In her renowned cookbook, Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan shares the memories of "Jewish homesteader," Sophie Trupin, recalling her life as a Jew on the American frontier:
"I was busy in the kitchen, carefully scooping out the eggs encased in layers of hardened coarse salt. I then began peeling pounds of potatoes, which my mother would grate on the fine side of the grater. My mother was making a huge potato kugel, made from fresh potatoes, onions, eggs, a little flour, and baked with plenty of goose fat. It wasn't Friday night, but my mother put a white linen tablecloth over the oilcloth-covered dining table."
Sophie's austere frontier life likely resembled that of her ancestors in Europe, where her mother's kugel recipe originated. According to food historian Rabbi Gil Marks' The World of Jewish Cooking, Jews have been making these starchy baked puddings since the seventh century.
But it was the Jews of Rhineland who perfected the notion of cooking bread dumplings inside Shabbat stew, and eventually outside of the stew pot in round, covered dishes. Kugel got its name from the word koogel (German for "ball"), which referred to the kugel's shape.
Today, inter-family debates rage over the best kind of kugel. Some people swear by a savory potato kugel, filled with sautéed onions and schmaltz. Others prefer a rich lokshen (noodle) kugel, stuffed with cheese and either sweetened with raisins and cinnamon, or made savory with sour cream. Still others scoff at any kugel except the simultaneously sweet and peppery Yerushalmi kugel, which Marks says was popularized by the Hasidim of Jerusalem in the late 18th century, who migrated to Israel from Eastern Europe.
Two things remain constant across all kugels--the first is a basic set of ingredients: an absence of water or liquid, a starchy base, and the use of eggs or fat (butter, schmaltz, etc.) as a binder. The second is that kugel is regarded as a beloved, "special" food, served on Shabbat and many Jewish holidays.
The annual Kugl Kukh-Off competition in Los Angeles and books like Nina Yellin's The Kugel Story (which features 175 different kugel recipes!) attest that--even centuries after its introduction into the Jewish culinary canon--the love of a good kugel is something which all Jews can agree on.
Sweet Potato Kugel
This deliciously healthy twist on traditional potato kugel has all of the "Jewish soul-food" street cred as the standard recipe, without all the heavy baggage.
Adapted from Aviva Allen's The Organic Kosher Cookbook
6 small sweet potatoes, grated
3 apples, peeled, cored, and grated
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup raisins
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt (sea salt is best)
1 and 1/2 cups water
1 and 1/2 cups pecan halves, chopped
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons butter
Pinch of salt
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground ginger
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together (except for the topping), then press into a large glass baking dish.
In a small bowl, mix together topping ingredients and set aside.
Place baking dish in oven and bake for 35 minutes. Remove and cover with topping mixture. Return to oven for another 20-25 minutes.
Remove from oven and let stand for about 15 minutes. Cut into 12 squares and serve.