February 21, 2013 | By diana | Comments
[Ed Note: Many months ago, when I was still dreaming up ideas for our third book, Baked Elements, I became obsessed with the idea of making a perfect Pumpkin Kugel (whatever that embodies). A recipe was written, tweaked, and deployed…but it never made the cut. Renato was less than enthused (would someone please make Renato a kugel that he can get on board with?) along with half of our recipe testers. The remaining recipe testers were confused and slightly enthralled by the whole thing (“is kugel lasagna?”). Regardless, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Pumpkin Kugel and Diana was kind enough to delve into the deeper meaning of our kugel-y things. If you are interested, I still have the recipe. It is lingering in a sad file on my computer (recipes_that_didn’t-make_it). If you want it, just let me know in the comments section. But you have to promise to make it (and love it). Have a warm weekend…and I will let Diana take it away from here.]
‘Authentic’ is a controversial word — especially in the food world. Ethnic restaurants often tout their food as authentic to lure customers to enjoy a traditional, just-like-mama-makes-it meal that will “transport you to another world”. But who is to say what’s authentic? Our notion of authenticity — of what qualifies as authentic Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian food — is based on individual experience. This is why folks can argue for hours about the “proper” way to prepare classic French ratatouille, cook creamy Italian risotto, or assemble a decadent Mississippi mud pie: my mama’s recipes and your mama’s recipes just ain’t the same but that doesn’t necessarily mean that either is more authentic. The larger the region, the older the recipe, the more complicated pinpointing the most traditional variation of a dish becomes. Take, for example, the kugel, a centuries-old Ashkenazi (German and Eastern European) Jewish pudding.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I had ever heard of such a dish. A friend of mine, with whom I had planned to schedule a sort of pot-luck dinner, offered to cook his delicious kugel (which he pronounced “koogle,” with the “oo” as in “book”), the only dish he knew how to cook. Despite the fact that I grew-up nearby largely Jewish neighborhoods, this sweet, baked egg and noodle dish that my friend described was something new to me. Unfortunately our pot-luck never panned out and I never had a chance to try his anomalous dessert but my curiosity was piqued. I never forgot about the kugel.
Still to this day I have yet to come across a “traditional” version for tasting, but after making baked’s Pumpkin Kugel, I was compelled to do some research because I had no knowledge with which to compare this spiced-up variation. I wanted to find a description of what kugel is supposed to be, an authentic recipe from a reliable source. However, I quickly realized that this is a dish that has few guidelines — the only constant between the recipes I consulted was the inclusion of eggs and a massive amount of butter. Kugel can be made with noodles (the long, flat varieties like egg or goulash), potatoes, or matzoh. It can be dairy-based, with sour cream or milk, or dairy-free; sweet or savory; studded with raisins, laden with apples, or laced with spinach. While the kugel that I had first been introduced to was sweet, I found online discussion threads where people were shocked by and swore against the addition of sugar. To those who will fight to their deaths to defend their version of kugel, I say good luck. Having been transformed and modified for so many years across so many countries, kugel isn’t and shouldn’t be just one particular thing. Its richness and simplicity beckons to be made into something not quite like your mama’s.