Leah Keller of Washington grew up eating kugel, but she was used to eating one kugel at a time — nor had she tasted a kugel inspired by an everything bagel with cream cheese and lox, containing smoked salmon, tomatoes, capers and poppy seeds.
But Keller and more than 50 others had that opportunity on Sept. 20 at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, when 12 chefs each brought a kugel to be taste-tasted and judged. The Great Kugel-Off and featured three types of kugel: sweet, savory and unique. Participants voted for their favorite kugels and, at the end, a three-judge panel voted for their favorite.
“I’ve never made kugel before but this will inspire me to make it,” Keller said after experiencing the bliss of pumpkin spice kugel that contained handmade pasta, brown sugar and pecans.
The idea for a kugel competition came two months ago during a conversation between Arlington resident David Taxman and Stacy Miller, manager for EntryPointDC, who was brainstorming ideas for a pre-Rosh Hashanah social event.
“I just love kugel, and Stacy was like, ‘I need ideas,’” Taxman said. “And I was just like, ‘Why don’t you just get people together and eat kugel. How could people not enjoy that?’ And that’s sort of how it started.”
Taxman said even his non-Jewish girlfriend has an affinity for his mom’s kugel. He thinks there is just something about the casserole that puts people at ease.
“I think it’s the fact that your mother probably has a kugel that she’s made, and it brings you back in time,” he said.
Miller said that when brainstorming ideas for the competition, she wanted to have a category for “unique” that would not resemble the traditional potato or vegetable kugels. The bagel kugel, or “Bugel” was one example.
“Even though it was savory, it had smoked salmon, it had poppy seeds … so it was a little bit different than just plain savory,” she said.
Washington resident Blake Martin said that he appreciated the variety of submissions that were not sweet, and that a good savory kugel was the true test of one’s kugel-making abilities.
“The sweet kugels are really good, but I feel like it’s easy to make a good sweet kugel because sweet things are just inherently good,” he said. “Savory is harder because you have to fine tune things like the salt amount.”
Martin, like others, said the Bugel was his clear favorite. But another savory kugel, the Schmaltz ‘N Peppa, was the winner for Washington resident Yoni Barlev. This casserole contained onions, chicken skin and rendered chicken fat among other ingredients, while maintaining a peppery edge.
“The rendered chicken fat is what got me, and the matzah meal put it over the top,” Barlev said.
Ultimately, the Bugel received the most votes and won the People’s Choice award.
But it was a sweet kugel made by Silver Spring resident Elyse Grossman that received the judges’ overall selection. Grossman won a $50 gift card to the restaurant group EatWell DC.
“This really means a lot,” she said after winning. “This was my stepmom’s recipe and she passed away a couple years ago, so it really means a lot that people liked it.”
Grossman’s kugel was noted for its signature Corn Flakes and butter topping, which won the heart of judge Max Bluestein and his colleagues.
“We all gave it a five [out of five] on creativity, and the taste was very good,” he said.
Grossman said she spilled butter all over the floor while making her stepmother’s kugel, but that did not detract from the kugel’s performance.
“It wasn’t hard [to make],” she said. “I had some disasters, but it came out all right.”