Is kugel a blessing or a curse?
Allan Nadler, professor of Jewish Studies at Drew University, is an expert in all things kugel. After studying references to kugel in Hasidic texts, he found that kugel has special powers, especially if it’s served to you on the table of a Hasidic rabbi during Shabbat. He writes, “The Seer of Lublin taught that just as one’s mitzvot (good deeds) and transgressions are weighed in the process of our final judgment in the heavenly courts, so too they weigh all of the kugel that one ate in honor of the Sabbath.”
We better get eating.
In South Africa, kugel is a curse, a derogatory term that refers to a young Jewish woman who is all fapitzed – ostentatious and overgroomed. This comes from the concept that the kugel is a plain pudding masquerading as a delicacy. The kugel curse has lost some of its original bite; now it more generically refers to a materialistic young woman.
In the last column, we wrote about kugel in the shtetl. As Eastern European Jews immigrated to America, their kugel recipes came with them. The first American recipe for kugel was published in 1871 in Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book. It called for homemade noodles, raisins and sugar, bound with eggs.
Since then, kugels have come a long way, baby. Modern designer three-layer kugels include sweet potato, broccoli and cauliflower or goat cheese, duck eggs and sour cherries. Instead of challah crumbs, chefs spread kosher Japanese panko on top of savory kugels. And they’re breaking out of the square and rectangular molds: kugels are being baked in tiny bundt pans or cookie cutters.
Though they are not as ubiquitous as bagels, kugels have found favor among a broader audience in America. Mildred Council owns Mama Dip’s, an African-American restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she serves up country cooking including smothered pork chops and chittlins. She also makes a mean kugel; she was introduced to it at a community interfaith dinner and included three kugel recipes in her Mama Dip’s Family Cookbook. She puts dried cranberries in one and serves it at Christmas with cranberry sauce on top. www.mamadips.com
Professor Nadler, the kugel researcher, wants to hear none of it. “Not spinach or zucchini or sweet kugel for me,” says Nadler, who grew up in Montreal. “Everything is a kugel these days. I grew up in a home where my grandparents were from Russia. We ate salt and pepper kugel, and cut it up in the soup. Now that’s kugel.”
Like Professor Nadler, we prefer our old family recipes – the more traditional versions. Here’s a recipe from Joyce’s family:
In Joyce’s house, every day is a holiday…
12 oz. very thin egg noodles
8 ounces (1 stick) butter
6 ounces cream cheese
12 ounces cottage cheese
1/4 cup sugar (or less if you want it more savory/less sweet)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups of milk
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×13” plan.
Boil noodles in salted water. Drain, run under cold water and drain again.
Mix the rest of the ingredients together in a blender until smooth. Combine this mixture with the noodles and spread evenly into the pan.
Bake uncovered for one hour.