For Passover, matzo has a softer side

For The Washington Post

Whenever I ask a room full of people what they think Jewish food is, I get a resounding “Kugel!” For many, the baked pudding – sweet or savory, noodle or potato – of European (Ashkenazic) origins instantly connotes the Jewish experience.

That’s probably true for American Jews of European descent, or anyone who’s eaten at a kosher deli. But Jews have been on the move since the first exodus 3,500 years ago, and there is a whole world of different flavors and styles of Jewish food.

With Passover soon upon us – the eight-day holiday begins at sundown Friday – it’s the matzo variation of this iconic dish that intrigues me. Kugels created with “the bread of affliction” can sometimes have an ersatz quality that says, “I’m not the real thing.” It’s time for a makeover.

Consider first that Passover is as much about spring as it is about that ancient flight from Egypt. The holiday is, after all, one of the three agriculturally important festivals in Judaism, and occurs during Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar and a New Year for the growing season. Hebrew Scripture is filled with references to leeks, hyssop and other herbs that appear in spring gardens and markets. It’s no coincidence that the holiday’s symbolic Seder plate consists of seasonal foods that symbolize the birth and renewal of a Jewish nation. Its elements constitute a ready-made shopping list for a fresh approach to kugel.

Options open up further when we broaden the definition of kugel to casserole. There’s an entire Sephardic (very generally put: Mediterranean) pie tradition to the matzo kugels to explore. The medieval Sephardic double-crusted meat pie – known variously as pastida, pastel and pastilla – has inspired generations of Passover cooks to clever holiday solutions. In “The Book of Jewish Food,” Claudia Roden shares her Egyptian family’s maiena, a meat-and-matzo pie scented with cinnamon and allspice. Edda Servi Machlin, chronicler of the Jewish cuisine of her native Pitigliano, Italy, offers us “mazzagne” – lasagna made with sheets of egg matzo instead of egg pasta.

No matter where Jewish cooks draw inspiration, the beauty of Passover puddings and pies is that they have always been meant to be prepared well ahead (think Sabbath cooking and communal ovens) – a welcome convenience during the holidays.

For the Seder meal, I like a savory kugel that can soak up the jus of braised brisket or poultry the same way Thanksgiving stuffing, Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes do. My matzo kugel with leeks hits all the notes: “biblical” leeks slow-cooked to sweetness, a generous splash of Seder-plate parsley for brightness; and do-ahead convenience. Who needs potatoes?

The recipe is nicely flexible. Dill, thyme or sage work well in the mix of aromatics. If you have access to green garlic, or leek or garlic chives (available at Persian, Middle Eastern and farmers markets), substitute those for about a third of the regular leeks. Keep it a vegetarian dish by using a flavorful olive oil, or enrich it with roasting pan drippings. Make it luxurious with the golden fat that rises to the top of your chicken soup; or with schmaltz (poultry fat rendered with onions) and gribenes (the crispy bits that remain) that you make from the chicken skin and fat trimmings saved from your soup-making. Once the leeks have cooked and cooled, it’s a snap to throw the rest of the dish together and let it set up in the refrigerator the day before baking. It’s also perfectly fine baked a day ahead and reheated to serve.

A matzo pie with chicken and artichokes is a great way to repurpose Seder leftovers such as roasted or braised chicken (or turkey or lamb), chicken soup, hard-cooked eggs and herbs. (You’ll need four cups of meat; consider making extra for the Seder so you can readily make this dish later in the week.) Inspired by the double-crusted Sephardic Passover pastel, this meat pie uses sheets of matzo briefly soaked in stock to create the crust and is filled with a lemony chopped meat mixture and a layer of chopped eggs and gremolata, the classic Italian condiment of minced parsley, garlic and lemon zest. Because spring is prime artichoke season, crown the pie with sauteed artichokes. (If you can’t find baby ones, you can manage with frozen artichoke hearts. But avoid using canned.)

This casserole is so satisfying, it’s worth starting from scratch: Brown chicken parts (use mostly dark meat for succulence) or a whole chicken with onions, carrots and other aromatics in the recipe. Add water to braise the meat and produce the stock all in one pot. Then pull the tender meat off the bones to begin the recipe.

Inspired by Machlin’s meat-and-tomato-sauce mazzagne and her pesto-and-bechamel one, I came up with a striking “center of the plate” for a vegetarian Seder or anytime during Passover. Layer deep-emerald early season sauteed greens, such as Swiss chard, spinach or nettles, with a creamy ricotta-Parmesan-egg filling and milk-soaked egg matzos that develop a lovely tenderness in the finished dish. A bit of taleggio or fontina cheese adds an extra pop of flavor, and the whole thing is topped with more ricotta, which puffs up like a souffle during baking. The dish is elegant, hearty and easy to prepare. (If you strictly observe Passover dietary laws, you may need to make adjustments in your choice of cheeses.)

There’s even a matzo-friendly way to re-create the beloved cottage cheese-and-sour-cream kugel that shows up in every Temple Sisterhood community cookbook – and it’s simpler to do than the original. Use crumbled matzo instead of noodles, and crushed matzo instead of cornflakes in the lemon-scented topping. It’s wonderful warm or cold, for a “second-day” lunch or a Sunday brunch.

I think we’re good here. One more thing before you head to the supermarket: Bypass matzo farfel and use regular sheets of matzo instead. Their well-done edges add an extra note of complexity to all these kugels.

Saltsman is an author, most recently of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” (Sterling Epicure, 2015).

Sweet Dairy Brunch Kugel

From Amelia Saltsman, author of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” (Sterling Epicure, 2015).

This kugel, made with matzo, is simpler than a noodle one: Use crumbled matzo instead of noodles, and crushed matzo instead of cornflakes in the lemon-scented topping. It’s wonderful warm or cold, for a “second-day” lunch or a Sunday brunch.

MAKE AHEAD: The unbaked kugel needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. The baked kugel can be cooled, covered and refrigerated 2 days in advance, or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil and frozen for up to 1 month.

For the kugel

3 large eggs, beaten

3/4 cup whole-milk cottage cheese

3/4 cup sour cream

1/3 cup sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter or pareve butter substitute, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 cup whole milk

1/4 cup raisins, preferably dark

4 sheets matzo, crumbled (pieces not larger than 1 inch)

For the topping

1 sheet matzo

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

Finely grated zest of 1 lemon or 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 teaspoons unsalted butter or pareve butter substitute, melted

For the kugel: Stir together the eggs, cottage cheese, sour cream, sugar, butter or butter substitute, vanilla extract and salt in a mixing bowl, then add the milk, raisins and crumbled matzo, stirring until incorporated. The mixture will be very loose. Pour into an 8-by-8-inch or other shallow 6-cup baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours or overnight to firm up.

For the topping: Crush the sheet of matzo into pieces that are mostly 1/4-inch. Measure out 1/3 cup of them; reserve the remaining crumbs for another use. Stir together the 1/3 cup crumbs, sugar, salt, lemon zest or cinnamon and melted butter or butter substitute in a medium bowl.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Unwrap the kugel.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the kugel; bake for about 35 minutes, until golden brown and cooked through. Cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.

Per serving (using kosher salt and pareve butter substitute): 280 calories, 8 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar

Yield: 8 servings.

Savory Spring Leek Matzo Kugel

From Amelia Saltsman, author of “The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition” (Sterling Epicure, 2015).

Chicken schmaltz (fat) and rendered chicken skin, called gribenes, enrich this flexible kugel. Dill, thyme or sage work well in the mix of aromatics; green garlic or garlic chives can be used to replace one-third of the leeks.

MAKE AHEAD: The gribenes can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 2 months. The kugel may be baked, cooled, covered and refrigerated a day in advance. Cut into squares (still in the pan) before reheating.

For the optional gribenes:

8 ounces chicken skin (from one 4-pound whole bird)

8 ounces chicken schmaltz (fat)

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons water

Kosher salt

For the kugel:

8 leeks, cleaned, dark green tops trimmed and reserved for another use (about 2 1/2 pounds total; see note)

5 tablespoons frozen chicken schmaltz (may substitute olive oil)

1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or more as needed

6 matzo sheets (7 ounces total)

Chicken broth or water

4 large eggs

Freshly ground black or white pepper (optional)

Leaves from about 15 sprigs flat-leaf parsley, chopped (1/3 cup)

For the optional gribenes: Lay the chicken skin flat on a plate; freeze for about 45 minutes. Use kitchen scissors to cut the skin into 1/2-inch-wide pieces, letting them fall into a 2-quart pot. Add the onion, schmaltz and water; cook for about 2 hours over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, or until pieces of skin and the onion are mahogany brown.

Strain the schmaltz through a fine-mesh strainer into a glass jar, then drain the chicken skin pieces, called gribenes, on paper towels; discard the onion. The yield should be about 1/2 cup of gribenes. Season lightly with salt before serving or storing. Reserve 5 tablespoons of the schmaltz for the kugel; refrigerate or freeze the rest for another use.

For the kugel: Cut the white and light-green sections of the leeks into thin slices. You’ll have about 6 cups.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the schmaltz in a large pan over medium heat. Once the fat has melted, add leeks and a little of the salt. Stir and cook until the vegetable’s color brightens, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until very tender, reducing heat as needed to prevent leeks from browning. Add a bit of water during cooking time, if necessary, to keep leeks from sticking. You’ll end up with about 2 cups leeks. Set aside to cool. Leeks may be prepared up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Break the matzos into 1/2-inch to 2-inch pieces, letting them fall into a large mixing bowl. Pour just enough broth or water over matzos to cover completely and soak just long enough for you to beat the eggs. Whisk together the eggs, remaining salt and a few grinds of pepper, if desired, in a mixing bowl until well blended. Drain the matzos, discarding the liquid. Stir in the eggs, leeks, parsley and most of the gribenes, if using. To check the seasoning, cook a spoonful of the kugel mixture in a small skillet, taste, and adjust the seasoning in the remaining mixture as needed.

Heat a shallow 2-quart baking dish in the oven for 5 minutes, then plop the remaining 2 tablespoons of schmaltz in it. Once it melts, brush it around to coat the bottom and sides.

Pour in the kugel mixture and smooth the top, scattering the remaining gribenes, if using. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, kugel is firm and browned in places and golden on the bottom. Let stand at least 15 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.

NOTE: To clean the leeks, stand them dark-green ends down in a large container filled with lots of ice and water. Let them sit for 20 minutes; add ice as needed. Gently lift out the leeks, shake and pat dry with paper towels. Pour off the water separately, so none of the grit at the bottom of the ice-water bath gets reintroduced into the leeks.

Per serving (based on 8, using kosher salt): 300 calories, 8 g protein, 41 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.