When I married a Jewish advertising creative director from the suburbs of Detroit this past summer, I also welcomed into my life his boisterous Michigan family and their recipe for noodle kugel. As a second-generation Chinese-American, my hankering for noodles always connects me to my heritage—wonton noodles, stir-fried chow-fun noodles, hand-stretched Taiwanese noodles, clear glass noodles, the list goes on and on—but noodle kugel was completely foreign to me.
Pronounced “kuh-gle,” it is a baked casserole served at Jewish holidays, brises, Shabbat dinners or other family gatherings. My husband and I typically only make his family’s kugel as a once yearly treat for our foodie but health-conscious California friends, as the recipe’s ratios are delightfully unrestrained in decadence: one package of cooked wide egg noodles bathed in an entire pound of butter, a tub each of cottage cheese and sour cream, sweet golden raisins (as well as dried cranberries, if served around the fall and winter holidays), cinnamon and a full cup and a half of sugar. One year, I tried cutting the amount of butter and sugar in half, and while it still turned out nicely, I have to admit that I missed the rich seduction of butter and sugar in the original recipe. Covered in a crispy, crunchy sheath of cornflakes (dotted and sprinkled with more sugar and butter!), the warm, comforting concoction is similar to a bread pudding or a sweet macaroni and cheese.
To learn more about the origins, flavor profiles and ingredient makeup of the kugel, I rang up Joan Nathan, the James Beard Award winning cookbook author and Jewish food expert, who stepped away from working on her next cookbook manuscript—her 11th one—to speak with me. “Kugel began as a holdover food, useful for observing work-restrictions when you couldn’t cook on the Sabbath,” says Nathan. “Early Jews reconstituted stale or day-old bread in savory egg mixtures. It was the second dish of the Sabbath meal, after the meat. In Israel, they call it a pashtida. The first kugels, from the German word kugel, meaning ‘round’ or ‘dome,’ were often prepared in flowerpots. In the 12th century, Germans replaced the bread with egg noodles.” Nathan describes other popular ingredients used: “Potatoes were used for kugels when they began to be cultivated in the 18th century. Italians use regular semolina flour pasta.”
As the Jewish diaspora spread across the continent to locations worldwide, kugel recipes traveled with the émigrés and adapted with local ingredients. “Kugels came across the ocean and were embellished with all of our processed ingredients,” explains Nathan. “Of course sweet kugels would develop here in the U.S., where fat and sugar was such a commodity. Sour cream, cream cheese, cinnamon: those are the components of an American kugel.” With the advent of processed and frozen goods in the early 20th century, the taste and demand for fat, sugar and prepared foods transformed the American noodle kugel into something more cloying and rich, incorporating hearty amounts of sugar, dried fruit, canned pineapple, and other add-ins that satisfied a sweet tooth. Still, not all American families are accustomed to sweet kugels. Nathan grew up eating her mother’s savory kugel, but discovered sweet versions in her research and world travels: “I made a sweet noodle kugel for my mother just last week,” relates Nathan. “She is 102 years old now. She thought it was really good!”
SWEET NOODLE KUGEL
1/2 pound wide egg noodles (about 2.5 cups dry)
2 cups cottage cheese
2 cups milk
1/3 cup butter melted
2 tsp ground cinnamon, divided
1 tbsp orange zest
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 large eggs
1 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream or yogurt
1/4 cup dried currants
1/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Makes 4-6 servings
Note: You may substitute the apricots with any other dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries; and top with cornflakes or buttery cracker crumbs instead of almonds.
1. Cook the noodles according to the directions on the package and drain.
2. Combine the cottage cheese, milk, butter or margarine, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 cup sugar, eggs, salt, sour cream or yogurt, raisins, and apricots. Fold in the noodles.
3. Place in a greased 9 by 12-inch casserole.
4. Sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of cinnamon and 2 tablespoons sugar. Cover with almonds.
5. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to one hour or until firm.
The above recipe was adapted from Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan (Knopf, 1994) which won both the James Beard Award for best American cookbook and the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year Award.