With all this snow and winter weather we’ve been having, we’ve been craving kugel, the baked casserole that comes in infinite varieties. As soon as we’re done at the computer, we’re going down to our kitchens to make some, but first we thought we’d ask, “How do you pronounce it?”
Are you in the kugel (COO-gul) or kigel (KEE-gul) camp? How you pronounce it is a clue to where your ancestors came from. Galitzianers, from southern Poland and the Ukraine (including the cities of Chelm and Krakow) call it kigel and preferred it sweet; Litvaks, from Lithuania, northern Poland and northern Russia (including Vilna, Minsk and Bialystock) call it kugel and preferred it savory. Both are types of Ashkenazic Jews, but they historically feuded over which group was smarter and higher class. But these are old-fashioned distinctions. Today, the Jewish battle lines are more likely drawn over which sleep-away camp your kids attend or which Chinese restaurant is your favorite on Sunday night.
Kugel is the German word for ball. The name comes from the small round pan in which the pudding was baked. The result was a casserole that was all puffed up and round.
The earliest kugels were made from bread and flour. Around 1200, German cooks spruced up the recipe by replacing the bread with noodles (lokshen) or farfel and including eggs. As Jews moved to Eastern Europe, they brought their kugel pans with them. In the shtetls, homemakers would place their pans of kugel in the middle of a pot of cholent (a stew of meat, beans and potatoes) and shlep it to the village bakery on Friday afternoons. Bakers would keep the pots in bread ovens that were still warm from baking the challah, and the housewives would pick it up at the end of Shabbat.
Traditional Shabbat kugels were served with meat and thus had to be parve (no dairy) in order to maintain the laws of kashrut. These kugels were bound together with eggs and oil and were generally savory – to go along as a side dish. Polish cooks get the credit for “inventing” sweet dairy kugels by adding raisins, cinnamon and farmer’s cheese; it was a perfect accompaniment for brunch or lunch.
When we Googled kugel, the second most popular search result was kugelis, a Lithuanian version of the delicacy that includes potatoes, eggs, onions, milk and, gasp, bacon. The kugelis photo page showed picture after picture of hot, crusty casseroles. Another site promoted a t-shirt that read, “Kugelis: Breakfast of Lithuanians.” So it seems that when the Jews fled to America, their potato kugel stayed behind and started keeping company with the locals. But we’re not sure how a version migrated to Switzerland, where what they call “kugel” comes with herring on top.
No matter how you say it, every good Jewish cook has his or her favorite recipe – potato or noodle, sweet (with fruit) or savory (containing vegetables). This one’s a favorite in Ellen’s house:
Sweet Pineapple Kugel
12-oz. bag of egg noodles
¼ cup margarine or butter, melted
1 cup nonfat milk*
½ cup nonfat sour cream*
½ cup brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 20-oz. can of crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Boil and drain the noodles. Put them in a large bowl. Grease a 9×13 rectangular pan with the melted butter; leave the remaining butter in the pan. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with milk and sour cream. Mix in sugar, spices and pineapple.
Pour this mixture on top of the cooked noodles and mix well.
Gently pour everything into the baking pan. Sprinkle additional cinnamon on top and bake for 45-55 minutes until the kugel looks dry (no longer wet and eggy)
To make this recipe parve, skip the sour cream. Use margarine instead of butter and non-dairy coffee creamer or soy or almond milk instead of milk.
*In Ellen’s house, they use nonfat dairy products, so this is technically a no-calorie kugel recipe, until it’s topped with sour cream and cherry pie filling and served with bagels, cream cheese and lox; cheese blintzes; and two slices of coffee cake.