An Appreciation of Noodle Kugel

When I read homages to Jewish food, I often see appreciations of bagels, latkes, black-and-white cookies, challah … notice that these are all carb foods. Let me chime in about kugel, especially noodle kugel, another starchy favorite. 

I have always loved “lukshen kugel,” noodle kugel dishes, and especially those that feature fruit mixed in. If you look through Jewish cookbooks and food websites, you’ll come across a variety of recipes, as well as various prep and baking suggestions. It can be a bit dizzying, but it shows how adaptable this traditional dish (typically served as a side) can be.

I have fond childhood memories of my paternal grandmother’s kugel: she would mix in canned fruit cocktail and other fruit, singe the top so it was crunchy, and serve it when we came to her apartment for holiday meals such as for Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. I would eagerly ask my parents “Is Grandma making kugel?” and when it was placed on the table I’d eye it longingly.

As I grew older I took note that people made many different types of noodle kugel recipes. Some people made dairy versions, which included cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, and farmer cheese; even sour cream. Some people included walnuts but others avoided any nuts (allergy alert). I saw kugels with thin, medium, and wide noodles. Some people poured in lots of raisins but others cringed at that culinary choice. Some used a wide variety of fruits, both fresh and canned, while others included only one or none.

The way someone prepared a kugel often depended upon whether it was to be part of a dairy, meat or vegan meal. Served alongside brisket or turkey? Then no dairy. Served as part of a Shavuot, dairy-heavy meal with blintzes and cheesecake? Add in dairy. Served at a vegan potluck? Just fruit.

When I taught at a particular public high school in southern Brooklyn, a group of us teachers and guidance counselors in one “house” decided to have a holiday luncheon one year, and I made a noodle kugel with lots of fruit but dairy-free. It was very popular, and the lead staff member, the assistant principal of English was so enamored of that kugel that she talked about it many times that year. 

One time I made a kugel for some event, and I placed a rubber band around the metal pan and the tinfoil sheet covering it. Foolishly I put it in the oven to warm but forgot about the rubber band. Ugh, the smell of the heating rubber band was so disgusting, that it drowned out the traditional lovely scent of cinnamon. Lesson learned.

One Shabbat kiddush, at my former synagogue, I noticed a peculiar (to me) looking noodle kugel. I asked someone what it was, and I was told it was a Yerushalmi kugel. I tried it and after two bites, pushed it away in near horror; I’d not realized that it would be peppery and dense! I was so accustomed to sweet noodle kugel that it was a shock to my palate.

I’m not too much of a potato kugel fan because I’ve had close encounters with a few too many rather dry and tasteless versions, but I know they have their ardent fans. If there is gravy nearby, I will have a small serving and pour on the gravy. To me it’s akin to a potato knish without the doughy covering.

What are my own preferences for a noodle kugel? When I make it, from a pound of medium to wide egg noodles, cooked not too long, usually I add in two to four fruits. I like to add canned crushed pineapple (drained of juice), sometimes canned pears or peaches (these, drained and diced up further). I like to add fresh diced fruit such as apple, and whatever else is on hand (peach, apricot, grapes, pear). I put in craisins, usually not dark raisins, because too many people have griped to me about raisins (although I do like golden raisins). 

I pour in a generous splash of vanilla extract and usually a few shakes of nutmeg into the cooked noodles, and mix in the fruit. I sprinkle cinnamon on top of the finished but unbaked product. Then it goes into the oven.

The aroma of a baking noodle kugel can be so appealing. If you adore the wafting cinnamon and vanilla, you’re a fan. And I am!

Here is a photo of a noodle kugel I made, and it was a bit dense. Sometimes I like it that way, other times I prefer it looser. Part of the fun of making (and eating) a kugel is that you can experiment with it, tweaking it with what’s at hand in the kitchen. It’s a very flexible dish, good with or without the dairy ingredients, with or without a lot of fruit. Another fun part of making a large kugel is that it is leftover worthy: enjoy it at lunch or dinner or snack time on another day. Just heat and eat.

A noodle kugel is a welcome addition to meals year-round. Search up and compare recipes, and have fun in the kitchen and at the table. Bon appetit.