Pesach of Colors: Two Charosets (Purple)

I’m going to be running a series of posts for Pesach/Passover called “Pesach of Colors.” Underneath the beloved briskets and matzah ball soups of a lovingly prepared (Ashkenazi) seder, Passover has the reputation of being a colorless holiday with only a few short highlights: brisket, matzah balls, the end of the holiday. Otherwise, it’s the dull brown of matzah and Passover substitutes. Yet Passover can be so much more – and in Jewish tradition Passover has long been beyond the brisket and macaroons (which are good) to embrace a wide variety of colors that mark both the beginning of spring and our freedom as a people. So let’s embrace that. I’m going to mark each food by six colors across six posts – which are purple, orange, green, pink, gold, and black.

The ingredients for Ashkenazi charoset
The ingredients for Ashkenazi charoset. Photo mine, March 2016.

I want to start off with purple – which is in the wine that is part of charoset. This is the ritual food of the Passover seder that reminds us of the mortar the Israelite slaves placed between bricks in Egypt. Charoset in some form probably originated in Mishnaic times (2nd century CE), when it became part of seder rituals, and particularly that of eating it with matzah and bitter herbs (maror) to commemorate suffering in Egypt. It then evolved across the Jewish world to local ingredients and tastes – and became known as hallegh in much of the Middle East.

The ingredients for Moroccan charoset
The ingredients for Moroccan charoset. There’s more wine! Photo mine, March 2016.

Passover is, of course, one of the primary holidays of the Jewish calendar – it is, in many ways, the foremost – and one that inspires nostalgia in a wide swathe of Jews: secular and religious, “engaged” and “unengaged,” “traditional” and not. As it happens, charoset is often one of those memories – and I’ve had self-identified “no-longer-Jews” go into rapture over the sweet, wine-filled mixtures of their youth.

I have made two charosets: a traditional Ashkenazi recipe and a traditional Moroccan recipe. Like many Jewish foods, charoset was often determined by locally available ingredients – for Ashkenazim, apples that were stored in cellars through the winter, for Moroccans, dates, and for other communities, various local fruits. Nuts are common across many types of charoset – reminiscent as they are of the pieces of brick that end up inevitably in mortar. These can be left out in case of allergy. And, though traditionally made with wine (making the Ashkenazi version slightly alcoholic), grape juice can be substituted in as well. A quick note: the Moroccan one is lower-tech with only a pot and no processor, the Ashkenazi one is quicker to make with no cooking time. Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a kosher and happy Passover.

Moroccan Charoset

based on Claudia Roden’s recipe

makes one and a half cups charoset

1/2 pound dates, pitted and chopped

1 1/2 cups dark grape juice or sweet wine

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

dash of ground nutmeg

3 dried cloves

2/3 cup ground walnuts

  1. Put the dates in a small saucepan with the juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Add water to cover.
  2. Bring to a boil and then simmer on low, stirring now and again, until the dates are very soft and mushy and the fluid has cooked down.
  3. Take off the heat and stir to make the dates a paste. Mix in the ground walnuts and let cool before decanting.

 

Ashkenazi Charoset

Makes four cups charoset

2 medium-sized tart apples, peeled and cored (I recommend Jonathan apples)

2 tbsp dark raisins

2/3 cup ground walnuts

1 cup dark grape juice or sweet wine

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp honey

Each making method has a different consistency. I strongly urge you to use Plan A.

Plan A: Blend all the ingredients together in a food processor until the apples are mostly pulverized and the mixture is consistent. (Side note: food processors are a technological godsend to Jewish cuisine. Screw authenticity, your hands matter!)

Plan B: If you do not have a food processor, grate the apples and then use a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients together.

Plan C: Barring that, chop the apple gratings and raisins, and then mix with the other ingredients.

The author would like to thank Berakha Guggenheim for her assistance in this year’s User Acceptance Testing for charoset.

Great Books: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, by Bee Wilson

Bread pudding
Bread pudding – a childhood favorite, but also reflective of foods commonly given young children. (Photo mine, February 2016)

“To anticipate pleasure in the next meal – something that can take up the greater part of the day, in my experience – is always a form of memory. And each mouthful recalls other mouthfuls you’ve eaten in the past. It stands to reason, therefore, that the flavor patterns in our brains are highly dependent on all the things we’ve tasted in the past, especially during childhood.” (Wilson 2015, 51)

The acclaimed British food writer Bee Wilson came out with a fascinating new book this past December: First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. In it, Wilson examines how memory, childhood eating habits, food practices we learn from our parents, culture, and taste all combine to create our dietary habits and preferences. Why is someone who is picky at five picky at fifty? How is it that children can be taught to like new foods? How do our dietary habits and culturally determined desires affect the healthiness of our food choices? And if – as Wilson amply proves – likes and dislikes in food are not nature, but nurture, what can we do? Wilson explores various ways that not only show how food choices can – slowly and steadily – be changed, but also how these ideas about food even evolve in the first place.

The book is structured in eight chapters, roughly topical: “Likes and Dislikes,” “Memory,” “Children’s Food,” “Feeding,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Hunger,” “Disorder,” and “Change.” In each, Wilson shows how food culture and habits and the way children are raised with food affect everything from eating disorders – the idea that only boys should like certain foods, for example – to how the mass marketing of children’s food has led to a global convergence around a taste combination of salt, sugar, and fat. Wilson provides a rather stunning overview.

The book is also delightfully written and flows like a conversation – or, more aptly, like a sauce! I read almost the entire volume on a five-hour train journey, and could not put it down.

My favorite sections were the first two – on what we like and how we remember it. As a diaspora nerd, I always find the question of memory particularly vexing and beautiful at the same time: is our nostalgia a “colonization of the present” by what we want, or is it a reaching into the past to make sense of the present and tie it to place and culture? In the Jewish context, how does remembered childhood memories of food – kneidlach, corn pashtida, or quince jam – determine what other foods we like, or how we envision home? (Beyond the obvious “that is where kneidlach are eaten.”) And how does our approach to Jewish food relate to what we ate in early childhood? Wilson notes that many of our tastes are determined between the ages of four and eight months, and some tastes through the third year of life. So, for example, the fact that I liked to bite into lemons as a little child (true story) might be why I’m rather fond of both dishes with citrus (in many forms) and sour food more generally. This is maybe why American babka is that sweet, or why the sour taste of schav might fail to capture the mind of someone whose earliest nourishment outside breast milk was sweetened infant formula. Wilson’s work provides a path to explore all these points.

The book isn’t perfect – I think Wilson could have done a better job of addressing class and income, and how both significantly affect the ability one has to change what one eats. In addition, the way gender is addressed is a bit underwhelming – especially given how us queer folks have very complicated relationships with food and gender. But First Bite is definitely worth a read, it’s incredibly informative, and I think many of the points can spur interesting discussions. To add a Jewish angle to this whole thing – after all, this is a Jewish food blog – I thought of two questions that I’d like to mull over, inspired by this book’s chapter on Memory:

  1. For those of us who started keeping kosher later in life, how does memory play a role in addressing the various challenges that are presented by, say, avoiding a food one used to like? Does the advent of “kosher bacon” and imitation shrimp stem from curiosity, or a desire to restore – within the framework of halakhafoods once beloved?
  2. If so many food tastes are learned in early childhood, what happens to reviving certain Jewish food traditions? It is interesting to think about how an adult’s revulsion to or love for p’tcha or schav upon first taste is in part determined by what he might have consumed at the age of two or three. What are the bounds of revival? How do these early tastes change how we cook Jewish food as adults? Is my taste for sour food in part due to my toddler-hood love for biting into lemons?

Wilson, Bee. First Bite: How We Learn To Eat. New York, Basic: 2015.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part II

For part one, click here.

So we’re back: Chicken Soup, Part II: now that you’ve got your stock, it’s time to have some soup!

Chicken soup with kreplach
Chicken soup with kreplach (image Yoninah via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

But first, let us note that chicken soup has a long history in the Jewish world. In the Talmudic era, it was already a festive tradition to cook a chicken in broth; the medieval scholar Maimonides touted it as a curative dish for one’s health. By the modern era, chicken-based soups were common across the Jewish world, including among Turkish Sephardim and Yemenite Jews. But they were perhaps most widespread – as yoikh or goldene yoikh – among Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe, where dozens of variations of chicken soup were consumed for Shabbat and festivals. These soups were brought by Ashkenazi immigrants to wherever they landed – and especially America. And, as other dishes became less popular, chicken soup had a certain staying power. It was comforting; it was easy; it didn’t have calves’ feet. By the mid-20th century, “Jewish penicillin” – coined by performers on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit – was an icon of what we can roughly call mass Ashkenazi culture. And it stuck: mass media has have also helped reify chicken soup in today’s Jewish world. From blogs to television shows to Tumblr, chicken soup is the Jewish classic.*

So, you want to make this classic. But how? There are many different ways, particularly if you have your stock. I have five recipes here, with the basic parts of liquids, soup-solids, and additions. I’ve written them in order of difficulty.

Of course the ingredients and methodology vary. For mock chicken soup, ignore all directions involving the chicken.

Easy

Don’t even take your ingredients out of the stock. Just add your additions if you have any – noodles, matzoh balls, ground hazelnuts, etc., cook them in the soup, and you’re good to go.

Friday Night

Take out the chicken and cut it up, leave the vegetables in there. If you would like, add some boiled broad beans or some carrots. Add back the chicken, with any additions. Enjoy!

Some Friday Nights

Take out the chicken and vegetables. Keep the stock vegetables for something else, but add new vegetables and boil them in the soup until they’re soft. (I recommend a few carrots, a few peeled parsnips, and some finely chopped onion. Chop up the chicken and add it back in, with separately cooked additions.

Birthday Shabbat/Holidays

See Some Friday Nights, but cook a more difficult addition – such as matzoh balls with neshommes (forthcoming), kreplach, or homemade farfel.

Rosh Hashanah and Pesach

I only do this twice a year at most. Essentially, you make a stock all over again using half first round chicken stock, half water with fresh chicken and fresh vegetables – including some cabbage and apple for Rosh Hashanah – and cook again for about an hour or so. (Keep the chicken and vegetables from the stock for later meals.) Then, you add separately cooked additions – and it’s one of the two biggest food holidays of the year, so go all out here – and freshly chopped herbs as a garnish. Chop up the chicken for the soup and add it back in. There is also a veritable tradition in my family of using the fattiest chicken you can find – or even turkey – for even more flavor. Pesach is no time for a diet, because we are being liberated.

*Albeit this entire post is a tad Ashkenormative. Apologies.

Another Secretly Jewish Dish: Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach with Raisins

Spinach with raisins and pine nuts!
Spinach with raisins and pine nuts! Photo mine, February 2016.

One thing I think we who are interested in Jewish food forget is that Jews themselves have heavily influenced “non-Jewish cuisines.” From cocido in Spain to the existence of dishes like kugelis in Lithuania, Jews have left their mark on so much of European and North African cuisine. In a day and age in which a certain sort of nationalist particularism determines culinary tradition – and that of Jews too – this sort of history is often forgotten. Many a “traditional” Jewish dish, I have noted here thus far, is not so Jewish – but many a “gentile” dish is! This delicacy – spinach with raisins, or spinaci con passerine – is one such dish. Though often considered an Italian specialty, this delightful vegetable medley has deep Jewish roots.

The recipe seems classically “Mediterranean,” but it is so precisely because of Jews. The fact that this dish is eaten in Italy, in Greece, and in Spain is traceable directly to the migration of Catalan Jews following the Inquisition in 1492 – and with the memories of Spain (often longed for alongside or more than the Holy Land) and the Ladino language, Sephardim brought culinary traditions with them to their new countries. Spinach with raisins was not the only dish that travelled: Mark Mazower notes that in the 20th century, Spanish Christian travelers in Greece were stunned to find Sephardim in Greece exchanging membrillo, quince paste, four hundred years after expulsion from Spain. Yet in the discussions of “Mediterranean” cooking, the role of diaspora – especially Jewish, but also Greek and Lebanese and Roma – seems to be forgotten.

I have written out the recipe here with two options: pine nuts and sunflower seeds. I strongly suggest that you use the former; the latter is an option in the case of nut allergies. I have also adjusted the spicing a little – I find that the black pepper really brings out the sweetness of the raisins. Enjoy!

Spinaci con Passerine / Spinach With Raisins

Based on recipes by Janet Amateau and Joyce Goldstein

2 tbsp raisins

1 small-to-medium onion, chopped

2 tbsp pine nuts or shelled sunflower seeds – roasted or unroasted

1 tsp ground salt

½ tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp ground cinnamon

2 tsp white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar

1 pound fresh spinach, lightly chopped

2 tbsp water

 

2 tbsp olive oil for frying

  1. Soak the raisins in hot water for 15 minutes to plump them up and make them less dry. Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat a wide skillet, and add the oil. Then, add the onions and pine nuts/sunflower seeds and sauté until the onions are slightly soft. Use a sturdy spoon.
  3. Add the raisins and spices and mix in thoroughly. Add the vinegar and continue to sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown.
  4. Add the spinach a fistful at a time and mix thoroughly with the onions. Add the water once all spinach is added and mix in.
  5. Keep sautéing as you move the mixture around the pan quickly – the spinach cooks rapidly, so quick movement allows for even cooking.
  6. When the spinach is soft and has wilted, remove the skillet form the heat. Serve warm or at room temperature – though I should note that the former is far better.

Great Books: Jewish Food in America, by Joan Nathan

Dried salmon hanging on hooks
Dried salmon on display at London’s Jewish food festival, Gefiltefest. Photo mine, June 2015.

Sometimes, those TV books are really awesome. This is one of them.

Joan Nathan – balabusta extraordinaire and America’s top Jewish food public figure– wrote Jewish Cooking in America back in the early 1990’s. The thick book – filled with history and food – won so much attention that it then got turned into a wildly successful PBS series. (I strongly urge that you find a way to watch the series, because it is awesome.) Then the book got updated to serve as a companion to the show with somehow more recipes. 

Yes, it is a “TV book.” It is also packed to the brim with recipes, popular and unpopular. You have the “classics” of various culinary traditions – kneidlach from Eastern Europe, bourekas from the Sephardi world, Yemenite soups, and challah from many traditions. You also have the less popular things – the p’tcha, calf’s foot aspic, and hilbeh – that’s Yemenite fenugreek spread – and rhubarb soups. (I have had all three and they are all delicious.) And then there are the more labor intensive ones – directions to pickle your own herring (yes, yes, yes, yes, yes), and make fish gelatin molds (please no), and to make your own gefilte fish (yes). In short, it’s…a great compendium.

Admittedly this book sometimes falls a bit too far down the authenticity rabbit hole for my tastes – there is much stock placed in the “real recipe” and Jewish “traditions” here. That said, the book is very much a product of the 1990’s, which was perhaps the era of peak “authentic.” Yet Nathan also questions authenticity throughout the book – she notes where Jews have made substitutions for spices or flavors, or added their own twists, or adopted local cuisines. Georgian-Jewish Southern Fried Chicken might be the best recipe title I’ve ever read. And the book is filled with stories of real people from throughout American history – ordinary and extraordinary Jews who cooked, ate, and rejoiced.

A link to the book on Amazon is at the bottom of this post, and I strongly urge you to look at Nathan’s writing at Tablet (the only thing from Tablet I make sure to read) and The New York  TimesBut first, let me leave you with two choice quotes from material in the book. The first is her own writing; the second is the best historical food quote I’ve seen on Judaism.

“For second- and third-generation American Jews, what was once daily subsistence became a special occasion food. In Europe, knishes, like kugels and latkes, were a way of varying the daily monotony of potatoes for the poor. Here during the sweatshop era, knishes, a portable food like pasties … were eaten for lunch every day. Thereafter these foods disappeared as daily fare. Now they are in vogue again, having reappeared in miniature form as hors d’oeuvres at weddings and other ceremonial events, and as fast-food snacks.” (Nathan 2011:4)

The shade!

“‘You wrote to me some time agoe (sic) you was asked at my brother Asher’s to a fish dinner but you did not go. I desire you will never eat anything with him unless it be bread and butter nor noe where else where there is the last doubt of things not done after our strict Judiacall method.’ – A letter from Abigail Franks of Philadelphia to her son Naphtali in London, 1733.” (Franks 1733 in Nathan 2011:131)

Nathan, Joan. Jewish Cooking in America. New York, Knopf: 1994, 1998, 2011.

Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary

Orange semolina biscuit with rosemary.
Orange semolina biscuit with rosemary. Photo mine, January 2016.
A shorter post this week. Some of you have requested a pareve dessert recipe: many of you serve meat (as is the custom) at your Friday night dinners, and want a dessert that can be served with a kosher meat meal. There are many wonderful dairy-free dessert recipes – though, admittedly, finding one can seem challenging in a culture where “dessert” has become nigh-synonymous with “dairy.” 
 
This orange-semolina biscuit recipe is delicious and unusual – rosemary is a key star here. It also is a refreshing and light pareve dessert option.
 
This recipe is my creation, but it incorporates semolina – an ingredient with a long Jewish history. Semolina is made from purified coarse wheat middlings, a product produced while making flour from durum wheat. The use of semolina is common across the Mediterranean – you may be familiar with it from making pasta or couscous; in the Middle East, it is a common ingredient in breads and desserts alike. (Including your correspondent’s very favorite dessert, galaktoboureko.) Semolina has been consumed by Jews since antiquity: it is mentioned as
“fine flour” in the Book of Kings
as being part of King Solomon’s provisions; it is also referenced at several points in the Talmud. Since then, semolina has been a frequent starring ingredient in the Jewish cuisines of Iraq and Turkey. Most famous perhaps is kubbeh – little filled dumplings of semolina that are as delightfully soft and yummy as a matzah ball. Elsewhere, semolina found its way into dessert cakes – such as the Sephardi shamali and soups, such as the semolina soups served in both Moroccan and German traditions. 
 
The inclusion of semolina in this cookie is a nod to this tradition – and the dense semolina balances out the oranges’ sweet, light flavor. Rosemary brings out the freshness of the oranges. I was introduced to the idea of baking with rosemary by my friend Yael – and though unusual, it really adds something quite magical to a citrus dessert. Even in the dead of winter, rosemary makes a cookie or cake feel summery and sunny. 
 
Orange Semolina Biscuits with Rosemary
distantly based on a recipe by Yael Wiesenfeld
 
1 1/4 cups white granulated sugar
zest of two medium-sized oranges (about 1/4 cup – zest before juicing your oranges)
juice of two medium sized oranges (about 1/3 cup)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/4 tsps dried rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup water (or brandy*)
1 packet instant yeast
3/4 cup semolina flour
1 1/4 cups white all-purpose flour
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Line a 9″x9″ (23cmx23cm) pan with parchment paper. (You can grease it with oil, but the risk of your cake being difficult to remove increases greatly.)
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the zest and sugar. You can use a whisk or spoon. 
3. Add the orange juice, olive oil, rosemary, and salt to the zest sugar, and mix thoroughly until combined.
4. Add the water/brandy and yeast and mix in thoroughly.
5. Add the semolina and mix in thoroughly – until the grains are invisible. Because semolina is thick, I recommend adding it 1/4 cup at a time to avoid clogging your whisk or spoon.
6. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time and mix in thoroughly. At the end, you should have a thick batter. If your batter is too thick and getting doughy, add a tablespoon or two of water. If your batter is too thin, add a tablespoon or two more of flour.
7. Pour the batter into your parchment-lined pan and spread evenly. 
8. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool.
9. Now, the fun part. Lift the entire “big biscuit” out of the pan  and place on a cutting board, and slice into squares about 2 1/4 inches”x2 1/4 inches (about 6cmx6cm.) You should get sixteen biscuits or so. You can slice bigger or smaller as needed; I often do about 1 1/2 inches x 1 1/2 inches to make cute little biscuits. I recommend slicing the big biscuit into quarters first to have a more manageable slicing process, and to more easily create even and “pretty” biscuits.
10. The biscuits keep in sealed containers at room temperature for up to four days. I recommend serving the biscuits with hot tea.
 
*Note: if you want a fluffier cookie, swapping the water for brandy provides additional sugar for the yeast to react with, and also makes for a slightly sweeter final product. 

Great Books: We Are What We Eat, by Donna R. Gabaccia

“The history of the bagel suggests that Americans’ shifting, blended, multi-ethnic eating habits are signs neither of postmodern decadence, ethnic fragmentation, nor corporate hegemony. If we do not understand how a bagel could sometimes be Jewish, sometimes be “New York,” and sometimes be American, or why it is that Pakistanis now sell bagels to both Anglos and Tejanos in Houston, it is in part because we have too hastily assumed that our tendency to cross cultural boundaries in order to eat ethnic foods is a recent development – and a culinary symptom of all that has gone wrong with contemporary culture.” (Gabaccia 1998: 5)

Everything bagel with chopped herring
Eating an everything bagel with chopped herring – so good. Photo mine, October 2015.

I love, love, love this book. Donna Gabaccia – a badass professor at the University of Toronto (formerly of UNC-Charlotte) – wrote a food history in the 1990’s that deconstructed both the idea of “ethnic food” and how mixing and matching food traditions both created American cuisine(s) and also ideas of what culinary boundaries are. Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine plays a big role in this story, and Gabaccia opens up with a tale about a Pakistani immigrant who opens up a “New York bagel” shop in Texas. In many ways, this exploration is both a celebration of how significantly various cuisines from differently-marginalized groups (Jews included) changed American cuisine, and how ultimately useless “authenticity” is as a culinary term. Is authenticity really just a performance of eating whatever everyone else thinks we eat?

On another level, this book is a must-have for another reason: if you ever needed more proof of how thoroughly important indigenous American foods are, the first chapter of this book offers a lot. Corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, turkeys, tomatoes, chili peppers, baking powder…potatoes. Potatoes. Where would “authentic Jewish” cuisine be without these New World foods?

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge, Harvard: 1998. Available on Amazon.com.

Potato Kugel

Few Ashkenazi dishes invite as many reveries or passionate opinions as the potato kugel. It seems that everyone I talk to – everyone that has some Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, that is – has a) an often cherished memory of eating potato kugel, b) an opinion on how (or whether) it should be made, and c) a forsworn allegiance to a certain person’s or place’s version of the dish. For those of you who have not had a potato kugel, it is a dense and starchy potato casserole, slightly crispy on the outside and very chewy on the inside. It is one of Jewish cuisine’s many carbohydrate-loaded delicacies, and is utterly delicious.

Cutting a kugel with a celery stalk
I once brought a kugel to a potluck picnic, but we forgot a knife to cut it. Hence, a substitution was made. Photo mine, July 2011.

I briefly touched upon the kugel’s origins in my post on corn kugel / pashtida; let us recap in more detail. Kugels initially began as spherical, dense flour-based casseroles cooked within the Sabbath cholent stew. Even today, this practice still persists in some communities – though the Yiddish word “kugel” has since evolved from its original German meaning of “sphere.” In the nineteenth century, it also became common to bake the kugel as a stand-alone item – especially as the noodle kugel became more popular. Kugels were made with many things – and especially with the new star of Eastern European cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century, the potato. Kugels also became popular with the other peoples Jews lived among – in Lithuania, kugelis is still a popular dish. Thus when Ashkenazi Jews fanned out from the Alter Heim to North America, Argentina, South Africa, the United Kingdom, France, and beyond…the kugel travelled with them. And stuck – so that even today, you can buy prepared kugels in kosher supermarkets and have recipes by star cooks for them. (For more on how and why they stuck, I direct you to an excellent master’s thesis by Avery Robinson.) Even the New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on potato kugels – complete with a recipe prefaced by the title “Almost Traditional Jewish Cooking.” Almost traditional indeed – for even as it is homemade, it continues to evolve.

Kugelis
Lithuanian kugelis. Photo edenpictures via Wikimedia Commons (CC/Open).

I find that the kugel is an interesting starting point to discuss Jewish authenticity. In some ways it is considered the Ur-authentic: a kugel is what so many imagine must have graced the tables of our ancestors in Eastern Europe; the dish is often presented as a traditional Ashkenazi dish at potlucks and food festivals and the like. Yet the kugel itself has evolved so much over the centuries – is it authentic only if it is made in a cholent? Only if it is made with flour? Can a potato kugel, made from a tuber that only became widespread in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, be authentic? And then there is the whole matter of the potato kugel being served alongside very … non-traditional Ashkenazi dishes. I myself have eaten potato kugel with: stir-fried bok choy (very Ashkenazi), chili con carne (ditto), and stewed collard greens (completely native to the shtetl). And if it is served by an otherwise unengaged Jew, or a non-Jew (gasp!), is it still authentic? If anything, the kugel is a reminder that authenticity becomes this impossible fashion contest, and perhaps always is.

Yet beyond this question of the authentic there is this beautiful idea that the kugel brings one “home.” Even today, there is something for so many of us Ashkenazi Jews delightfully heimish – that’s Yiddish for “home-like,” in a domestic and cuddly sort of way – about a potato kugel. Kugels, as the New York Times article noted, are “good or bad,” and it is the “good” kugel (though that term is so highly subjective!) that can bring about reveries. Or, as a friend who makes a phenomenal potato kugel once said, “it is the heimishkeit that makes it good!” It is also something that is often cooked not by recipe, but by “eyeball.” I myself make potato kugel without measurements or consulting directions, but rather from a family tradition. After all, it is something that I myself ate growing up.

And when I do take a bite, I sometimes go into that reverie, much as Proust did with his madeleine – back to that imagined Jewish home-ness.


 

My recipe is an approximation – as I noted, I make this kugel by heart, based on my grandmother’s recipe. It is a flexible and versatile recipe that pairs well with many dishes, and you can adjust it accordingly. Let me know what you do with it – and also if you have a recipe of your own you’d like to share!

A last note: one big difference between various kugel recipes is the binding agent used to mesh the kugel together. Most common are flour and matzoh meal, but my friend Joshua introduced me to the use of potato starch, which also makes a fine kugel – though one that is rather denser than the one I have here. This kugel can also be made with sweet potatoes; that is a common American variation.

Potato kugel on a plate
A slice of potato kugel, ready to meet its fate as my breakfast. Photo mine, January 2016.

 

Potato Kugel

Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman. See an additional note on ingredients below.

5 medium-to-large potatoes, peeled

One medium onion, diced

Two scallions, chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup oil

1 tbsp salt

1.5 tsp black pepper

1 tsp ground thyme

2/3 cup flour

 

Oil, to grease the pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a 9×9 pan for a deeper kugel, 9×13 for a slightly shallower kugel.
  2. Grate your potatoes with a somewhat wide grate. I grate by hand because I like full control over the consistency, but you can do this with a food processor too. To avoid discoloration, keep the gratings in water in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Squeeze the liquid out of the potato gratings. Or, if you’ve been storing the potatoes in water, strain then squeeze.
  4. Add the chopped onions and scallions, mix in thoroughly with the potatoes.
  5. Add the eggs, oil, and spices, and mix in thoroughly.
  6. Add the flour in two batches and mix in thoroughly until well-combined into the mixture. At this point you should have potatoes and onions in a thick batter. If your batter is too thick, add a bit of oil or an egg. If it is very watery, add more flour.
  7. Pour the mixture into your greased pan and make sure that it is evenly spread. Smooth it out on the top with a fork.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour in your oven, or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Note: kugels, by nature, are quite flexible. One can swap the oil for butter for a dairy kugel, or chicken fat (schmaltz) for a meat one. I sometimes use a smaller onion and add a chopped leek rather than a scallion, or I forgo the rather heterodox scallion altogether and use more onion instead.