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The Ashkenazi Version of Mac and Cheese

While holiday and Shabbat specialties fill Jewish cookbooks, we often forget the pleasures of seemingly ordinary, everyday food—like egg noodles with cottage cheese

Leah Koenig
January 18, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

During my many childhood years as a picky eater, I mainly subsisted on noodles and butter. The hearty combination of starchy pasta coated in a slick of salt-kissed cream was a lifeline for me until I eventually figured out what I was missing and joined the realm of the omnivorous. What I did not realize during all that time as a flavor-phobic child was that my favorite dish connected me to my Ashkenazi Jewish roots.

For generations before me, Jews across Central and Eastern Europe shared my devotion to starch and cream, serving egg noodles mixed with pot cheese as a quick, satisfying meal. Like many weeknight dishes, the recipe for lokshen mit kaese, as it is called in Yiddish, was budget-friendly, alluringly homey, and effortless. As Arthur Schwartz writes in his book Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited, it is a dish you cook “when you think there’s nothing in the house to eat.” Seasoned in the Litvak manner with a copious sprinkle of salt and pepper, as Schwartz enjoys it, or dusted with sugar in the Galitzianer tradition, noodles and pot cheese is Jewish comfort food par excellence.

There is a reason why I never made the connection between my preferred childhood meal and my food heritage. In America, Ashkenazi home cooking has come to be defined by its feast foods, the dishes served on Shabbat and holidays. These beloved, labor-intensive dishes—things like brisket, potato kugel, stuffed cabbage, and matzo ball soup—are legendary in their deliciousness and often imbued with symbolic meaning. They are worthy of their vaunted status. Still, they leave out an important part of the story: everyday food.

“To me, the foods Ashkenazi Jewish families once ate during the week … are the unsung heroes of the culinary tradition,” said Jeff Yoskowitz, co-owner of the old world-inspired food company The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto. He’s right. Everyday Jewish dishes like noodles and pot cheese may not share the bravado of big-ticket holiday meals. But this unfussy, soulful fare once sustained and nourished communities six days a week. It, too, deserves a chance to shine.

For generations, homemade egg noodles played a central role in daily Ashkenazi cooking. “Every housewife owned a large wooden pastry board and a long thin rolling pin like a broomstick to make it,” writes Claudia Roden in The Book of Jewish Food. Making lokshen, she writes, “was once a cornerstone of feminine dexterity.” Depending on where they were being made, the noodles came topped with caramelized cabbage or sautéed mushrooms, got sprinkled with ground poppy seeds or finely chopped walnuts, or were mixed with kasha (toasted buckwheat) and browned onions to make kasha varnishkes. In Alsace, Roden writes, noodles were “simply boiled in salted water or milk and served with butter.” (Be still my childhood heart!)

To understand the deep appeal of noodles and pot cheese, it helps to think of the dish as either deconstructed noodle kugel or an Ashkenazi version of macaroni and cheese. The comforting combination, which was sometimes further enriched with sour cream or butter, was enjoyed by Jews and non-Jews alike. (Non-kosher versions typically included bacon.)

In 20th-century America, packaged noodles became readily available at the grocery store, which meant home cooks made them from scratch less frequently. European-style curd cheeses, meanwhile, became increasingly harder to find, so cottage cheese became the de facto mix-in. Even with these modifications, the dish remained a standout. But as the 21st century approached, thanks to Americans’ growing distrust of saturated fats and desire to move beyond old-fashioned tastes (except on the holidays), it—along with so many other everyday Ashkenazi comfort foods—slowly died out.

And that is a shame. Because along with these dishes, we have lost a connection with important foodways and whole cookbooks’ worth of flavor. One of my goals when writing Modern Jewish Cooking was to reinvigorate traditional Ashkenazi dishes—both holiday and daily fare—and bring them to the contemporary table. There are many examples but, no surprise, I love the update of lokshen mit kaese best. Enhancing the dish with a bit grated lemon zest, a burst of fresh mint and chives, and a handful of sautéed shallots, it tastes at once Old World and New. My bubbe may have raised an eyebrow at such revisions. But hopefully, because of them, my future grandkids will eat it, too.

The Recipe

Mac and Cheese

Mac and Cheese

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