Have you seen kugel on a table recently? Potato or noodle? Is it Break-the-Fast or some other Jewish holiday? Here’s what to know about kugel if you’ve never tried it.
Among the dishes synonymous with Jewish cuisine in America and abroad—brisket, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup—there is, always, kugel. Pronounced “KOO-gel” or “KUH-gel” depending on who you’re talking to, it’s a ubiquitous part of many meals. One Jewish friend told me, “It’s at Shabbat, Break-the-Fast, a bris, Rosh Hashanah. We eat kugel all year round.” She put her hand over the receiver and called to her mother, “Ma, is there any time we wouldn’t have kugel?”
The word itself has German origins, as it means “ball, or something round,” according to The Oxford Companion to Food. In Jewish culture, it tends to denote a pudding, one made either with a potato or noodle base. Kugel enthusiasts tend to have their favorites. One friend prefers potato kugels; another raves about her mother’s sweet noodle kugel laced with cottage cheese, egg noodles, and sugar.
And here’s where things get a tiny bit tricky. On Passover—a very holy time on the calendar that stretches for eight days in America, and seven in Israel—no leavened grain, such as flour, is permitted. So noodle kugel would never grace a dinner table during Passover. Only potato kugel containing no flour, such as this one, being sure to use matzo meal, would be permitted.
Additionally, if you’re adhering to Kosher dietary guidelines, which many Jews follow year-round and which stipulate that dairy and meat cannot be served together, you’d be sure to serve a kugel that was parve—non-dairy. It’s simpler to make a potato kugel, which is traditionally parve.
Noodle kugel, on the other hand, tends to be surprisingly brunchy. Although it has a ton of variations, including a savory one, one friend describes the flavor of a classic version thusly: “When I eat a creamy Danish with a cherry on it, I think, ‘This is just like kugel!’” In fact, one bubbe (grandmother) I spoke with recalls a cousin who “dumped a whole can of cherry pie filling on top.”
The Platonic ideal of kugel tends to have, as food writer Rachel Tepper Paley explained it, “the perfect textural composition—smooth and creamy on the inside, crisp and crunchy on the outside.” Her mother serves sweet and savory kugels side by side at Break-the-Fast (the breakfast celebration following Yom Kippur), so “I don’t have to choose,” she says.
This, perhaps, is the key thing to know about kugel: Invariably, your own mother made it best.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.