Saturday, February 01, 2014


Challah Kugel at kugel-making lesson, January 29,
Jewish Women's Circle
Potato kugel. Lokshen kugel or noodle kugel. Challah kugel. Apple kugel. Yerushalmi kugel. Vegetable kugel. Rice kugel. What do they all have in common? As with almost any Jewish question, every suggested answer to this question has a sort of counter-answer. Yes, but…

Kugel has always been a dish for the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat – at least it was so for Eastern Europen Jews and their descendants in many lands. Traditional Friday night Shabbat dinners often included kugel, as did the foods for Saturday midday meals. On Friday night and Saturday, observant Jews don’t light a fire and don’t prepare or reheat foods, so Shabbat dishes have to be made by Friday afternoon and kept warm on a low, unchanging flame. In other words, a traditional kugel had to be cooked for hours or even overnight without losing its flavor, often in a slow oven.

Yes, but kugel now is also popular with many Jews who don’t observe these restrictions. They make kugel any time, for holidays or potlucks – their kugels most frequently are baked in a hot oven, and have to be taken out while still puffy. Lots of contemporary Jewish cooks would tell you that a kugel is a dish that’s baked, sort of like a casserole.

Yes, but in the past, women made kugel in a frying pan or in a pot on top of the stove. For example, a woman described in a New York Times article a few years ago, “makes her potato kugel without matzo meal and in a pot rather than the usual Pyrex dish so it can finish cooking on the automatic flame.”

In the still-more-distant past, kugels were steamed inside the pot that held the slow-cooked Sabbath stews, often called cholent (though the name varied depending on the time and place). Only slowly did kugel become a stand-alone dish. It seems, in fact, that way back in time there were essentially two types of slow-cooked dishes: cholent, or stew, and kugel, a more solid dish, basically made from a starch bound with eggs.

Kugel could be a very simple dish. Shabbat potato kugel added an egg or two to the daily fare of potatoes and onions that a Jewish family in the shtetl could afford -- like other very poor rural and village people in Poland and Russia in the 19th century. Indeed, almost all kugel recipes include eggs. When people were really poor, putting scarce eggs into a starchy dish was a way to share a few eggs with a large family. So some people say that a kugel has to have eggs. Yes, but somehow the use of eggs doesn’t seem to define the dish, just to contribute to the flavor and texture.

Yes, kugel is a dish for helping a poor family to share a few eggs. But rich people in those shtetls made rich kugels full of eggs. In America, everyone could eat like the rich people in the old world. Like so many foods in America, kugel got richer and richer, so now many American Jews eat kugels with many many eggs, cheese, lots of sugar, and a variety of fruit. While observant Jews distinguish between kugels that could be eaten with meat meals and those ok for dairy meals, that’s no longer important for many Jewish people today.

Apple Kugel at kugel-making lesson
Yes, but now people are health-conscious, and they make new recipes to be healthy by modern standards – with vegetables. Broccoli. Spinach. Apple kugels made with a batter rather than noodles or potatoes are another variation – healthy or not? I don’t know. There are even gluten-free versions.

Raisins were another frequent addition to Eastern European kugels. One bit of evidence for that is the history of Yerushalmi kugel – Yerushalmi means “from Jerusalem.” One story says that Jews who originally came from Lithuania began making it in Safed (Tzfat) in the early 19th century. Yerushalmi kugel is made from caramelized sugar and fine egg noodles, flavored with a strong dose of black pepper. No raisins, but that’s supposedly because they “couldn't afford raisins … so they browned sugar to make their kugels look dark.” Later these Jews were driven out of Safed and settled in Jerusalem where they kept making the kugel. As the name suggests, it’s still very popular in Jerusalem, especially in the Orthodox neighborhoods, where it’s eaten with a slice of pickle.

Yes, but there’s another story: some attribute the Yerushalmi kugel recipe to Rivka Vinegarten, “the curator of Or Chaime Museum in old Jerusalem. Her father, Rabbi Avraham Mordechy Vinegarten, was the last rabbi of the old Jewish quarter at the outbreak of the 1948 war.”

Some rabbis in the 19th century said it wouldn’t be Shabbat without kugel. They felt that kugel was a holy dish, perhaps because of its simple origins among poor people whose lives were seen as holy. Quite a few of these rabbis preferred potato kugel to any other kind. Noodle kugel, called lokshen kugel in Yiddish, was their other primary choice. There are those who limit their definition to just these two kinds of kugel. In any case, kugel was a strictly Jewish dish.

Yes, but I have found so much else about kugel. And I’m going to stop now.



~~louise~~ said...

Looks like you've been doing a bit of Kugel research Mae. I had no idea there was so much history behind the making of Kugel. I do know I adore Apple Kugel. I've always thought of Kugel as a pudding dish. Now I know so much more about it! Very interesting...Thanks for sharing, Mae...

Jeanie said...

This is a fascinating piece and I had no idea there were so many contradictions! Your group sounds like it does really fun things and the photo makes it look so good. Was it as tasty as it looked?