Home February 2016 The Reigning Kugel

The Reigning Kugel

0216cookingIn with the old, in with the new. No, it’s not a typo. For all the hoopla over what’s new in food for 2016—plant based burgers, bone broth, matcha, coconut sugar, teff and kalettes (google them). We still crave the food of our roots, but maybe with a modern twist.

Unlike a photo or even a video, a treasured recipe, passed down from mother to daughter for who knows how long, summons the past with all five senses, revealing a slice of our ancestors’ life, a cuisine borne by ingenious Jewish women within the confines of both kashrut and poverty. While the Czar and his family dined in opulent splendor on only the finest cuts, back in the shtetls our ancestors devised ways to feed their families well on what the Royal Family probably threw away. (And we all know what happened to them!)

Over 300 family members contributed to my family cookbook. Can you even imagine how many kugel recipes I received, each one a treasured family heirloom? My editor felt a dozen were enough (not counting the three more I slipped into the Passover chapter). Easy for her to say. Did she have to deal with my family? It got ugly. Otherwise perfectly agreeable cousins practically came to blows extolling the virtues of … what? We’re talking a noodle concoction here.

What is a kugel, and why does one’s particular family recipe inspire such fierce loyalty?

A kugel is a baked pudding 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.

Some assembly required—true for swing sets and true for kugels—but for the most part, kugels are a snap to prepare. Once you’ve cooked and drained the noodles, you simply stir in the other ingredients and bake.

According to tradition, the kugel is Sabbath fare, imbuing it with almost mystical qualities. Its origins can be traced to the Middle Ages, when it was cooked along with the cholent (Sabbath stew). In a paper entitled “Holy Kugel: The Sanctification of Ashkenazic Ethnic Foods in Hasidism,” Professor Allan Nadler discusses the symbolism attributed to this humble pudding by the Hasidic rabbis. While I doubt our bubbes had the rabbis in mind as they shopped for pot cheese, could some deeper, subconscious meaning have evolved through the centuries by osmosis?

I happened to be testing a kugel recipe the day before my sister-in-law Karina’s birthday party. Not realizing the party was catered, I brought it, but no problemcaterer Cathy Giannone of It’s a G Thing Caterers generously made room for it on the buffet. While we were eating, my brother, Gary, speared a candied walnut from Cathy’s outrageous salad and said, “Can you believe how good these are? You should put them in the kugel!” I said, “Get me the recipe and I will!” And a new tradition was born.

One of the first recipes I tested was Lena’s Nut Cake, which I found in Aunt Sally’s handwritten cookbook. It was a disaster! Before it hit the cutting room floor, out of curiosity I asked, “Aunt Sally, who’s Lena?”

“Tanta Esther Gittel’s second wife,” she replied. The recipe here is nothing like Lena ever made. It got a major (and most delicious) overhaul, because with a name like “Tanta Esther Gittel’s Second Wife Lena’s Nut Cake,” that recipe was going in!

Tanta Esther Gittel’s Husband’s Second Wife Lena’s Nut Cake

Serves 10

The toasted hazelnuts give this moist, dense cake a lovely earthy flavor, playing nicely against a delicate accent of orange. (For the glaze recipe go to www.ocjewishlife).

Unsalted butter or unflavored vegetable cooking spray, for greasing pan

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

4 large eggs, separated

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon pure orange extract

Finely grated zest of 1 orange

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting pan

1 1/2 cups chopped hazelnuts, toasted

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup whole milk

1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 9-cup Bundt pan, dust with flour, and tap out excess.

2 Remove 2 tablespoons of the sugar; set aside. Cream butter and remaining sugar with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl several times, until light and fluffy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in extracts and orange zest.

3 Combine 1/2 cup of the flour and the hazelnuts in food processor; process until nuts are very finely ground, about 45 seconds. Transfer to bowl and whisk in remaining 1 cup flour, baking powder, and salt.

4 With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture in three additions, alternating with milk in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Transfer batter to a large bowl.

5 Using a clean, dry bowl and beaters, beat egg whites on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add reserved 2 tablespoons sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating for 10 seconds after each addition. Then raise speed to high and beat until stiff peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes total. Stir one fourth of beaten egg whites into batter to lighten it. Then add remaining whites in three additions, folding until incorporated.

6 Scrape batter into prepared Bundt pan and smooth top. Bake on center oven rack until top is golden brown, cake springs back when lightly touched, and cake tester comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Let cake cool in pan set on wire rack for 15 minutes. Then run a knife around center and edge of cake, and turn out on rack to cool completely. Cut cake into slices, and serve.

Source: “Cooking Jewish” by Judy Bart Kancigor (Workman)

It’s a G Thing
Toffee Walnuts

These are the richest, crunchiest caramelized walnuts that ever graced a salad…or a kugel! They’re great served as is or try them in your favorite kugel. But there’s never enough for either one, because the snackers get to them first. You can try this recipe with pecans or other nuts as well.

1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1 1/2 cups walnut pieces

3 tablespoons butter

1 Spread 1/4 cup of the brown sugar on baking pan and set aside.

2 Heat large skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat. Add walnuts and toast, stirring with  a wooden spoon, until fragrant and just beginning to brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Set aside. Wipe pan.

3 Melt butter with remaining 1/4 cup sugar in same skillet over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add walnuts and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Be careful not to burn them.

4 Remove walnuts with slotted spoon and roll them in the brown sugar on baking sheet, covering completely on all sides. Cool. Store in airtight container.

Makes 1 3/4 cups

Note: For easy cleanup, rewarm pan and caramel will come right off.


Chocolate Glaze

When melting chocolate, don’t overdo it. Remove the pan from the heat when the chocolate is not quite fully melted, and then stir it off the heat until smooth.


6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream

1 teaspoon light corn syrup


  1. Combine the chopped chocolate, cream, and corn syrup in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water. Stir frequently until the chocolate has almost melted (about 120°F). Do not overheat.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and stir gently with a spatula until the glaze is completely smooth. Do not whisk or beat. Allow it to cool slightly (to 90° to 92°F) before glazing the cake.

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.


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