You could say that potato kugel is part of my family heritage, except I didn’t taste it until I was about 12.
Their story of emigration from Russia, sometime in the mid-20th century, is woven with equal parts pathos and tales of divine intervention. There was one anecdote of a 90-year-old great-grandmother, wrapped in a blanket or rug to be smuggled out of the country. The customs guard thought the rolled up fabric looked suspicious, and pierced it a few times with his saber while the family stood in mute horror convinced that blood would start seeping through at any minute.
By some strange miracle, the saber had just missed the woman and she lived to tell the tale in her new Brooklyn home.
Whereas my mom’s family became largely secular, my mother’s cousins, devout followers of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a Ukraine-born rabbi who became leader of one of modern Judaism’s most vibrant strains, the movement known as Chabad-Lubavitch, stuck to their faith and followed him to America. Along with their religious adherence, they held onto and preserved recipes and rituals of prior generations, which is how potato kugel came into my life.
It was in their home that I tasted my first potato kugel. It was at once familiar and novel, comforting and exotic. My mom, upon receiving her piece, exclaimed, “Oh, how long it’s been since I had this,” as I stared at her in disbelief.
If potato kugel was something my mother grew up with, how come she had never made it for me?
Maybe, I thought, it was difficult to make or had rare ingredients or was expensive.
Potato kugel — or any kugel for that matter — is a culinary child of poverty and ingenuity. It takes a handful of humble, pedestrian ingredients and refashions them into a comfort food that is at once luxurious and quotidian. It might not look like much, but looks can be deceiving, and if potato kugel could speak, it would spin an epic tale.
In his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” Gil Marks quotes German poet and writer Heinrich Heine’s 1825 letter to the editor of a new German Jewish periodical, “Kugel, this holy national dish, has done more for the preservation of Judaism than all three issues of your magazine.”
Marks writes that kugel is originally of Ashkenazi origin, and belongs to a canon of teigachz (pudding), believed to have originated in Germany about 800 years ago, and from there, expanded across Eastern Europe. It appears that centuries ago, kugels were steamed, often atop a Shabbat stew, such as cholent. Once home ovens became common in the mid-19th century, more recipes for baked kugels appeared.
Potatoes, which became popular around the mid-19th century, made their way into kugel as an inexpensive and filling starch, and eventually became popular across impoverished shtetls. The ubiquity of potatoes — and potato kugel — even gave rise to an old Yiddish song “Sunday potatoes, Monday potatoes, Tuesday and Wednesday potatoes, Thursday and Friday potatoes, but Shabbos, a novelty — a potato kugel!”
You might be more familiar with sweet noodle kugels, studded with raisins or apples and flavored with cinnamon. During the week of Passover, because noodles are considered chametz (prohibited foods during the holiday) throughout the holiday, potato or matzoh kugels reign supreme, with the former being my all-time favorite.
I prefer my potato kugels, which are naturally gluten-free, generously seasoned with nothing more than salt and pepper. I’ve seen some recipes using garlic and onion powders, but I’ve not loved the taste they impart to the finished dish. Potatoes absorb a shocking amount of salt, so don’t fear you will overseason the dish, rather the opposite. When I am feeling extremely fancy, I will caramelize my onions to fold into the potato mixture (instead of adding them raw), but it adds another hour to the cooking time, which feels excessive especially around Passover when there are so many other dishes to prepare.
Best of all, potato kugel makes great leftovers, warm or cold. I’ve been known to eat it straight from the fridge first thing in the morning, even before I make my coffee. Or I might grab a slice of it for lunch along with a light green salad. There aren’t a lot of dishes that can perform equally as well for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but potato kugel can do it all, and I hope you make a place for it at your Passover table.
When I asked my mom why she never made kugel when I was growing up, she replied: “I just kind of forgot about it, and having it in Brooklyn brought back all these memories of my childhood. I’m glad that you got to finally taste it.”
I am, too.
Storage Notes: Leftover kugel can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 days. It does not freeze well.
- 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as vegetable or grapeseed, or schmaltz, plus more for greasing the dish (see NOTES)
- 5 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and rinsed
- 2 large yellow onions (1 1/2 pounds total), halved
- 6 large eggs
- 1/4 cup (scant 1 1/2 ounces/45 grams) potato starch (see NOTES)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped fresh chives, for garnish (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Generously grease the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with oil.
Using a food processor fitted with a coarse shredding disk, grate the potatoes and onions. (You may need to cut both into large chunks to fit them into the opening.) Remove the food processor lid and pick out any stray chunks of potato and/or onion that may not have gotten shredded and save them for another use. (Alternatively, you can grate the potatoes and onions on the coarse side of a box grater.)
Transfer the vegetables to a large colander. Working in batches, transfer some of the potato-onion mixture to a large piece of cheesecloth set over a cutting board, and wring out excess liquid into a medium bowl. Transfer the wrung out vegetables to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining potatoes and onions.
Let the squeezed out liquid sit undisturbed until the starch settles in the bottom of the bowl. Then, gently tilt the bowl with the potato liquid to drain out the water; you should see a white layer of potato starch at the bottom.
In the bowl with the residual potato starch, add the eggs, the additional potato starch, oil, salt and pepper, and whisk. Add the mixture to the shredded vegetables and, using your hands, stir well to fully combine.
Place the prepared baking dish in the oven for about 10 minutes. Carefully remove the dish from the oven and spoon the kugel mixture into it — the mixture should sizzle on contact. Gently pat the mixture so it’s evenly distributed and return the dish to the oven. Bake for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until the kugel is deep golden brown on top and bubbling in places.
Let the kugel cool for a few minutes, then sprinkle with chives, if using, and cut. Serve, using a metal spatula for easiest portioning.
NOTES: During Passover, observant Ashkenazi Jews avoid canola, soybean, sunflower, peanut and corn among other oils that are considered kitniyot — a category of foods restricted during the holiday. Neutral oils such as safflower and grapeseed can be used. Olive oil is also permitted on Passover, but its flavor might be too strong here.
If not serving for Passover, you can use cornstarch in place of potato starch.
If using schmaltz in place of oil, in keeping with the Jewish laws of kashrut, serve the kugel only with dishes that do not contain dairy.
Calories: 310; Total Fat: 9 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 112 mg; Sodium: 505 mg; Carbohydrates: 51 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 9 g.
Recipe from food writer Olga Massov.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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