Kugel Recipe (or Why I love Passover)Christina Moore/Rachel Federlin April 2022
On the morning of Passover 2022, we remembered kugels past (as well as holidays past, and all sort of things past, exodus, loss, and the importance of community). In considering the ignoble kugel, we explored the fact that this dish is cooked once per year. Given we are a family rather fond of the potato, then why do we make this dish for this one night, the wait the required number of lunar months for the next spring cycle of remembrance.What’s wrong with our kugel? Answer: it lacks flavor. It lacks lack textures. It lacks that bit of yumminess. Do we blame this on the holiday’s rules that forbid dairy on the table with our lamb? No, we face an opportunity to celebrate the potato. At its worst, our Passover kugel is a bit thick, gooey, mildly gray. And because of the nature of this holiday, we posit most of missions in the form of questions: typically in quartets.
In our kitchen, we asked: How to we make this dish delish? From whence does flavor come? What rules must we follow? And can we change the recipe?
Flavor: salt, savory, fat, acid (thank you Samin Nosrat); it goes further to include textures and colors.
Slice instead of shred. When you shred you break a lot of cell walls that results in a lot of water escaping. Potatoes are mostly water.
Microwave the slices for 5 minutes. This partially cooks the potatoes, generates a ton of steam and cooks water out of the potato.
Fry the potatoes in oil. The potatoes, now partially cooked and slightly dryer will brown and crisp up. We love the Maillard reaction. In our kitchen, we divided the potatoes roughly in thirds. We fried two batches keeping one third un-fried. This yields a variety of textures: smooth, creaming, crunchy. Oh, and salt, then salt, then likely add more salt.
We fried in a tall-sided cast-iron skillet that we cranked to super-hot. As potatoes browned, we removed them.
- Pre-heat oven to 450F/230C
- Peel and slice potatoes. Thin-ish 2mm, 1/8th of an inch. Enough body to be have a soft interior.
- Store in cold heavily salted water until ready to microwave
- Drain in a colander
- Microwave potatoes in batches in a microwave safe dish
- When out, spread them a bit to let them steam off, cool off and dry off a bit. We ringed the tall bowl with the pototoes. We did not dirty another dish.
- In tall cast iron skillet, dutch oven or like instrument, heat to hot. Make sure dish is stove-top and oven-safe.
- Add good oil with high smoke point
- Fry 2/3 to ½ of the potatoes in batches. Aim for a variety of color and texture. Add salt, salt to taste. Potatoes like salt.
- Before the last batch of potatoes is finished frying, start the egg/onion/herb batter. See below.
- Reserve 1/3 or so of potatoes from the frying process
- Shred onion or three. Drain off fluid.
- Beat the eggs. Add some salt. Add herbs. We had some sage, dried chives, paprika, white pepper, black pepper, and y’know, salt.
- Add the onion pulp to the egg bowl. Give another whisk.
- Pour the egg, onion, herby batter into the hot dutch oven. Add in all other potatoes. Stir with using very little enthusiasm – work at getting an even distribution and a flat-ish top.
- Bake for 30 minute or so until the top is crispy and firm to the touch.
- We prepped in the morning and fully cooked it. Then re-warmed it prior to supper in warm 350F/180C oven for 20 minutes.
We live in farm country in rural southern Vermont. Part of the spirit of our recipe included using what is at hand. Our kugel was free and involved no travel; that is a privilege that I must acknowledge. So many of our ancestors enjoyed their meals following similar practices of frugality and conservation. The potatoes were our potatoes. We planted them nearly one years ago. As the last frosts of 2021 faded, we put potatoes in the ground. In the fall, we harvested them and stored them in sand in our cool, dark basement. Our Seder thus included a quiet remembrance and celebration of the potato and its role in sustaining people and its role in famine. 100% of my ancestors hail from a few counties in the northern British Isles. 100% of Rachel’s ancestors hail from eastern Europe. The little potato hails from the soils of South America. This potato dish now sits in the middle of our table binding us.
On the day before Sader, Rachel and I dug through the sand to find the last of our 2021 potatoes. Many potatoes had sent hopeful shoot through the sand, through the dark buckets reaching for sunlight in a very dark cold New England basement reaching for the light. A few of 2021 potatoes will be returned to the ground today for next year’s meals.
We fried our potatoes in goose fat. Because we could. Because we had reserved goose fat from past holiday meals. Because we had filtered hot goose fat though towels then stored it. Chicken fat (schmaltz) or a high-smoke point oil from the local grocer works fine too. Use what is at hand, that helps us remember.
The lamb came from our friends Andy and Linda who joined us at the table. Andy remembered his family’s stories of fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937, landing in New Jersey then deciding to be Episcopalian to help obscure and protect the family from further persecution in their new home. He told the story of his father changing the spelling of their name while keeping the pronunciation the same. At our Seder table, this Vermont farmer tells us all of the judge telling Andy’s father that he ought to change his Kraut first name while he is Anglicizing the last name. Which reminded Andy and us all of various hurts through our generations. Kurt, Andy’s father, had no intention of Anglicizing the name, only making the spelling match the sounds.
I had butterflied the lamb leg earlier in the week laying in salt (of course), pepper and fresh rosemary leaves before tying the roast tightly around the bones. We smoked and slow roasted the lamb for hours outdoors.
We served dinner in the driveway on make-shift tables – a plywood board supported by sawhorses. Upon this table we laid the good dishes on fine a tablecloth. We set nine seats for the eight guests and then make sure that Elijah (or anyone else) finds a welcome with us. The questions and stories explored in both English and Hebrew with personal remembrances of Exodus including Operation Exodus that helped Soviet Jews leave lands once again embroiled in war. Sometimes, you don’t even get to carry flour for a bit of dry cracker as you run, or get marched, or get pushed from your homelands. Rachel, Janis, Rosie, and Andy all remember ancestors killed by Nazi’s. My family dropped their name for two generations, fled persecution and lost their lands and liberty in a story common to so many others on our shared Earth. That can be the beauty of this holiday. We balance the remembrance of past horror with the hints of hope and good food. If you live in farm country, or have a garden, you plant next year’s potatoes.
I love Passover because I love stories. I love community. I love great food. And I love my friends.
As with most Passovers, the food barely clung to its original warmth. We remembered the questions and trials that unity humanity and family. We count the plagues placing small drops of wine on our plates, knowing that we eat outdoors because of a current pandemic. Last year, our table was surrounded by snowbanks. This year was slightly warmer. We celebrated coming together in community, as family, to embrace our stories. Next year when we gather, who will join us? Where will we be? What new heart aches and wonders shall be visited upon us.
There is always an extra place set.