Three Kugels – A Foray into Jewish Cooking
All my life, I have explored and savored different cultures through their food.
I came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when I was four years old. I held onto my own culture very tightly. I listened to Dominican music, ate the food my mom made, spoke Spanish at home, and made friends with other people from the Dominican Republic. As an immigrant, I also wanted to learn more about other cultures so I could relate to the people around me. This included Jewish culture which I learned about in school and even from TV shows like Clifford the Big Red Dog which featured a Chanukah special. Also, my uncle worked in Jewish pre-schools for twenty years and he would bring home kosher food. I loved the cookies – they were delicious – but I was taken aback by matzo. I had no idea what to do with a cracker that large! My uncle told me that Jewish people like to add sugar to their pasta. I was fascinated by what he told me but, at the time, I didn’t delve much deeper.
When I started looking for internships this summer, I knew that I wanted to try something new. I was eager to work in a museum because I felt like I was becoming an insider to an exclusive museum society. However, when coming to Eldridge Street, I did not know much about Jewish culture and I was concerned about how that would affect the work I would be doing.
In the first two weeks, the interns were tasked with learning as much as we could about the museum and Jewish culture. We did this by reading thick packets, online articles, talking to different people, watching videos and even coloring pages. Though these were all great forms of education, for this blog post I wanted to explore Jewish culture through something that is close to my heart: food.
My adventure began with my research. I went to the Museum’s Program Director Hanna Griff-Sleven, also a maven of Jewish food. She told me about popular Jewish foods that she grew up with and lent me two Jewish cookbooks that she herself uses: The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden and B’Te Avon: Good Appetite by Congregation Ahavas Achim. She also showed me The Jewish Food Taste Test, a hilarious BuzzFeed video of non-Jewish people tasting traditional Jewish food for the first time.
I was both excited and apprehensive to try foods that were both so strange and so similar at the same time. Some of the foods looked delicious, like the rugelach, kugel, and matzoh ball soup. Some of the dishes seemed pretty similar to ones my mom has made, but in different forms. The matzoh balls reminded me of bollitos de platano (plantain balls ) that my aunt puts in a sancocho (Dominican stew). My mom also used to make chopped liver, except she did not grind it up. Hanna told me that kugel is very close to arroz con dulce (rice pudding), which tastes like home to me. She suggested I start with this dish because it is a staple of Jewish cuisine and it is so easy to make. I chose three recipes from the two cookbooks: Lokshen Kugel, Lokshen Kugel with Cheese, and Pineapple Kugel.
From The Book of Jewish Food
– ½ lb (250g) medium egg noodles or vermicelli
– 1 large onion, chopped
– 4 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
– 3 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C). Boil the noodles in salted water until just tender and drain. Fry the onion in 3 tablespoons of fat or oil until soft. Cool a little, then mix with the eggs and noodles. Add a little salt. Line the loaf pan or mold with grease-proof or wax paper or foil and grease well with the remaining fat. Pour in the noodle-and-egg mixture and bake in oven for about 45 to 60 minutes, or until firm or lightly brown on top. Turn out, peel off the foil and serve hot, cut in slices.
Sweet Option: Add ½ cup (100g) sugar, 4 tablespoons raisins, and 1 ½ teaspoons black pepper.
Lokshen Kugel with Cheese
– 10 oz (300 g) medium egg noodles
– 4 tablespoons butter
– 2 eggs
– ½ lb (250 g) curd or cream cheese
– 2 cups (500 ml) sour cream
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C). Cook the noodles in boiling salted water till tender, then drain, and mix with butter. At the same time, in a large bowl, with a fork, beat the eggs with the curd or cream cheese, then beat in the sour cream. Add salt and mix in the cooked pasta. Pour into a baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, or until set.
From B’Te Avon:
– 1 lb broad noodles
– 1 pint cottage cheese (I used ricotta because my supermarket and bodegas didn’t have cottage cheese)
– ½ pint sour cream
– 1 20-ounce can of crushed pineapple, drained
– 4 large or 6 small eggs, beaten
– 1 “generous” teaspoon of vanilla
– ½ cup sugar (or a little more to taste)
– cornflake crumbs, for top and bottom
– Grease pan and sprinkle with cornflake crumbs.
– Cook noodles until al dente.
Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C). In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients except the eggs and noodles. Stir in noodles. Stir in eggs. Pour into pan. Sprinkle with crumbs. Bake one hour.
All these kugels took about two hours to make and about half that time to eat. When they finished cooking, a subtle, sweet scent enveloped our kitchen. Though, the kitchen was already smoldering hot from using the oven in 90 degree weather, the warmth of the kugels was oddly comforting. When my aunt and I took the first bite, we had to stop ourselves from eating them all! My brother practically devoured the pineapple kugel, the cheese kugel was my favorite and my aunt took the Lokshen to share with her friends.
After the physical work was done, the only thing left to do was to try to understand how a kugel relates to Jewish culture. My mind kept coming back to how easy it was to make something so rich and tasty. The kugels were delicious, and they only took a few ingredients to make. The first Eldridge street congregants were not all wealthy. Many of them lived in tenements in the Lower East Side and before that, lived in poor neighborhoods in Eastern Europe. However, they always made the best of what they had and kugel attests to that. So basic, yet so comforting. Now I know what my uncle meant when he said that Jewish people sometimes put sugar in their pasta!
Written by Yessica Alcantara, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern