September 16, 2007
NYT searches for the perfect kugel
On the eve of Rosh Hashanh, Melissa Clark of the New York Times wrote an article about her search for the perfect kugel. I block quoted the entire text at the bottom of the post.
Not ony does it delve into the attributes of such a creation, but it also goes on a journey through the Clark's attempt to create the utlimate kugel. it treats the culinary adventure of cooking an kugel into a introspective adventure through a person's identity and ancestry.
Does this story sound familiar?
Each winter, the Shmooze Club does just that.
Now, a few issues with the story:
- I do appreciate her refences to modern interpretations on the kugel
- I would call the milchig kugel an occasional kugel because you only eat it on Shavuos and Yom Kippur break fast. It is Shmooze Club policy that a kugel should almost always be pareve.
- Great-Aunt Martha can't make a good kugel. Aunt Minda can.
- Any article that doesn't include a reference to the bundt pan removes some legitimacy
EVERY family tells the same stories over and over, and one of ours is about kugel. It is dusted off and recited on Rosh Hashana when, over my mother’s experimental kugel du jour (roasted-red-pepper-scallion or chickpea-cumin), someone inevitably tells the tale of how Great-Aunt Martha’s famous noodle kugel recipe came to be.
HEIRLOOM NOODLES Some traditions just need to be refined.
It goes like this. When Uncle Alan was a child he liked only the crunchy kugel top, and so would pick the crisp, golden noodle shards off the surface while the kugel cooled in the kitchen. He did this for a few years until his mother, my very practical Great-Aunt Martha, came up with her legendary solution. She began baking the kugel in muffin tins so that it would be crunchy through and through. And if Alan did deface the tops, she reasoned realistically, she could serve the kugel-muffins turned upside down.
Being of the crunchy-loving, burnt-noodle-picking sort myself, I always listened with interest, wondering what such a marvelous sounding kugel would taste like, and why we didn’t make it that way.
“It was kind of dry and hard, and not that good,” my mother said when I got around to asking last year. “Aunt Martha wasn’t a great cook. But it’s a good story.”
Of course, a better story would end in a prized heirloom recipe for a noodle kugel that was crunchy and burnished on top, but still creamy and moist underneath. Made with luscious dairy products, melted butter and many eggs, this noodle-rich legacy would be sweetened with cinnamon, sugar and plenty of soft, chewy raisins. Maybe I could tweak Great-Aunt Martha’s basic mixture into something closer to my kugel ideal.
“Aunt Martha never used raisins or sugar or cinnamon; her kugel was savory,” my mother said when I related my fantasy.
So much for rehabilitating Great-Aunt Martha’s recipe. Instead, I decided to steal her form (baking in muffin tins for maximum crunch) but create my own kugel content.
Freed from ancestral bonds, I could go off in any number of kugel directions, just as long as I kept the dish’s essential spirit intact. But what, exactly, was that? Given the outré kugels of my childhood — the lasagna-esque mixes of onions, tomatoes and noodles; the herb-layered potato and mushroom gratins — what exactly could I get away with and still call kugel?
I asked my mother.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “I guess as long as it has potatoes or noodles or matzo and you serve it on a Jewish holiday, it counts.”
This actually wasn’t far from what slightly more responsible research bore out. Rabbi Gil Marks, in his thorough “World of Jewish Cooking” (Simon & Schuster, 1999), writes that a kugel (which comes from the German word for ball) was originally a dumpling made from flour or stale bread that was cooked in the cholent, a Sabbath stew of beans and beef.
In 2005, Joan Nathan defined kugel in these pages as a casserole traditionally made from noodles or potatoes. But, she added, more modern interpretations could include anything from rhubarb and blueberries to panko, goat cheese and broccoli.
Frankly, compared with what my mother had been whipping up for decades, those variations sounded pretty run-of-the-mill. What I really craved was a classic noodle kugel made the way Great-Aunt Martha should have made it (says me).
Recipes for that kind of eggy, raisin-laden noodle kugel were almost too easy to find. Since my family is not kosher, separating meat and dairy isn’t an issue, so I immediately dismissed anything calling for tofu cream cheese. I also nixed recipes with bread crumbs or nut or cornflake toppings. What I love about kugel is what Uncle Alan did — the crunchy noodles. Cornflakes and their ilk just aren’t the same.
After skimming dozens of recipes, I eventually chose cottage over farmer cheese because I wanted it to be organic, and my supermarket doesn’t stock organic farmer cheese.
I decided to add sour cream for a velvety texture, and use one more egg than most recipes call for, for lightness. Then I doubled the amount of cinnamon, because I like it.
I also decided to soak the raisins before mixing them in. Not only would the soaking liquid add flavor, but soaking the raisins would keep them from burning in the extra-hot oven needed for a very dark brown kugel top. For the soaking liquid, I could have used dark rum, Manischewitz Concord grape wine or kirsch, but settled on sherry since I had an open bottle of fino I wanted to use up.
I mixed everything together and filled my muffin tins. There was still a lot of kugel mix left, so I buttered a jellyroll pan (as opposed to a deeper casserole dish) and filled that, too, figuring that the greater amount of exposed surface area would yield a higher crisp-to-soft ratio, mimicking the muffin tins. Then I baked everything at a slightly higher temperature than usual so that the top would get extra crisp before the bottom had a chance to dry out.
The kugels emerged from the oven gorgeously golden, with the tips of the noodles singed to a chocolate hue.
Then I sampled both versions. As good as the muffin-kugels were, the kugel baked in the jellyroll pan turned out even better — just like crème brûlée, toothsome on top, but much softer and more custardy underneath, and studded with sweet pockets of plump raisins. Finally, an heirloom-worthy recipe I could pass on to any heirs that may appear.
And as an added bonus, baking the kugel in a jellyroll pan meant I wouldn’t have to scrub out individual muffin cups when the party was over. Now that would be something ever-practical Great-Aunt Martha would have definitely appreciated.
Posted by irobi at September 16, 2007 04:40 PM
According to Ms. Nathan, tuna noodle casserole would suffice as a kugel. And if you wanted Mrs. Clark's validation of tuna noodle kugelness, it would have to be eaten on Jewish holiday. I believe that both of these theories skim the essence of what a kugel is and should be. First, the dish must have at least one egg. If there was one constant among the recipes in the Malka and Elimelech Kugelov Kugeloff, it was eggs in the recipe. Second, Great Aunt Martha should not be the source for your kugel inspiration. Well noted, Ian. Third, a kugel must be designed and destined to become a kugel by its creator/chef/kugelairre. A casserole cannot become a kugel nor is something just cooked in a bundt pan.
With that, it's time to eat some leftover kugel from Rosh Hashanah
Posted by: rubyr at September 17, 2007 03:55 PMLogin to leave a comment. Create a new account.