This kugel is about NOT using your noodles

Lately, potato kugel keeps coming up in conversations. My catering friends recently asked me for a recipe. In my family, our standard was noodle kugel, not potato, and I didn't have a tried and true recipe. I sent them a list of sources to check out and a few basics. Kugel, a Yiddish word, means pudding. Potato kugel, most commonly, is a savory pudding, made with grated potatoes, onion and fat.

I thought, Couldn't you have a really good, crisp potato kugel for Hanukkah? The same ingredients as in latkes, just handled in a different way. Latkes or any type of pancake are traditional on Hanukkah. Yet kugel is certainly in the spirit, especially if made with olive oil, and it's the oil (plus frying foods in oil) that is a primary symbol of the holiday. Potato kugel is great with roast chicken or brisket, both foods enjoyed on Hanukkah. And, as our up-the-hill neighbor, Wendy Saul, remarked, in her family, the tradition was "anytime you have brisket, you've got to have potato kugel."

My catering friends poked around and found a recipe from an old issue of Gourmet. It's got carrot for color and I bet you could also make it with part sweet potatoes or a parsnip. Their clients loved it and it's going on their regular menu.

A week later, my husband and I attended a potluck and neighbor Wendy contributed a platter of mini-potato kugels that she'd baked in muffin tins. As we car-pooled to the potluck site, she told us she'd spent the day watching an old VHS tape she'd made of her maternal grandmother, Emalene Friedman, preparing potato kugel. "I could almost smell them," she said, and it inspired her to prepare them for the potluck. She invited me to watch the recording with her.

In the tape, Grandma Em, as she was affectionately called, wearing big glasses and a gathered, diagonally striped blouse, teaches a small collection of family members her method for potato kugel. But it wasn't all about the kugel. "I'm telling my whole life story on this video," she says.

The tape was made on Oct. 3, 1987, when Mrs. Friedman was a sharp and youthful 92 years old, sitting at the kitchen table, instructing and chatting, a four-pronged cane visible in the background. Spryly she rises up to examine a banged-up, ill-fitting grater attachment on her KitchenAid mixer, commenting that the mixer isn't old, only 50 years.

Meanwhile, the potatoes -- "always peeled!" she says -- are being carefully, finely hand-grated by a great-grandson. They reject a box grater because the shreds are too coarse and switch to a finer grater. Off screen, grandson Alan Saul works on fixing the attachment.

"That grating is a job, the biggest job," says Mrs. Friedman.

Next, they grate an onion into the potatoes and butter the muffin tins "real good," she instructs her daughter, Ruth Saul. "No butter or shortening inside the mix." Then, "a couple of eggs; I like eggs," broken straight onto the potatoes, a little baking powder (about a teaspoon) and matzo meal, to absorb the moisture. "If you want to use flour, you can use flour. I like matzo meal. I use it for breading."

Then salt and pepper. Mrs. Friedman tsks as her great-grandson adds a generous amount of black pepper. "Let me see it," as she reaches out for the glass bowl. "I think it needs one more egg. I don't like it too thick."

As the muffin-tin cups are filled -- "two-thirds full, don't smash it" -- and a tiny piece of butter put atop each, Mrs. Friedman responds to her granddaughter's questions. She talks about the store she and her husband, Nick, owned. How she took two streetcars to get there each day from their Squirrel Hill house. That she never felt confident driving. How her mother had never wanted to teach her how to cook, because "she thought my hands were too nice."

When she first married, Mrs. Friedman couldn't even cook a chicken. But she learned to cook. "Slowly. I learned how to boil water. I cooked to please my husband, who remembered his aunt's cooking and his grandmother's. He ate what he was used to eating, meat and potatoes."

Ironically, I later learned from Wendy Saul's elder sister, Lynn, the family historian and author of a memoir, "Learning to Say 'Satoraljaujhely': Finding a Place in a Hungarian Jewish Family," that Mrs. Friedman's maternal grandmother, Sarah Schutz, had been a caterer. She catered fancy affairs for Baron Hirsh, a Jewish Austrian baron, at his castle in Stanislaus, the town next to their childhood home in Kalusz, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sarah Schutz lived with her daughter, Mrs. Friedman's mother, Esther Siegel, and her three daughters, until she and the girls immigrated to the U.S. in 1898 to join the father. First the family lived in the Hill District, later in Homestead. Mrs. Schutz, however, remained behind.

Emalene married Nicholas (Nick) Friedman, who had emigrated from Budapest. They met at a basketball game in Homestead, when Nick, upon spotting her, ran across the court to meet her.

After their marriage, they lived in Montreal, where their eldest, Ruth, was born, but eventually they settled in Squirrel Hill. They owned Friedman's department store in Wilmerding (East Pittsburgh). The couple raised three children: Ruth (Wendy's mother), Milton and Buddy. Ruth Saul died just over a year ago, on Sept. 26, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at the age of 90. Emalene Friedman died in 1990, at 95, also between those two important days on the Jewish calendar.

The video, made on Yom Kippur, culminates as the extended family breaks their fast enjoying a platter of just-baked kugels. Bowls of sour cream and homemade applesauce (from Wendy's orchards) are on the table for topping. Wendy has handed the camera to someone else and joins her grandmother, brother, and nephew at the table.

"What do you think, Grandma?"

"It's good," she says, reaching for more applesauce. "What could be bad about it?"

Potato Kugel

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A few caveats: This is not the recipe that Emalene Friedman (Grandma Em) prepared; it's not far from it, but it's not the same. And since it's not technically fried, it does not qualify as a traditional Hanukkah food in the same way a fritter or latke would. Also, I made a variation using schmaltz (chicken fat) and gribenes (chicken-skin cracklings). Delicious as it was, I fully agree that it could not be served to vegetarians nor, if one was observing the dietary laws, could you top it with sour cream. The onions and carrot are grated by hand because it simply works better that way.

  • 2 medium onions, peeled and grated
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and grated
  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup matzo meal or all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil or Chicken Fat (see adjacent recipe)
  • Cracklings (see below, optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Set out 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish.

In large bowl, combine grated onions and carrot. Cover loosely.

With shredding disk on food processor, grate potatoes, putting grated potatoes immediately into large bowl of cold water. Or, grate potatoes by hand using coarse holes of 4-sided grater. If grating by hand, no need to cut potatoes into quarters. In 2 or 3 batches, lift potatoes from water onto clean cotton dish towels. Roll up in towel and twist ends to squeeze out moisture. Add potatoes to onions and carrot.

Add eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Toss with hands until well mixed. Put oil or chicken fat in baking dish and heat in oven 8 minutes, or until hot and fat is melted. Carefully spoon in potato mixture, smoothing it down.

Bake, uncovered, 50 to 55 minutes, until top is browned and crisp. If you like, sprinkle with cracklings and serve hot.

Makes 6 side-dish servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Chicken Fat and Cracklings (Schmaltz and Gribenes)

PG tested

This basic method comes from "The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook" by Gertrude Berg and Myra Waldo (they use the fat and neck skin from a goose), and from "Fat" by Jennifer McLagan. Chicken fat (schmaltz) and cracklings (gribenes) make an extra-delicious kugel, worth the effort and calories, once in a while. Make sure your knife is sharp because chicken skin is slippery. Alternately, cut up the skin with poultry shears.

  • Skin and fat from 4 to 4 1/2 pounds chicken thighs or backs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3/4 pound)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped

Place skin and fat in heavy medium skillet. Cook over low heat, stirring often, until all fat has melted out and becomes clear and skin begins to brown and crisp, about 20 minutes. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until browned, 5 to 8 minutes more. With slotted spoon, transfer onion and cracklings to paper towels to drain. Strain fat into metal bowl and cool. Cover and refrigerate or freeze. Save cracklings to sprinkle over kugel, if you like.

Makes about 3/4 cup chicken fat.

-- Miriam Rubin

Miriam Rubin: .


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