It pains me to hear people rave about corn flakes as the ultimate topping for a sweet kugel. As a kugel connoisseur, I can assure you that adding a sweet, sawdust-like topping is the quickest way to spoil this extraordinary, meal-defying, dish. If calling it “sawdust” didn’t do the trick, let me be franker: Traditional noodle kugel is already perfect, and cornflakes distract from the work of art that is an impeccably-made, sweet noodle kugel.
Before I expound further on my disdain for cereal-topped kugel, let’s look back at the evolution of kugel. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, Kugel started in Germany about 800 years ago. No surprise, this first iteration of kugel looked different — it was more of a dumpling within the cholent. This practice slowly transformed as the doughy egg mixture was cooked on its own and became more of a pudding (not chocolate pudding, think British pudding). Eventually, other puddings were called “kugel,” with a variety of ingredients like onions and even schmaltz.
Fast forward further and noodle kugel came on the scene (still in Europe) with variations that included rice or potatoes. Next, we see the fun trendy winter culinary option to add warm ingredients including cinnamon, raisins, or nuts to foods like kugel. Though I personally am not a fan of the raisins, their place in history supersedes my taste buds. But cinnamon, cinnamon is non-negotiable. Then, lucky for my fellow sweet-tooths, sugar prices went down and allowed for the magnificence of sweet noodle kugel to be born. Finally, for dairy meals, sweet cheese, and sour cream found its home and the custard-like filling of the familiar sweet noodle kugel we know today came together.
We can be thankful that foods change and adapt over time. Many of our most beloved Jewish foods got upgraded when they hit American shores. Babka, rugelach, and even bagels all transformed into new, and some would argue, better versions, in North America. But not all foods are so lucky once they migrate over continents.
Some kugel recipes really took a turn for the worst. Rather than preserving this already sweet dish, Americans took a rich food and made is richer. American Jews added canned pineapple, cherries, fruit cocktail, and you guessed it: corn flakes. Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye said it best, “Just because you ‘Ameri-can,’ doesn’t mean you ‘Ameri-should.’” This sentiment perfectly applies to adding corn flakes to kugel. While some claim the cereal adds great texture, I contest that in reality, corn flakes just taste grainy and detracts from the actual noodle kugel, which is already perfect.
Look, I’m not anti-texture contrast. In fact, I think it’s one of the best parts about a perfect noodle kugel. But arguably, a good traditional kugel doesn’t need any additional corn flake topping if it is made right. How does one know? First, the aforementioned crisp and chew will come from the top layer of noodles. Next, we have the soft inside — the glue that holds it all together. The mushy, perfect noodles are surrounded by sweet cottage cheese, sour cream, eggs, and sugar that combines into one blissful bite. But the last contrasting texture, the showstopper, is the perfect edges on the bottom and the sides. This is the part that gets cooked slightly more, and that highlights the buttery taste. It’s similar to how brownie edges offer that additional taste the rest of the piece cannot offer. These elements combined are what define the perfect kugel.
I can appreciate the changes that make kugel more accessible while still attempting to hold its traditional form, like a vegan option or gluten-free noodles. But some changes (ahem, those corn flakes) take away from the traditional beauty that is Ashkenazi food’s most evolved noodle masterpiece. From above, you should see the curly noodles, dark at the tips and swirling down, as you peer over the complete joy of this ultimate nourishment, smelling the cinnamon in the air. That is how kugel is meant to be.