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Holidays: Kugel warms the Yom Kippur soul

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NEW YORK, July 24 (JTA) — It happens every year. Yom Kippur services conclude, and 15 minutes later, you’re dashing in the door only seconds ahead of a hungry crowd.

“Can I help you?” someone asks, as your house fills with family and friends. People are polite, but ready to pounce. Like magic, they expect you to feed them — immediately.

With no time to whip up an elaborate spread for a beleaguered lot, many hosts fall back on Jewish fast food: bagels and lox, herring and sour cream, sliced tomatoes and onions — and a chilled cucumber salad.

There are reasons why this menu makes sense after fasting. Fish and vegetables are lighter on the stomach than meat. Smoked fish allows the body to replenish lost salt.

But after forgoing food for 24 hours, people need something to warm their souls and stomachs as well. With Yom Kippur falling deeper into autumn this year — it begins on the evening of Oct. 8 — an assortment of piping hot kugels would particularly hit the spot.

Besides their perennial popularity, kugels are not only a perfect accompaniment to smoked fish and salads, they offer distinct advantages for break-the-fasts. They are easily prepared, can be made in advance and are almost foolproof. Their biggest selling point is that hosts can reheat them, while assembling the rest of the meal.

Adored by Ashkenazim, kugels are a bright spot in Jewish culinary history. A type of pudding, sometimes baked for hours, kugels may date back to the beginning of the last millennium.

Made from bread and flour, the first kugels were plain, salty rather than sweet. About 800 years ago, their flavor and popularity improved when cooks in Germany replaced bread mixtures with noodles or farfel. Eventually housewives incorporated eggs. The addition of cottage cheese and milk created a custard-like consistency, similar to what we’re accustomed to today.

In the 17th century, sugar was introduced to kugel, giving home cooks the option of serving it as a side dish or dessert. In Poland, Jewish women sweetened the deal by sprinkling raisins and cinnamon into recipes. Pastry- loving Hungarians took the dessert concept further with a hefty helping of sugar and a dollop of sour cream.

While less renowned than their sweeter cousins, savory kugels always existed. Early noodle recipes called for onions and salt. Tasty at room temperature, housewives served them for lunch on Shabbat. Over the centuries, inspired cooks have skipped the noodles, substituting potatoes, matzah, carrots, spinach or cheese. In Texas, chefs are using coriander and corn.

But in America, noodle pudding has always reigned supreme, rising to heights that our European ancestors never dreamed. Today many people crown casseroles with corn flakes, graham cracker crumbs, ground gingersnaps or caramelized sugar. Inspired cooks are known to layer the dish with sliced pineapples or apricot jam.

Yet everything that’s old is new again. With bread pudding recipes so trendy in gourmet magazines today, many Jewish women are serving them, inadvertently bringing kugel back to bread, its roots. Of course those in the know realize that, like French toast, the best bread puddings start with challah. The challah custard kugel below will consume any leftover challah from Rosh Hashanah before you purchase another round of rounds for Yom Kippur.

Playing counterpoint to its sugary competition, the mixed vegetable kugel is made from spinach, potato, carrots, mushrooms and onions. A hearty, nourishing dish after a fast, it calls for matzah meal too, so save the recipe for Passover.

Inspired by the Eastern European craving for white cheese kissed with sugar, this sweet cheese noodle pudding is a quintessentially classic kugel.

“Actually it is the king of kugels,” says an independent filmmaker from New Jersey who provided her family recipe, which she serves every year to break the fast. With thousands of variations on the noodle pudding theme in circulation, kugel makers are often competitive and fiercely loyal.

There is a reason why these old-fashioned puddings remain a staple at synagogue suppers, Haddassah meetings, brunches and holiday gatherings.

“Kugels are the ultimate Jewish comfort food, says a writing teacher from Manhattan, who would never break the Yom Kippur fast without one. Tired and hungry, her family appreciates a warm casserole on the table.

“After such a solemn day, they deserve a dish that’s creamy, luscious and good.”

VEGETABLE KUGEL

1 bunch (6-8) carrots

14 white mushrooms

1 potato, peeled

1 medium onion

2 cloves garlic

10 ounce pkg. frozen spinach, defrosted

2 eggs

11/2 cups matzah meal (or flour)

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Using a food processor, grate the carrots, mushrooms, potato, onion and garlic. Place in a large bowl.

3. Add remaining ingredients and mix well.

4. Fold into a greased 7 x 11-inch, oven-proof casserole. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until top is crispy and vegetables bubble.

Yield: 18 squares.

CHALLAH CUSTARD KUGEL

1 lb. challah, broken into bite-sized pieces

Sweet butter for greasing pan, plus 4 Tbsp. at room temperature

8 oz. brick of reduced fat cream cheese, at room temperature

3/4 cup maple syrup

12 eggs

3 cups of 2 percent milk

21/2 tsp. vanilla

1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10 x 15-inch oven-proof casserole and spread challah pieces evenly throughout.

2. Place 4 Tbsp. butter, cream cheese and maple syrup in a microwave-safe container. Cover and microwave for one minute on high power. Mix well with a fork and pour evenly over challah.

3. In a large bowl, mix remaining ingredients until blended. Pour evenly over challah-cream cheese mixture. Press challah down with a spatula to moisten. Let rest five minutes.

4. Bake for 30 minutes, or until casserole bubbles and top is golden brown. Serve immediately, or prepare ahead, refrigerate and reheat. Recipe freezes well.

Yield: 40 squares.

SWEET CHEESE NOODLE PUDDING

1 lb. broad noodles

2/3 cup sugar

24 oz. large curd cottage cheese

1 pint sour cream

4 eggs, beaten

21/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. vanilla

2/3 cup golden raisins

4 oz. cream cheese (not whipped)

No-stick spray for greasing pan

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a large pot, prepare noodles according to package instructions. Drain water from noodles. Reserve.

3. In a large bowl, add remaining ingredients — except 1/4 tsp. of the cinnamon. Blend well with a spoon. Add noodles, stirring well.

4. Grease a 9 x 13-inch oven-proof casserole with no-stick spray. Fold contents of bowl into casserole. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 tsp. cinnamon on top.

5. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until kugel bubbles and turns light brown on top.

Yield: 32 squares.

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