Jerusalem kugel

It took me years to realize that my husband liked Jerusalem kugel. Once I did, I turned it into his birthday cake.

This might be because I only recently discovered the dish myself. Wandering through Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market sometime last year, I encountered — let’s be honest — unappealing murky brown slices of God-knows-what wrapped in plastic wrap at one of the deli stands, alongside the various cured fish. After verifying that it did not contain meat, I bought a slice.

Imagine my surprise when I brought the mysterious brown thing home and discovered that not only did Eitan know exactly what it was, he was quite excited to see it and ate the whole thing up.

Jerusalem kugel is a traditional Ashkenazi Sabbath food, a local variation of what Jews ate in Eastern Europe. One version holds that the Vilna Gaon’s followers started making this sweet noodle loaf in the 18th century. Another (equally unsourced) story says Jewish residents of pre-state Jerusalem learned to use spices thanks to their Arab neighbors, and thus the kugel has a sharp, peppery flavor. Either way, it relies on the short list of seasonings used in Ashkenazi food — sugar, salt and black pepper. At this point, it’s a dish you’ll find mostly in ultra-Orthodox delis, which is to say, not anywhere I’ve seen in Tel Aviv.

But it turns out that Eitan’s aunt used to own one such deli, and this is a dish he remembers from his childhood. Once he found out it was available in Jerusalem, he’d ask me to bring back a slice every time I visited. But the steep 24-shekel-a-kilo price tag was incentive enough to make my own.

As Sabbath food, it can be left in the oven for 12 hours at a time, so it is ready for lunch on the day when observant Jews don’t cook. In an interesting cross-cultural twist, Jerusalem kugel is often made in a jachnun/kubaneh pot, a round metal pot with a tight-fitting lid that is a staple in the Yemenite Jewish kitchen. But any oven-safe pot or baking dish will work.

And about the birthday cake? This kugel, cooked in a jachnun pot, happens to have a cake-like form. And if you bake it at a higher temperature, it can be done in an hour, not 12. And then you can stick candles in it. It’s sweet and starchy, so why not?

He loved it, by the way.

There are many Jerusalem kugel recipes out there, and nearly all include varying quantities of the same ingredients. Like any dish based on white flour, oil, sugar and salt, this is poor man’s food and comfort food. Fortunately, you can swap the spaghetti for whole-wheat noodles and the white sugar for demerara without really impacting the flavor, thus replacing many of the empty calories with less refined alternatives. (Not that I’d call the outcome healthful, but still.)

For one 16-centimeter diameter loaf:

  • 500 grams noodles (regular or whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup oil
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar (yes, it’s supposed to be sweet — you can use demerara/light brown sugar)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons pepper (my pepper was very fresh; if yours isn’t, you might want to use more)
  • 5 large eggs, or more if they’re smaller

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 1 hour.

Heat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius.

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions until they are fully cooked, not just al dente (see above note). Strain but don’t rinse, and dump back into the pot or a heat-safe bowl.

Meanwhile, heat the oil and sugar in a light-colored pot (so you can see how dark your caramel is). Stir as the sugar browns. Remove from the flame right when the oil and melted sugar shows the first signs of boiling. The sugar should be a dark caramel by this point. Don’t let it overcook, or it will burn and turn bitter. Immediately dump the oil and sugar into the pasta, and stir. (Be careful — the oil and sugar could splatter and burn you.)

Add the salt and pepper, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Careful — the noodles are very hot at this point.

Let the noodles cool for a minute or two. Crack the eggs into a separate bowl, beat, and mix into the noodles. Stir until well incorporated.

Oil your baking dish. If you want, put a layer of baking paper or tinfoil in the bottom — this will help you remove the finished loaf later. Pour in the noodle mixture, and cover — either with the lid or with tinfoil. Let bake covered for 45 minutes.

Uncover and let bake another 15 minutes so that the top can brown. Alternately, if you want to make this for Shabbat, leave covered and lower the temperature to 100 degrees Celsius, and leave in the oven all night. Uncover shortly before eating so that the top can brown.

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