had a smile and a kind word,” she recalls. “My kids adored her. As a thank-you for hosting her, she had a pre-Shabbos ritual of making us a skillet potato kugel that never even made it till candle-lighting. Her kugel was slowly cooked in a frying pan over the fire. The crust becomes a crisp, deep brown and encases a soft, velvety, white interior, almost like a giant creamy latke.”
Apple Upside-Down Lukshen Kugel
Yield: 8-10 servings
Upside-Down Topping: 1/3 cup oil
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup sliced almonds
1 Granny Smith apple, sliced thin
Kugel: 5 eggs 2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup pareve whip (unwhipped)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 (10-ounce) bag medium egg noodles, prepared according to package directions
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat 1 (9-inch) round pan well with nonstick cooking spray. Cut parchment paper into a round to fit bottom of pan. Line bottom with parchment paper round; coat with nonstick cooking spray.
2 Upside-down topping: In small bowl, combine oil, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Spread mixture into pan. Sprinkle with sliced almonds; arrange apple slices over entire surface. Set aside.
3 Kugel: In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, oil, whip, lemon juice, cinnamon, and sugars until combined. Add prepared noodles; stir to combine. Pour mixture over apple topping in prepared pan. Bake about 50 minutes, until center is firm and cooked through.
4 Let kugel cool about 10 minutes, then flip it over onto serving dish so that bottom becomes the topping. Carefully remove parchment paper. Notes: if there is too much batter for your pan, bake excess in greased muffin tins. Reduce baking time. Kugel can be prepared ahead and frozen in pan. Defrost fully, then reheat, loosely covered, until heated through. Flip kugel after reheating.
Source: “Real Life Kosher Cooking” by Miriam Pascal
While Ancie used the Kuchenprofi grater pictured here, a food processor would work as well, Fishbein assures us.
Yield: 6 servings.
3 russet potatoes, peeled
1/2 medium onion, peeled 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup canola oil
1 Peel and rinse potatoes. Using a Kuchenprofi Potato Grater/Shredder or safety grater, grate 2 potatoes into a bowl. Grate onion half and then the third potato. Add eggs, matzo meal, salt, and pepper. Stir well to combine. Set aside.
2 In heavy 10-inch skillet (a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is perfect, but a nonstick pan is fine) over medium heat, heat oil a full 2-3 minutes until hot. Carefully add potato mixture, spreading it into an even layer with back of wooden spoon. Scoop up some oil from the sides to spread over top.
3 Reduce heat to low or medium-low; you should see and hear very gentle sizzling around the outside of the kugel, but not more than that or it will burn during the long cooking time. Cook 5 minutes, uncovered, then cover pan and cook 30 minutes more.
4 Uncover; cook to dry kugel a bit, 5 minutes. Using a thin spatula to get under the Kugel to loosen it, carefully slide kugel out onto a plate. Cover kugel with second plate; flip kugel. If skillet is dry, add 1 tablespoon oil. Carefully slide kugel back into skillet, crust-side up. Cook, uncovered, until well browned on second side, 25-30 minutes. Slide kugel onto platter or plate. Cut into wedges; serve hot.
Source: “Kosher by Design Brings it Home” by Susie Fishbein.
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.