Incredibly, we are entering the sixth month of the pandemic. Spring and summer have come and gone. I long for simple things that promise comfort and pleasure and a sense of normal. Potato kugel beckons.
My mother’s potato kugel is one of my favorite things. At first glance, it most resembles a giant potato pancake. But a few bites in, it is unmistakably something else.
It emerges from the oven crisp on the outside with an almost molten middle. Generously seasoned with salt and pepper, it’s the unexpected pinch of cinnamon that lends a mysteriously addictive depth of flavor.
My mother made her kugel with a box grater. A process not without risk. Trying to grate every bit of potato and onion to avoid waste, she always came dangerously close to the grater’s sharp blades. A scraped knuckle, an exclamation of pain and a few drops of blood were the unlisted ingredients in her recipe.
When I grew up and moved away, I longed for kugel. But could not bring myself to suffer bloody knuckles for its pleasures. In a miracle of culinary innovation, food processors entered the market place and changed the kugel universe forever. Prep became fast and simple. Bloody knuckles a thing of the past.
I gave my mother a Cuisinart hoping she would embrace its magic. She watched and marveled at the ease with which I could produce her kugel. But she could not make it work. And never gave up her box grater.
When my children were growing up, it became one of their favorite things too. I revised the original recipe. Instead of a small Pyrex casserole, I baked it in a large cast iron skillet that produced a crisper crust. And kept the kugel hot for the duration of our Friday night dinners.
It is almost a lifetime later. My daughter Rachel and her husband had been living in San Francisco. Until the pandemic grounded me in March, I had visited frequently. Especially after my granddaughter was born four years ago. Whenever I was there on a Friday night, Rachel asked for kugel. I was happy to oblige. Glad to see her smile when familiar aromas filled their house — a continent away from where we came from.
Rachel is a terrific cook. The detailed kugel recipe I gave her — with tweaks and tricks accumulated over years — is simple to follow. Yet she is curiously resistant to making her own. I don’t ask why. I suspect it’s a primordial impulse.
The comfort of kugel comes from a place beyond its delectable flavor. From the time we felt safe and cared in a way only children can. It’s the kind of memory that helps us move forward in the world. As adults, we still crave that fortifying comfort — its magic magnified when we do not need to produce it ourselves.
I felt that way about my mother’s varenikes (pierogi — depending on where you are from). She made them by instinct. No recipe or exact measuring. I never tried to reproduce her impossibly thin, supple dough. Or perfect potato and cheese filling. I only wanted to revel in their soul-satisfying deliciousness.
My mother would bring dozens to Chicago on her visits from Montreal. We froze them in meal-sized portions to enjoy until she returned with a new batch. Rachel often asks about varenikes now — surprised I never learned to make something I loved so much. Longing for them, I have collected various recipes (untried) in recent years. As the pandemic rages on, we pledged to find a way to make them before winter’s end.
My son Joe had had returned from Brooklyn in late March, working remotely from his old room. Asked whether he wanted kugel on Friday night, he was incredulous, “On what planet would I want anything else — especially now!”. Like his sister, the smell of baking kugel made him smile. And helped soothe the rough edges of our new normal.
One Friday, distracted, I used overly large potatoes. I complained about the disappointing, too- thick center. Between bites, Joe surprised me with an astute observation of what was — to his mind — a critical attribute of kugel perfection. It was the ratio of crust to center. The goal: A crisp crust surrounding only a slender ribbon of soft potato. Enough to provide structure and contrast to the crust. But not so much, that it dulled sensations of crispness. I knew he didn’t aspire to producing his own kugel. Yet he felt its essence in his soul.
Three weeks ago, in the pandemic’s unexpected silver lining, the kids (able to work here) returned to Chicago from San Francisco. They had settled into their new home. And on their first Friday night here, Rachel asked for kugel.
I like to err on the side of “too much” when it comes to food. My go-to cast iron skillet –the one that generously feeds up to six adults — felt safe. We were four (Joe was back in Brooklyn), plus a 4-year old and a 9-month old. I was wrong. After five months, Rachel exhibited what could only be, pent-up kugel demand. Who would expect a baby with only two tiny teeth to consume more than a few bites? Or anticipate that his 4-year old sister would eat like a teenager. I began to wonder if there was such a thing as a kugel gene.
As we cleared the table, I announced that going forward, only my 14-inch skillet would be used for kugel. The following week, I hoisted the huge skillet out of the oven. And held my breath as I watched the gang dig in. By meal’s end — in a Goldilocks moment — the mega-skillet received an enthusiastic thumbs- up. Not too big. Not too small. Just right. A welcome reassurance that small triumphs were still possible.
Rosh Hashana is almost upon us. Pandemic protocols still in place, I won’t be going to synagogue. The holiday table will not be crowded. But we will have the familiar tastes and smells that offer some semblance of normal. Brisket and honey cake. Gefilte fish too — mine a dramatic departure from my mother’s Polish version. This salmon-halibut terrine — recipe courtesy of a Jewish community in Alaska –has been part of my holiday repertoire for almost 20 years.
Kugel tops the “must-have” list. At least for us, this is not a time for potatoes in any other form. But there will be something new about it this year. The comfort of kugel — in whatever form one might find it — will will be added to my New Year’s wishes for a sweet and happy and healthy New Year.