Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Whether you grew up on your bubbe's kugel or you have no idea what kugel is, you can (and should) make a perfectly sweet, family-friendly casserole that will have you noshing in no time.
Noodle Kugel is a staple in Ashkenazi Jewish culinary traditions, but if you haven’t attended any Ashkenazi Jewish celebrations, you might not have encountered one before. Even if you are familiar with kugel (acceptably pronounced both "coogle" and "kuggol"), and I sure hope you are, it’s entirely possible that you’ve never tried it before. And you are not alone. And also, you are in for a joyful surprise. These are the actual, real life, semi-coherent responses of first-time noodle kugel eaters after their initial taste:
- “It’s like sweet macaroni and cheese.”
- “Egg noodles plus corn flakes plus soft stuff plus crumby.”
- “Soft, warm, gushy, lightly sweet.”
- “It could be a side dish, or a dessert, or a breakfast.”
But what exactly is noodle kugel anyway? Broadly speaking, a kugel is a baked pudding or casserole—a traditional Ashkenzai Jewish dish eaten for Shabbat and other holidays. There are kugels made with shredded or sliced potatoes (a Jewish gratin, of sorts), but my favorite kind— and, I would argue, the most versatile—is a sweet lokshen (noodle) pudding made with egg noodles.
Here’s what blogger, cookbook author, and host of Girl Meets Farm Molly Yeh had to say about noodle kugel on her blog, My Name Is Yeh: “Flavor-wise, think of it as rice pudding made with noodles! And baked! Or, OK, a slightly sweet, a teensy bit sour, and kind of soufflé-like mac and cheese. And for all of the times I’ve made fun of eggboy [my husband Nick who I affectionally call eggboy] for having sweet cookie salad alongside the main course of his meal (as opposed to as dessert), I now owe him an apology because kugel, in all of its dessert-leaning glory, is part of the main course.”
Not only is the name "noodle kugel" a perfectly whimsical combination of two of the cutest words ever uttered, but this a dish full of rambunctious holiday spirit: You want to be eating it as you sit around a dining room table shmoozing with your family; you want to sneak stray noodles straight from the casserole dish into your mouth when no one is looking; and you want to hide the leftovers in the back of the fridge so you can eat them for breakfast the next morning.
And, on top of all that, you don't even need a recipe to make it. Here's how to make noodle kugel:
1. Round up your ingredients. The star of the show is, unsurprisingly, the noodles. You'll want to use egg noodles (they'll hold up best in the oven, retaining their texture and shape even as the other ingredients melt and mix). Any width—from extra wide to fine—will work.
You'll also need something creamy and tangy, either cream cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, ricotta cheese, sour cream, or a combination. Butter, eggs, a source of sweetness, and herbs and spices are also essential. For a sweet iteration, turn to cinnamon and nutmeg; for something a bit more savory, use minced sage and thyme, which are both earthy and a bit delicate so as to not overwhelm any other flavors. We have a kugel recipe that calls for caramelized onions and browned butter, but those are optional add-ins (though I don’t think you’d regret using them). Lastly, to top your kugel, you'll want something crunchy, be it a plain breakfast cereal like Corn Flakes or bread crumbs (of course it's a whole other ballgame if you're making a kosher kugel for Passover—that’s where you want to ensure the egg noodles are gluten-free and topped with matzo meal; or explore potato kugels).
2. Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, it’s time to make the kugel. To start, butter a large casserole dish and preheat your oven to 325° F. In her recipe for Crunchy Noodle Kugel, writer Melissa Clark recommends using a jelly roll pan so that the kugel has a larger surface area to brown in the oven.
Then, cook a package of egg noodles until they're al dente, drain them, and set them aside. To the bowl of a food processor, add melted butter; equal parts sour cream or cream cheese (or a combination) and cottage cheese; and whatever spices and extracts you want to use (I unapologetically love cinnamon, but you can go with ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and/or vanilla or almond extract). And for a really untraditional kugel, you could even add puréed pumpkin (but I'm just saying).
Next, crack in some eggs—the number is up to you. My family always makes noodle kugel with one egg, which yields a soft, loose pudding, with breathing room between each noodle. If you want a denser, more tightly-packed kugel that you can slice into neat blocks, add more eggs. Deb Perelman's recipe on Smitten Kitchen calls for eight eggs, while Grace Parisi's recipe in Food & Wine calls for four eggs plus two yolks, so there's a wide range. No two kugels are alike (and that’s the beauty of them).
You'll also want to add something sweet, usually one to 1 1/2 cups of sugar for one 12-ounce package of noodles. You can use plain old white sugar, or you can march to the beat of your own drummer and add a combination of brown sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, or whatever you have on hand. I used a cup of honey.
Blend it all together until it's smooth and light, then taste the mixture to make sure it's as sweet as you want it
3. Transfer your cooked noodles to a mixing bowl and pour in the mixture from the food processor. Mix it up until no noodle is left un-sauced. You want all of the noodles to be evenly coated, but you don't want them to be swimming
4. Now it's time to make a kugel that really speaks to you. I added grated apple, but you can also use raisins (the most traditional choice), chocolate chips, fresh or dried cranberries, diced dried figs or dates, canned pineapple, pear slices, pieces of candied ginger, or chopped nuts. Whatever ingredients you decide on, simply toss them into the bowl and mix with the noodles. Like the spices, you can add as much or as few as you’d like.
5. Make a topping by gently crushing the plain, flaky cereal of choice (Corn Flakes, Special K, and Wheaties all work well) with your hands and adding in a tablespoon or two of cinnamon and sugar. Alternatively, you could use bread crumbs mixed with a bit of melted butter in place of the cereal.
Pour the noodles into your prepared baking pan and lovingly blanket them with the cereal topping. I say "lovingly" because, when you break into the kugel, that topping is going to interlace with the warm noodles to give you an unbeatable soft-crunchy-crumbly contrast.
6. Mazel tov! You're almost done. Bake the kugel in the oven until the custard has set, the topping is toasted, and the noodles on the outside of the pan are a bit brown and crispy, generally 40 minutes to an hour. If you break into the kugel while it's still warm, the noodles will fall into a beautiful tangled pile on your plate, mingling with whatever else you have on there. Wait for it to cool and the kugel will come away in neater, more self-contained pieces. Again, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Serve the kugel on your dinner plate, for dessert, or at breakfast.
This original article appeared on September 22, 2014. We're re-running it now with even more tips for perfecting noodle kugel.
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