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Strike While the Kugel is Hot

August 31, 2006 By:
Rivka Tal, JE Feature
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According to an informal survey I have yet to make, if you say "kugel" in New York, New Mexico or even North Dakota, what comes to mind is that oh-so-fragrant "baked pudding" consisting of grated potatoes, onions, eggs, oil and salt. A side dish of potato kugel is the quintessential kugel for most people.

But what really makes a kugel a kugel? It seems that a combination of either some sort of potatoes or noodles is non-negotiable. I've never met an eggless kugel, although some kugels do call for egg whites only. Add either savory or sweet ingredients (vegetables, fruit); make them crunchy or airy; pour in the oil (for a "real" kugel) -- and there you are!

Kugels can grace your table at any meal on any day of the week, but on a Shabbat kiddush they come into their own, occupying a veritable place of honor.

On almost every Shabbat in our Jerusalem neighborhood there's a kiddush -- to honor the birth of a new baby, an engagement, a Bar Mitzvah, a yahrzeit. It's a way to show thanks for yet another joyous milestone, and to share it with friends and neighbors.

Homebaked cakes and cookies are usually on the menu. Store-bought rugelach, herring, crackers, and hummus and tehina may also be present. But no kiddush is complete without a huge pot of piquant -- and sweet at the same time -- Yerushalmi ("Jerusalem") kugel. This humble dish, with its tantalizing contrast of pepper and caramelized sugar, has quite a history.

It all started in Lithuania. A wave of disciples of the Vilna Gaon arrived in the Holy Land in 1808, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov. Although they first went to Tiberias, they later relocated to Tzfat, where they fostered warm relationships with the local Sephardic community. A second and third wave of students came to Israel in 1809, and purchased agricultural land.

But a plague broke out in 1812 in Tzfat, forcing many Jews to flee to Jerusalem. The refugees succeeded in renewing the Ashkenazi presence in Jerusalem after nearly 100 years of banishment by local Arabs. And they made Yerushalmi kugel.

They couldn't afford raisins, the story goes, so they browned sugar to make their kugels look dark. There is also a legend that local Jews of Polish descent preferred sweet kugels, while the Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) opted for savory ones -- hence the combination. I cannot vouch for the veracity of either of these stories.

In Jerusalem's devoutly religious neighborhoods, like Mea Shearim, these kugels are baked by "professionals" in huge pots on the stovetop, not in ovens. Particular skill is then required to cut them into individual triangle-shaped slices, and then to return them to the pot to keep the kugel hot on the "plata" until Shabbat-morning kiddush.

And it's an unwritten law that each slice of kugel be accompanied by a thin slice of pickle.

Many locals order a Yerushalmi kugel from local kugel mavens or bakeries. Small loaf-pan-size kugels are available for purchase every week, but for a kiddush, the 50- or 80- (or more) size is required.

If you can't make it to Jerusalem this year, perhaps you would like to try to make your own Yerushalmi kugel. I won't lie and tell you that doing this is child's play; it most definitely is not! You need nerves of steel.

The trick is in caramelizing the sugar and knowing just when to take it off the fire. I've been a Jerusalemite for 40 years and still don't always get it right -- I guess it helps if you were born here. The caramel can turn from golden-brown to black in seconds. (Note: If you burn the caramel, be brave, throw it out and start over.)

To make things easier for novice kugel makers, it helps to have an extra pair of hands. One person can pour the caramel over the noodles while the other mixes the concoction together. Be sure to wear oven gloves.

Another hint: Spray both the pot and the mixing spoon with nonstick spray (yes, I know our forefathers didn't have any). This will save you the difficult job of scraping hardened caramel off both the pot and the spoon.

Good luck. And know that if you wind up doing this well, the High Holidays are right around the corner!

'Yerushalmi' Kugel
1 lb. thin noodles
2/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2-1 tsp. black pepper or to taste
5 large eggs, lightly beaten

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until al dente, about 7 to 8 minutes. Drain well and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a large tube pan.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over low heat.

Add the sugar and stir until it turns dark brown, but not burnt (about 5 to 8 minutes).

Remove from heat and add hot caramel to the noodles, mixing vigorously to coat evenly.

Season with salt and pepper.

Let cool for about 10 minutes, then beat in eggs, one at a time. Adjust the seasonings.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake uncovered until golden-brown and crispy -- about 11/2 hours.

Remove from the oven, turn upside down on a serving plate and unmold.

Serve warm.

Serves 10.

(You can double this recipe for Shabbat or holidays.)

Rivka Tal is a food writer based in Jerusalem.


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