Passover's guilty pleasure

Kugel, a favorite Jewish comfort food, gets a makeover for the holiday

April 16, 2008|By Donna Beth Joy Shapiro | Donna Beth Joy Shapiro,Special to The 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.

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