An authentic, Jewish grandmother-approved potato kugel

    Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    Some mothers send stuffed teddy bears and chocolates to their stressed children in college. Others pack a doubled nine-by-thirteen aluminum tin with crispy-top-rich-center potato kugel and hand it to their daughters’ friends to transport the 230 miles from Long Island to College Park. My mother falls into the latter category.

    “I’m sending you a kugel,” she says.

    After 22 years of experience, I’ve learned that any answer other than yes will just result in more kugels.

    Being Jewish, there’s something about breathing in the saltiness of this rich potato, egg and oil dish on Fridays that signifies the Sabbath, marking the exchange of studying for rest; of time spent enjoying rather than rushing. It’s a smell that almost perpetually wafts through my grandmother’s creaky screen door and down her steep, concrete stairs, where it greets me even before I enter her Brooklyn home.

    It’s the perfect scent to come home to after long days. You know, like those really long days. The kind of days where you wake up at 5 a.m. to study for a cell biology final and then have to drive five hours home after packing up the car and returning all of your textbooks. Or those days when you’ve been on a plane for more than a day, unable to sleep and are craving a dinner that doesn’t come in a container. Just naming some #irl examples of when this savory dish has been a true comfort. And I don’t say that lightly.

    A brief history of kugel

    Though I like to think potato kugel originated in my grandmother’s kitchen, the concept of kugel, a “homey casserole of noodles or potatoes,” as defined by The New York Times, was originally born in Germany in the 12th century, according to a blogpost by Jamie Geller, cookbook author and blogger.

    Once a small, rounded clay pot – known as a kugeltopf in German – made its way to Germany, German-Jewish women would place bread batter and egg into the earthenware and cook it on top of their cholent, or Sabbath stew. Eventually, the pudding-like dish took on the name kugel so that it could easily be differentiated from the cholent, according to Geller. When home ovens replaced open-fire cooking in the middle of the 19th century, housewives started baking their kugels in shallow containers instead of in clay jars. They also started baking them during the week, in addition to before the Sabbath, Geller writes.

    And when your fork sinks into the dense-yet-rich lusciousness of this potato kugel like the way your tired body sinks into the couch when you walk into your apartment after a long day; when you feel the gritty, earthy small potato flakes dance and then dissipate into your tongue; when you appreciate the crunch-then-sink as you cut “just a small taste” – which, let’s be honest, will become a bigger taste – from the freshly baked tin and feel so satisfied, you’ll understand why kugel is a staple food in the typical Jewish diet.

    My family and kugel

    Perhaps, given this context, you wouldn’t think that my family was completely crazy for packing two potato kugels for our 10-day trip to St. Thomas. Maybe you would think we were normal, even if you saw us frantically shuffling the shiny tins from the 56-pound suitcase to the 48-pound one during curbside check-in at a time when the sun wasn’t even up and the weather bit in the way winter mornings in New York do. And hey, even if you still do think that we’re crazy (rightfully so), if you would have been enjoying the kugels at our Sabbath meal, you’d at least understand that the craziness was warranted.

    The funniest thing about my family’s potato kugel is that there is no official recipe. My grandmother, a sweet, Russian woman whose round face is always fixed in a smile, isn’t one to follow plans. Her go-with-the-flow personality permeates her everything; the quote that my mom and aunts assigned to her ­– “with Rose, anything goes” – rings true in all aspects of her life, especially in cooking.

    However, as someone who likes things organized, I was determined to codify this recipe. Provided is a recipe that I extracted from my mom, who came up with this “sort-of recipe” after she observed my grandmother’s cooking process about 15 years ago, back when my grandmother gifted her a food processor with a fine blade (what my mom calls a “kugel blade”).

    Keep in mind that all ingredient amounts are tentative, and, if you feel like the kugel needs more of something or less of something else, trust your instincts, because they are probably right. That’s the best advice I have for making an authentic, Rose Gershkovich-inspired potato kugel, which, by the way, is much better at relieving stress than teddy bears and chocolate ever will be.

    An authentic, Jewish-Grandmother-approved potato kugel recipe

    Whether you’re looking for a tasty side dish to add to your next Shabbat or holiday meal, or simply a way to elevate your potatoes, this baked potato, egg and oil casserole-like dish is an easy addition to any occasion. Since this is one of those tentative, passed-down-from-the-Jewish-Russian-grandmother “recipes” that isn’t actually hardwired, you can take comfort in knowing that a little bending of these instructions (likely) won’t mess up your kugel – or at least not that much.

    Yield: Makes one 9-inch by 13-inch tin

    Note: This recipe can also be made using the smallest holes on a box grater

    Ingredients

    • 8 to 10 small or medium Yukon gold potatoes
    • 3 medium Idaho potatoes
    • 1/3 cup canola oil
    • 4 or 5 eggs*
    • Salt to taste
    • *Note: Use roughly half as many eggs as Yukon potatoes.

    Directions

    Preheat oven to 380°F. Pour oil into an empty 9 inch by 13-inch aluminum tin and set aside.

    Attach the blade with the smallest holes to a food processor. Before turning on the processor, make sure you have all ingredients on hand, as the potatoes will brown quickly.

    Start the processor; puree all potatoes. If needed, cut potatoes so that they can easily fit into the processor.

    Place the aluminum tin with the oil into the oven.

    Using a spatula, transfer the pureed potatoes from the processor into a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs to the pureed potatoes and mix. Generously sprinkle salt into the mixture. Taste mixture to see if more salt is needed.

    Remove the aluminum tin with the oil from the oven. Pour the hot oil from the tin into the potato mixture and mix together. There will still be some oil covering the surface of the tin.

    Pour the mixture into the tin; spread out evenly. Bake the kugel at 380°F for 45 minutes. Lower the oven to 350°F and bake for at least 1 hour and 30 minutes longer. The kugel should appear dark brown and crispy when ready. You can loosely cover the kugel with aluminum foil for its last 15 minutes in the oven if the top is getting overdone. Remove the foil while the kugel is cooling. Cut kugel into squares and serve warm. Kugel can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.

    Dena Gershkovich
    Dena Gershkovich is double majoring in dietetics and journalism at the University of Maryland. She hopes to become a registered dietitian and nutrition writer. Follow Dena on her blog (The Artsy Palate) and on Instagram (@theartsypalate) to see more of her work!