Kugel is a famous Jewish dish, made especially by the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Evidence exists that the dish was made over 800 years ago, though it has gradually been modified and improved upon over time. Many are used to thinking of kugel as a dessert, and you will certainly find lots of kugel dessert styles. It can also be made as a savory side dish or entrée.
Early kugel would have been savory, since sugar didn’t make its way to Europe, especially not for those who weren’t of the nobility, until the 1600s. The early kugel, like many foods at the time, was essentially a baked pudding, bearing some resemblance to a savory bread pudding. German Jews in the 1200s began adding noodles, eggs, cheese and/or milk to the dish, creating a delicious creamy casserole. The base of the kugel might use potatoes or matzo flour instead of noodles. In order to add extra flavor to the dish, kugel might include vegetables of all types, and onions. Kugel casseroles would not have contained meat, since mixing meat with milk and eggs was not Kosher.
In the 1600s sugar inspired many cooks to develop sweet kugel. Here you might simply have a dish of baked noodles in cream or egg topped with a little bit of sugar. Eventually, fruit, especially raisins, were common additions to sweet kugel. Sweet kugel is still more popular today than its savory older relation, and may be baked in round pans, or more commonly in standard rectangular baking dishes. It is very popular not only among people of Eastern European and Germanic descent, but also among those in America who were lucky enough to grow up near a good Jewish bakery or restaurant.
In taste, sweet kugel is similar to bread pudding, and many find it comparable to a variety of the baked puddings made by the English, like spotted dick. There are a number of Internet recipes to try, as well as fantastic recipes in many Jewish and in German cookbooks. If you’re traveling you’ll find kugel in most of Eastern Europe.
In some Jewish sects, kugel is thought to be lucky and/or to confer spiritual blessings. This is specifically the case in the Hasidic Jewish tradition, especially when a Rabbi offers the kugel. To many others, kugel merely speaks of ultimate comfort food, and few celebratory meals would be complete without it.