Passover's guilty pleasure

The Baltimore Sun

When I need to go to a happy place in my head, I invariably wind up at my Bubbe's Sunday night table, which always featured lokshen (noodle) kugel.

The noodles were just a good excuse to add raisins and almost every dairy product in her fridge. It was the ambrosia of my youth. She served this every Sunday night, except during Passover, when noodles cannot be used.

Food plays a huge role in the observance of most Jewish holidays. Apples and honey are eaten on Rosh Hashana, potato latkes and jelly doughnuts on Hanukkah, hamantaschen on Purim. But the foods that distinguish the eight days of Passover are the ones that cannot be consumed. Bread, flour, rice, noodles, pasta, corn, peanuts - basically all grains and legumes - are forbidden.

Yet none of those ingredients is necessary to create a delicious Passover kugel.

Passover is said to be the most-observed holiday on the Jewish calendar, with more than 80 percent of American Jews attending a Passover Seder, according to the National Jewish Population Survey. One thing people still want to see on the table is kugel.

"Kugel" is a happy word. I have a friend who says he'd take the name Kugel the Clown if he was joining the circus. Kugel is a guilty pleasure, kind of like the Jewish equivalent of stuffing, or cranberry sauce from the can. It's often that everyone goes back for seconds and thirds.

Confusion reigns over the various translations of the word "kugel." While in German it means ball, some sources say in Yiddish it means square - hard to make sense of because Yiddish is a mix of German and Hebrew. There does appear to be agreement that kugels were baked in round (or square) vessels, then eventually the shape of the baking vessel became the name of this dish.

What defines a kugel, exactly, is also open to interpretation. When asked for a synonym, chef Stan Levy of Eddie's of Roland Park tried pudding, casserole, souffle, terrine and pie, then conceded that none of these terms quite gets at the essence of kugel.

In the article "Holy Kugel" from the book Food and Judaism, edited by Ronald Simkins and Leonard Greenspoon, Rabbi Allan Nadler, director of the Jewish Studies program at Drew University, says, perhaps quite tongue-in-cheek, that kugel has special powers. Joan Nathan, the author of The Jewish Holiday Kitchen and Jewish Cooking in America, wrote in a New York Times article that Nadler believed that at the moment a rabbi offers kugel at his table, he has the power to bestow health, wealth and even fertility. Such is the power of comfort food.

Having been on an almost lifelong quest for the quintessential potato-kugel recipe, and being totally mystified that hundreds of recipes read almost - but not exactly - the same, I realize each one is perfect because it is someone's exact taste of childhood. Charles Levine, owner of Glorious Kosher caterers in Owings Mills, puts it another way: "We want Passover to taste like Passover."

For some families, that means kugels featuring vegetables and/or matzo farfel (dime-size pieces of matzo). Traditional examples include mushroom farfel kugel and spinach kugel. A nouvelle, tradition-in-the-making variety highlights roasted vegetables.

Is it possible to re-imagine Bubbe's kugel and still recognize it? Yes, maybe, why not? Potatoes are hard to ruin (unless you put them in a blender and make glue).

Arthur Schwartz, author of the insightful and beautiful Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited, notes that Bubbe might not have had access to Idaho or russet baking potatoes, which are drier and therefore "produce a fluffier kugel." He also reveals that the number of eggs is key, noting "an inordinate number of eggs is the secret. ... Lots of eggs are definitely the ticket to lightness."

Bubbe may have used schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), never conducive to lightness or heart-healthfulness. Try replacing the schmaltz with oil, or experimenting with reducing the oil in recipes.

Another option for making potato kugel more waistline-friendly, and also easier and more elegant to serve, is to control the portions by baking "kugelettes" in muffin tins. Just remember the inherent guilty pleasure factor and acknowledge you'll need to make enough for those seconds and thirds. Food this delicious means Passover doesn't have to be defined by what is denied.

Leek, Spinach, and Couregette (Zucchini) Kugel

Serves 6 to 8

6 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)

2 large leeks, thinly sliced

1 1/4 pounds spinach, washed

1 zucchini, coarsely grated

1 baking potato

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 spring onions, chopped or thinly sliced

1 to 2 pinches ground turmeric

salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons matzo meal

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus extra to garnish

3 eggs, lightly beaten

lemon wedges, to serve

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat half the oil in the pan, add the leeks and fry until just tender. Remove from the heat.

Cook the spinach in only the water that clings to it after washing, until just tender. Drain and, when cool enough to handle, roughly chop. Add the spinach and zucchini to the leeks, and stir to combine.

Peel and coarsely grate the potato, then squeeze in your hands to remove its excess starch and liquid. Add to the leeks with the garlic, spring onions, turmeric and plenty of salt and pepper.

Add enough matzo meal to the vegetable mixture to form a thick dough consistency. Stir the dill into the eggs, then add to the vegetable mixture. Pour the remaining oil into a baking pan and heat in the oven for about 5 minutes. When the oil is hot, spoon the vegetable mixture evenly into the pan, letting the hot oil bubble up around the sides and onto the top.

Bake the kugel for about 15 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the kugel is firm to the touch and the top is golden brown and puffy. Sprinkle with chopped dill to garnish and serve hot or warm with the lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Note: This is a traditional Sephardi kugel.

From "Jewish Cooking: The Traditions, Techniques, Ingredients, and Recipes," by Marlena Spieler

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 174 calories, 5 grams protein, 12 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 13 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 79 milligrams cholesterol, 74 milligrams sodium

Potato Kugel

Serves 12 or makes 18 "kugelettes" using standard-size muffin tins

3 pounds russet (baking) potatoes

12 eggs

2 medium onions (about 12 ounces), peeled and cut into chunks

2/3 cup matzo meal

1 tablespoon salt

3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons vegetable oil (divided use)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks to prepare them for the food processor. Reserve in a bowl of cold water until ready to process, but don't leave them there longer than 2 hours.

In a very large bowl, beat together the eggs until well mixed. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the onions until very finely chopped, but not liquefied. Scrape the onions into the bowl with the eggs and stir them in. Stir in the matzo meal.

Drain the potatoes, then set a strainer over a bowl. In the same processor bowl (no need to clean), process the potatoes in 3 batches, until very finely chopped. The pieces should be no bigger than a grain of rice and mostly smaller.

As each batch of potatoes is processed, immediately scrape it into the strainer. With a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon, press out the moisture so it drains into the catch bowl. Immediately stir the potatoes into the egg mixture. Discard the liquid and potato starch collected in the bowl. Season the batter with salt and pepper.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil into a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, preferably heatproof glass. Tip the pan so the oil coats the pan bottom and halfway up the sides. Warm the empty pan in the preheated oven for 5 minutes.

Protecting your hands, remove the hot pan from the oven and fill with the kugel mixture. The oil will rise up the sides of the pan, especially in the corners. It's a good thing when the oil spills onto the surface of the batter because it adds crispness to the finished dish. Press the batter down near the corners lightly to fill them with potato batter. Drizzle the surface with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil.

Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving, preferably somewhat longer. Serve hot or warm, freshly baked or reheated.

The kugel reheats extremely well in a 350-degree oven, uncovered so the top can re-crisp. (Reheating time depends on the size of the piece being reheated and the temperature of the kugel before it goes into the oven.) Kugel can be kept in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for at least 4 days, and for several months in the freezer. It is best to defrost in the refrigerator before reheating.

Kugelette variation: Follow Potato-Kugel directions, but liberally spray muffin tins with a vegetable pan release spray. Coating the muffin tins with oil is optional, though the oil will promote a browner and crispier crust. The baking time, anywhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour, will vary based on the type of muffin tins.

Adapted from "Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited" by Arthur Schwartz

Per serving (based on 18 kugelettes): 152 calories, 6 grams protein, 6 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 20 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 141 milligrams cholesterol, 439 milligrams sodium

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