So far, in my attempt to reclaim some of my lost Jewishness through cooking (lost, for the most part, by my parents before I was born, so totally not my fault, OK?), I have mainly made dishes that I love, remember fondly from childhood, and still serve to my own family a couple of times a year, according to the recipes passed down (orally, via my mother) from my Czechoslovakian grandma, such as cholent, egg and potato pie, and chicken soup with kneidlach. I have also attempted gefilte fish balls, from a book recipe, which were a partial success, in that they came out absolutely as horrible as I remembered them from cold platters at the Pinner and Hendon shivahs of my distant youth.
But lokshen pudding, the first dish the JC has specifically commissioned me to write about (which is fine, guys, but, er, whose identity is it we are trying to reclaim here?), presents a problem.
Because I don’t think I have ever eaten it before in my life. Or even seen it. Or really have any idea what it is. It’s like a rice pudding with noodles instead of rice, right? Except presumably without the milk/cream element because you — sorry, we — eat it on shabbat after a meal of chicken soup, boiled tongue and all that malarkey. And lokshen is basically spaghetti, correct? So it’s spaghetti — boiled soft, I’m guessing — baked in a beaten egg mix with sugar and, I assume, schmalz or margarine for grease?
It doesn’t sound great from here, but then I’m a sucker for most of the bland and hefty side-stickers and duck-sinkers of the Ashkenazi repertoire, so how bad can it be? And I love rice pudding, although I haven’t eaten it in over a decade because, and here is the rub, I don’t eat pudding. Ever.
When you lead a life like mine, reviewing restaurants for a living and eating out five, six, sometimes ten times a week, something has to give. And if you don’t want it to be your gut, jawline, cholesterol levels, sex life, self-respect and life expectancy, then it will have to be one out of chips, booze and sugar. And chips and booze I simply cannot live without. So in 2001, when I became restaurant critic of The Times, it was goodbye sugar, for ever. I do not review puddings in my pieces — which is often noted and objected to by readers — on the basis that pudding is for fat people and babies and all desserts taste basically the same.
Nor was it an especially sad parting for I have never had a sweet tooth. Sugar is a drug with no nutritional benefits and as dangerous in its own way as cocaine and tobacco (both of which I gave up at roughly the same time) and alcohol (which you will have to claw from my cold, dead hands), and it does not make for interesting food.
Nor has it ever been a huge part of my family’s Jewish life. My mum was not a fat, jolly, eat-it-or-you-don’t-love-me yiddishe mama, endlessly baking kugel while we chased our dreidels (or whatever you do with them) across the kitchen floor. She was (is) a chain-smoking, stick-thin consultant anaesthetist who we were bloody lucky to have cooking for us at all, and if we wanted something sweet after the paprika chicken or paprika liver or beef stroganoff (with paprika), there was butterscotch Angel Delight from a packet.
My grandma Isabel was closer to the traditional bubbe stereotype (though never called that) but after a Friday night dinner or seder feast there were always only (only!) her four very elegant and not especially sugary basic desserts: apple strudel, hazelnut meringue, chestnut roulade and (insanely boozy) chocolate rum cake. My own mum would do one of those at a stretch on the weekend (if she wasn’t doing a full private list at the Wellington Hospital all day Saturday) and they were deliciously rendered. But a lokshen pudding I have never encountered.
So I dug out my Claudia (Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food) and turned to the “Noodles, Kugels, and Grains” chapter on page 152 (right after the stained and sticky cholent pages of multiple past reference) and learned what I probably already knew, which is that Jews were making pasta in the ghettos of Germany from the late Middle Ages through contact with Italians there, but that it was almost certainly the great scholar Kalonymus ben Kalonymus who brought boiled dough from Rome to the Rhineland sometime around the birth of Chaucer’s parents, served it with honey and a blessing on Friday nights, and started the whole pudding thing. Claudia offered a lokshen kugel of vermicelli (although I prefer our own wonderfully onomatopoeic frimsel) cooked in beaten eggs with marge and onions that wasn’t what I was after, and then one with curd cheese, sour cream and nutmeg, which she said could be made sweet by the removal of the nutmeg and the addition of raisins or dried cherries, orange or lemon zest and, obviously, sugar. This sounded delicious but illegitimately dairy-based, so I decided to split the difference and do the first one but with sugar, cherries and zest instead of the onions.
It was the last Friday of the Christmas holidays and I had my 12-year-old daughter Kitty with me for the day, so we briefly contemplated making the actual lokshen from scratch. But on a trip to Kosher Kingdom in Golders Green for a bit of inspiration (and to show Kitty the glories of NW11 a couple of hours before sunset on Shabbat), she was taken by a packet of broken spaghetti “with no English writing at all!” “Is this Yiddish?” she asked.
“I suppose it could be,” I said. “But it’s probably just Hebrew.”
“And are these lokshen?”
“We’re definitely using this stuff,” she giggled, rattling the red and yellow packet. “It looks terrifiying!”
We also bought cream cheese and two pots of kosher double cream (whatever that means), which I planned to sour with lemon in case we fancied doing the creamy version. We bought cherries and raisins, and also some chocolate-coated orange pieces for the drive home, during which I pointed out the different hat sizes on the men, from yarmulkes right up to the giant furry flying saucers, and explained what they all meant, as far as I could remember.
In the end, we made both versions. Kitty beat three eggs and split them into two bowls while I boiled up the lokshen, which made an unusually starchy mess of the water. Then, in line with the recipe, I mixed the lokshen in with the egg mix, and then added sugar and raisins and grated orange and lemon zest (this was for the parve one), and poured the mixture into a baking tray I had lined with schmalzed baking parchment, and put in the oven at 180C for an hour.
Then we folded the cream cheese, kosher cream (48 per cent buttermilk — why?), sugar, zest and dried cherries into the other bowl of beaten eggs. This I also poured into greased parchment although does one turn out a cream pudding? Maybe not. Still, into the oven it went.
When the time came to take the puddings out there was, I confess, no great excitement from Kitty or my ten-year-old son Sam about the end product. They do not eat pudding either. If they are still hungry after dinner they ask for dessert, we say “yes”, and they go and grab a KitKat from the larder. They have never had rice pudding or tapioca or semolina or queen of puddings, or any of that stuff.
Kitty looked suspiciously at the turned-out parve pudding, properly crisped on the top and bottom (as per Claudia) and watched as I cut into it.
“What happened to the spaghetti?” she asked. And I looked at the cross section and, yes, the noodles were gone and the texture was smooth inside. Like a sponge with no holes.
Kitty sniffed at a forkful. She shrugged and nibbled a corner. “Meh,” she said. “It was fun making it though.” And she put her fork down and wandered off to read a book.
I forked off a mouthful and gave it a chew. Bland. Pointless. Like gumming on a washing-up sponge, but with raisins.
“You don’t want to try the yummy creamy one?” I asked Kitty. “Nah,” she said. And then, “When’s supper?”
So I turned out the creamy one and I sliced myself off a bit of that. There was still a noodle texture to this one at least. But in the mouth, well, it was just sweet stodge. None of the grainy, floral interest that rice or other grains lend to a milky dessert. Hot, sugary slime. Survival rations.
“Do you dare give it a try?” I asked my wife Esther.
“Sure,” she said. “Everything you make is delicious.”
So she spooned in.
“Weird,” she said through the mouthful. “It’s like having mac cheese in your mouth, except when you swallow it tastes like Ready Brek. The cherries are nice, though.”
So I gave a slice to the cat, who had enjoyed the egg mix very much when we were cooking, and slung what was left on the compost.
Then I served up the roast chicken. And when that was gone, and the kids said “can we have dessert?” I said “sure” and pointed in the direction of the KitKats.