Times are frugal, revisit the kugel
Jerusalem kugel has an unusual taste
In these times of austerity, Ashkenazi cooking has a head start on most. A cuisine partly with roots in the peasant food of the shtetl, it was the diet of a people living in extreme poverty and insecurity.
Countless dishes are made from inexpensive ingredients or based around a small amount of meat or fish and bulked up with cheaper grains or vegetables. Kugels are a perfect example.
As with many Ashkenazi recipes, it has German origins — kugel is German for “sphere, globe or ball” and is a reference to the puffed-up, round shape of the original dish. They were cooked in a round tin called a kugelhupf. American Jewish food writer Joan Nathan suggests, however, that the kugel was first eaten in Alsace-Lorraine — a corner of France annexed by Germany — and the Rhineland of southern Germany.
Nathan explains in her book on Jewish cooking in France, Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, that, “people passing through Alsace-Lorraine and southern Germany on their exodus out of France during expulsions learned about kugels and took them eastward, to Poland and Russia”. She writes that the kugel was originally made from leftover bread and sometimes onions, but came to include potatoes and homemade noodles as it gained in popularity. The French most commonly used dried pears and plums in their kugels, sometimes combined with onions to give a savoury flavour.
Eastern European countries were not blessed with copious vegetables for much of the year — potatoes appeared pretty much in everything, from latkes and dumplings to cakes, puddings and kugels.
Potato kugels were first cooked in eastern European towns as part of the layered cholent pot, transported to the local bakery for overnight communal cooking in large bread ovens and then collected at noon in time for Shabbat lunch. As time went on, kugels were cooked separately and became a major part of the Shabbat menu.
They were made with noodles, grains, potatoes, seasoned with onions and salt as savoury recipes, but more importantly were perfect for cooking slowly overnight. Ingredients were store-cupboard essentials, with a little made to go a long way to make the most of scarce supplies in hard times.
Later, sweet ingredients like apples and cinnamon were introduced. Different countries tweaked the basic recipe to fit local tastes and ingredients. In Hungary sour cream and sugar was added, while the Dutch used cheese as well as cabbage.
More recently, cooks have varied the savoury recipe using different vegetables — carrots, courgettes, spinach — as well as cheese, and even matzah for Pesach. Sweet ones may include soft fruits such as blueberries, which work well in a lokshen kugel. At festivals like Shavuot, dairy-based noodle kugels make delicious alternatives to the classic cheese cake.
Far and away the most common kugel remains potato — the ultimate in Jewish comfort food. Some cooks fry off the onions before assembling the kugel to give it more flavour.
For me, the secret is to squeeze dry any excess water from the raw potatoes and to add baking powder. You also need to be very generous with the seasoning. This will produce a crispy, tasty dish that is light in texture.
An interesting version is the Jerusalem kugel, which has its own unique flavour merging both sweet and savoury with the use of caramelised sugar with vegetable oil. The spice comes from a good pinch of black pepper but I like to mellow it slightly with the addition of ground cinnamon. The success of this recipe relies on letting the mixture cool before adding the eggs, otherwise they will curdle from the heat of the caramelised sugar.
It is regularly used at Shabbat kiddush or as a side dish with cholent. The kugel is also served warm and garnished with pickled dill cucumbers. This creation came from eastern European Chasidic Jews who went to live in Israel.
Although it is more common to cook kugels in square flat tins and cut them into portions, I prefer to make them in small individual ramekins. This gives them a more stylish appearance and also requires no last-minute slicing.
I have a collection of kugel recipes which include apple, noodle, potato, carrot, Passover sweet potato and even courgette and leek. As food bills escalate and budgets decrease, the kugel is a perfect dish to add to your repertoire.