No doubt one reason my mother was crowned Miss Greenwich Village was that the neighborhood was predominantly Irish in those years. And with her deep red tresses, slate-blue eyes, and lightly upturned nose, she was told over and over, as she was growing up, "You've got the map of Ireland written upon your face."
Of her father, my grandfather, it could be said-and often was-the Yiddish equivalent. No, not that he had the map of Israel on his face, but, in true Jewish fashion, that he had kugel all over his kisser. As Michael Wex puts it in Born to Kvetch, "Der kugl ligt im afm ponim means that you can see at a glance that he's a real Jew, his face is redolent of all the kugl he's eaten in his time."
Proving, of course, two things. First, it all comes down to food with us. And second, one of the most iconic foods for Ashkenazi Jews is the kugel (or kigel, if your ancestors were Galitsianer).
Kugel (the Yiddish derives from the German for "ball") is usually translated as "pudding," as in potato or noodle pudding. And the first kugels were steamed puddings, made by cooking a bread- or flour-based dumpling along with the Sabbath stew. By the time Shabbat lunch was served, the starchy batter had absorbed all the seductive flavors of the long-simmering cholent.
Cooks knew they were on to a good thing, and they began experimenting with other grains like rice and cornmeal; farfel and noodles; root vegetables, such as carrots and later, potatoes; and Passover-friendly matzoh, matzoh meal, potato starch, and ground nuts. Starches might be the star ingredient or merely a bit player used to thicken a kugel that included fresh or dried fruit, vegetables, even meat.
And as kugels became more popular-and access to home ovens more available-cooks started baking their kugels in separate pans, without a cholent. No need to wait for a Shabbat lunch to enjoy a kugel; savory or sweet, meat, dairy, or pareve, a kugel could be baked on its own in an hour or two.
Kugels became mainstays on holiday tables and at life-cycle events because-whether hearty and filling or light as a mousse (yes, airy kugel is not always an oxymoron)-they can be readied ahead. The basic formula-binding the ingredients with eggs; thickening with some starch; and moistening with fat, milk, or cream-is an excellent way to avoid last-minute preparation and provide "staying power" to a side dish, main course, or dessert. And unlike typical puddings and soufflés, most kugels can be cut into serving-size pieces.
Which is why kugels make perfect additions to the seder table. So here are three savory kugel recipes beyond the ubiquitous potato.
But first, a few kugel tips.
- Kugels need oomph. The basic ingredients of most kugels-potatoes, noodles, rice, vegetables like cauliflower-are often bland. Wake up savory kugels with some of the following: generous lacings of aromatics, such as garlic, onion, shallots, leeks, or scallions (preferably lightly sautéed or even deeply caramelized, to bring up the flavor); herbs (mint is lovely in a carrot kugel, rosemary delicious with potato); spices (smoked paprika will improve many vegetable kugels); umami-rich mushrooms; and, not to forget the tried-and-true, griebenes. For sweet kugels, in addition to the usual suspects (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, etc.), you might try something with a tart edge: tart dried fruit (sour cherries, prunes, California apricots, cranberries); candied ginger; a lick of pomegranate molasses; or caramelize some of the sugar in the recipe.
- Caramelizing fruits and vegetables makes them more flavorful, so when possible, either roast or sauté them well, instead of boiling them (I'm looking at you, squash) or just using them raw (and you, apples).
- You can add textural contrast with a delicious, crunchy topping: sauté well-seasoned matzoh chips or matzoh meal or toast some nuts. For sweet kugels, top with flavorful matzoh streusel or even better, crumble pieces of Marcy Goldman's fabulous trademark recipe for caramel matzoh crunch (available in Marcy's book, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and reprinted many times elsewhere on the Web).
- Many kugels are more fun to eat-and texturally more interesting-when baked in well-oiled muffin tins (or even mini-muffin pans, for the littlest seder guests). Or, for another very attractive presentation, bake the kugel in a springform pan, and release the sides just before serving.