Noodle kugel is a taste of my New Jersey youth. Making the rich, raisin-studded noodle pudding sends me back to those afternoons when my best friend Sarah Kanengizer and her grandmother baked kugel for the Sabbath.
She never remembered my name, but Grandma Joyce knew me as “the girl who likes kugel.” Hers was the real deal — a golden custard with homemade noodles, sour cream and cottage cheese. Though I’m not Jewish, kugel was one of the first dishes I made when we first settled in Minneapolis some 40 years ago, to remind me of friends back home.
“Kugel” comes from the German word for ball and is traditionally baked in a round terra cotta dish. It originated in the Alsace-Lorraine region, bordering France and Germany, to make use of leftover noodles and cheeses. As it traveled with immigrants to the U.S., the dish became ever more varied, open to American tastes and whims. I can’t help but wonder what Grandma Joyce would make of today’s kugel with roasted apples or chocolate bits, or the savory versions layered with broccoli and red pepper.
Over the years, I’ve taken a few liberties, using packaged noodles (pappardelle), less tender than homemade, but good enough. Organic whole-milk Greek yogurt substitutes nicely for homemade sour cream; it contains none of the stabilizers or thickeners in commercial brands and adds a distinct tang.
Organic whole-milk cottage cheese is closest to homemade; fresh ricotta also works well. Kugel may be assembled ahead and baked off before serving and the dish travels nicely to potlucks. The one thing not to change is the amount of butter in the recipe. It helps create the crispy edges that my friend and I would fight over.
There are as many different ways to make kugel as there are families that make it. While noodle kugel is the most familiar, kugel can also be made with potatoes, matzo or rice. Kugel is never heavy; it should be pillowy, thanks to the eggs that help give it a loft like a good bread pudding.
Joan Nathan, Jewish scholar and cookbook author, writes that in her family the simple, straightforward savory salt-and-pepper kugel was always preferred. Leftovers can be cut into squares and fried in butter (a great reason to keep it simple).
Plain or fancy, sweet or savory, kugel is always a homey, comforting dish.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.