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Unapologetic Potato Kugel

2012 March 6
by Gayle

I’ll just come out with it up front: this recipe is in no way good for you.

But damn, it is delicious.

(Nor is it very attractive, so please forgive the lack of photos. You want to eat this one, not look at it.)

And it does bring back memories for me.

Growing up, I wouldn’t call my mother a health-nut… more like health-aware. Which was admittedly kind of nutty for the Midwest in the 1980s. There was no sugary cereal or much fried stuff. McDonald’s and processed foods (like my beloved chicken pot pies!) were rare and mostly reserved as a “treat” for evenings with babysitters or at the homes of indulgent grandparents. Mac and cheese was a side dish, not a meal, and best accompanied by something green. There was salad at pretty much every meal and that was usually in addition to some other vegetable.

But then there were the nights that my dad made dinner. Oh, yum. My brother and I referred to one of his monochromatic delicacies as The Golden Meal: pork chops, breaded and fried to perfection with a little seasoned salt in the mix; macaroni and cheese; frozen corn. Lovely. “Corn is a vegetable,” my father would say, matter-of-factly, while my mother muttered something that sounded like “starch” and tried to laugh it off.

My dad is a very good cook but, outside of the grill and the smoker, many of his specialties are incredibly-bad-for-you old family recipes involving some combination of bacon and its grease, potatoes, eggs and flour. I still remember the first time I had a potato pancake in actual Germany — from a street cart in a square in Munich with my grandmother when I was 11 or 12 — and was completely let down because it wasn’t nearly as good as my dad’s. I may have fed the second one to the pigeons.

In addition to being the opposite of heart-healthy, some of them also create a colossal kitchen mess, so most of dad’s potato-and-bacon-grease-based meals only made it to the dinner table once a year. But when we did get potato pancakes or kugel, it was cause for celebration. Kids getting so excited about simple peasant food seemed to be part of the thrill of making it for my dad; that and his own food memories of eating it growing up.

I remember at some point, probably in college or right after, having a heated discussion about “kugel” requiring noodles, being sweet and almost exclusively Jewish. But there was nothing kosher about the kugel of my childhood, which kicks off with frying up a pound of bacon in a pile of butter (I told you it wasn’t good for you). And it is certainly not a dessert. I like to think of it as a giant potato pancake without all the mess from frying — a crunchy exterior and silky interior, studded with bacon, slathered with sour cream.

When I decided to trim down this childhood treat to dinner for two, I also became determined to figure out where it came from and how my very not-Jewish German and Slovenian side of the family ended up with our version of such a well-known Passover dish. Research led me from the Jewish noodle kugle, to the potato babka of Belerus (getting warmer) and then to the German Kartoffelkugel (ah ha!). Apparently, a Kartoffel kugel is a potato thing, but a lokshen kugel is the noodle thing. And both can and are made for Passover. But no Kartoffel kugel recipes really came close to our family recipe. There were also leads that took me to a Lithuanian version (kugelis) that did have bacon, but also cheese or evaporated milk or farina (or all three). Since there’s no real family story about the dish or how it ended up in my German great-grandmother’s recipe box in northeast Ohio, I may never know; all I have is my own immediate family’s history.

As I was grating away to make this cut-down kugel for Mr. Kitchenette for the first time, my mind wandered to how it could be modernized or fancied up to appeal more to current “foodie” sensibilities…. If you were to have access to really great, unsliced local bacon, you could get six ounces and dice it into wee perfect cubes. Organic potatoes and onion, I guess. Cage-free eggs, maybe from your own backyard chickens. But in truth, all any of that would do is take this dish closer to its peasant-food roots, back to people eating what they had from the yard, probably at the end of the week or what couldn’t be sold at the market. Some things are better left un-fussed-with. This family recipe is one of them.

Cut-Down (but still bad for you) Potato Kugel

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 large Russet baking potatoes (they usually weigh in around 1 lb each), peeled

1 medium yellow onion

6 slices center-cut bacon

1 Tablespoon unsalted butter

2 large eggs

4 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

sour cream, for serving

Method

Move an oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 375.

With the fine side of a box grater, grate the potatoes and onion (I like to go potato-onion-potato to give my eyes a chance to recover after the onion, but perhaps you have no-cry onion tricks of your own). Scramble up the eggs in a small bowl and stir into the potato mixture until fully incorporated.

Melt the butter  in a small (9-inch) cast-iron frying pan over medium high-heat. Cut the bacon into 1/2 inch bits and fry in the butter until the bacon is brown and crisp and all the fat is rendered, 6 to 10 minutes.

While the bacon is frying, slowly fold the flour into the potato mixture, one tablespoon at a time; do not over-mix. Off heat, pour the potato batter directly into the frying pan with the bacon and grease. Shake slightly to even out the batter, but do not stir.

Bake at 375 for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the top is crunchy and golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean.

Turn out onto a board and allow to cool briefly before slicing and serving with sour cream (and, for God’s sake, a salad!)

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    March 6, 2012

    I think I just had a heartattack reading this… I might be willing to try it as long as I can substitute with “facon”! 😉 It’s hard for me to pass up anything with potatos!

    • Gayle permalink*
      March 6, 2012

      HA! You sure it’s not just the photos of frying bacon scaring you?
      I think it will probably work with the “Facon” but you might want to throw in at least one more tablespoon of butter, since that isn’t going to generate any fat on its own. The bacon grease/butter keeps the whole mess from sticking and helps it form an awesome crunchy crust on the outside almost the instant the potato stuff hits the pan.

  2. Jill permalink
    January 20, 2014

    Dear Gayle – You must be related to my mid-west husband who was raised on this (they called it kugelis). He has so many fund memories of his Grandma making large pans of this – exactly this. Thanks so much for sharing.

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