Shannon Sarna, a South Orange resident and editor of The Nosher, a Jewish food website, was astounded the first time she ate a dairy kugel.
"I was like, 'Where has this been?' It's so delicious."
American food lovers may adore latkes, matzoh ball soup and pastrami sandwiches, but one dish that deserves their love, lots of their love, is kugel.
What, you ask, is kugel?
For those who did not grow up in a Jewish home or frequent Jewish delis, kugel is a heady baked pudding, often made with egg noodles called lokshen (therefore, lokshen kugel) or potatoes. It may be served on the Sabbath or Jewish holidays (Hello Hanukkah!). Or any time.
And while it may be difficult to choose between the two — what's not to love about a giant, moist, thick potato latke that the whole family can dig into or a custard-y pasta dish that tastes like dessert but can be served as a side or main course — this article is about lokshen kugel, the more popular of the two and, truth be told, my favorite.
And my family's.
Whenever my mom, Lenka Davidowitz, would make lokshen kugel, a near fight would erupt around her dining room table. Everyone wanted a nice-sized slice, and then another. If for some miracle there were ever leftovers, you could be sure I'd take it home.
My mom died nearly three years ago. She was 92. For her 80th birthday, her grandkids self-published "Grandma's Kitchen," a cookbook of her recipes, which of course includes her beloved lokshen kugel (recipe below). In the book, my husband is near verklempt talking about it: "Oh the noodle kugel. My problem is I have a son who also likes the noodle kugel. The leftovers disappear from the refrigerator at a truly disconcerting rate. So, my main complaint about the noodle kugel is that there's never quite enough of it."
My sister and I don't know when or why she stopped making kugel, we just know that our father, who would only eat her food — she'd bring along her chicken soup and baked chicken for him to eat at my house whenever they'd come over — would go to the kosher food market to buy lokshen kugel.
"That just tells you how much he loved it," my sister said.
Many Jews do.
"Noodle kugel is sacred for American-Jewish families," Sarna said. "It is extreme comfort food that Jewish-American families really embraced. It's become its own icon."
Tomer Zilkah, chef and owner of Patisserie Florentine in Englewood, Closter and Hackensack, said his mom made the dish only once or twice. The reason? Noodle kugel is an Ashkenazi dish and Zilkah is Sephardic. (Ashkenazi Jews descended from Europe while Sephardic Jews from Spain.)
Zilkah, who grew up in Israel, enjoyed the dish at a Polish family's home with his family, who hails from Iraq and Syria. "They made it all the time," Zilkha recalled. "And I loved it."
The kugel was laced with ricotta cheese, which Zilkha said has more fat than farmer's cheese or pot cheese, the more traditional cheeses used. "It is a lot more flavorful and very creamy," he said.
Natalie Lee, chef and owner of Jewish deli Mikki & Al's Noshery in Montclair, uses ricotta cheese in her savory kugel, which also features broccoli. She uses her mother-in-law's mother's recipe.
"My mother in law, Mikki, grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Union City," she said. "One day, when her mother ran out of cottage cheese, she went out to borrow cheese. All she could get was ricotta."
That turned out to be a blessing. "Her recipe is amazing," Lee said. (I'm sharing it below.)
Willing to give it a try?
Lenka Davidowitz would have been honored to share her recipe with you.
Lenka Davidowitz's Lokshen Kugel
¾ pound medium-wide egg noodles
9 tablespoons sugar
3 large tart apples (Granny Smith or Greening)
⅓ cup raisins (optional)
3 tablespoons margarine, melted
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Cook noodles in lightly salted water for about 5 minutes. Drain well and pour cold water over them.
In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until well combined.
Peel apples and cut them into thin slices.
Combine egg mixture with apples, noodles, raisins (if using), and 2 tablespoons of margarine.
Grease a 9-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch baking pan with the remaining margarine and pour the mixture into it.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the top is golden.
Serves: 8 to 10 as a side dish.
Mikki Lee's Ricotta and Broccoli Kugel
(Courtesy Natalie Lee of Mikki & Al's Noshery, Montclair)
12 ounces egg noodles
1 cup ricotta
6 cups steamed broccoli, chopped
1 small onion, diced and sautéed
½ cup seasoned bread crumbs
3 tablespoons melted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Boil noodles in salted water until al dente, about 5 minutes.
In a large bowl, stir together ricotta and eggs.
Add broccoli, onions, cooked noodles, salt and pepper and stir gently to combine.
Grease 8-inch square baking pan.
Add kugel mixture and sprinkle top with bread crumbs
Drizzle melted butter over the top.
Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until bread crumbs are golden brown.
Serves: 6 to 8 as a side dish.
Esther Davidowitz is the food editor for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Noodle kugel: An ode to Jewish comfort food