Posts Tagged ‘Noodle Pudding’

Irene

Noodle Kugel

“Her Mother’s” kugel

Irene was a woman of few vices. Unfortunately they were also her main skills.

She puffed unfiltered “Herbert Tareyton” cigarettes like an ocean liner smokestack. She played high stakes canasta, a game that kept her both hot footing it from country club to country club, and—she claimed—paid for her yearly cruise to the Bahamas on the “Oceanic”, where—she claimed—she made enough at Bingo to “…buy a few odds and ends.” (That was code for jewelry.)

Irene was many things to many people, but one thing to five gentlemen in particular—a wife. (Serially, not concurrently.)

I was too young to remember more than the last unfortunate gentleman, but rumor had it that husband number one had been a major player in the Mayer Lansky organization. In legal terms, he “pre-deceased” her. Somewhere along the line—and again I am vague on particulars—one of them performed the proverbial “going-out-for-a-pack-of-cigarettes-and-never-coming-back” exit trick. Five husbands? One can only admire her persistence.

She wafted through our lives like a smoky, Jean Natè-scented, strawberry-blonde powder puff of tobacco smoke. My Mother had “inherited” her from my Grandmother with whom Irene had been best buds in high school, a math equation that I could never quite reconcile in my head.

You have to admire people like Irene. She lived and breathed the philosophy that when you wake up Tuesday morning, Monday never happened. Don’t look back. I seem to remember her saying that, punctuating the declaration with a single, staccato, phlegmy cough.

If your memories of your life are like disjointed scraps pasted into a book, then here’s another one: one day after school I was sitting in the den watching “The Three Stooges” and furtively eating a piece of chocolate rugalach I had swiped from the “girls” dessert tray. The “girls”? My Mother was hosting a friendly, informal card game in the living room. Over the cackling I heard Irene’s voice yell, “Always play the ace, Lois!” From the girlish joy in her voice it may as well have been a gospel hymn, and this bit of advice has stuck with me all these years. I had no idea what it meant, or how to apply it, but I was positive that someday, somewhere, it would come in handy. “Always play the ace, Lois!”

Don’t look back…unless it’s cards.

Irene had no children of her own, so she doted on my Mother who served as Irene’s de facto “borrowed” daughter. However, I’m not positive she ever learned my name because I was always “Kiddo” as in “Kiddo, hand Auntie Irene her purse.” The latter was a task I didn’t particularly mind because I had an almost perverse fascination with its contents. Yet the purse itself seemed intent on keeping Irene’s secrets, as access was controlled by a substantial brass clasp that required more strength to open than my little hands could manage. I’d hand her the purse, she would withdraw whatever tobacco, lipstick, or tissue-related item was needed, and close it with a snap that sounded like the door locks on her Coupe de Ville. For all I knew, the purse could actually have been her Coupe de Ville, magically transformed into a purse when she came inside the house. I never thought to check the street outside to see if the two things co-existed. (You can tell that my other television vice at the time was “Dark Shadows.”)

On select Friday nights Irene would show up for dinner, Dorothy Muriel’s corn muffins, and a box of warm, salted cashews in hand. She would sit and eat our roasted chicken and suck the bones like she was willing them to melt. My Mother informed me that this was because Irene had grown up poor. On the rare occasions I’d been to her high-rise 60’s brocade boudoir there was no evidence that anything in the kitchen had actually been touched, save for a whistling tea kettle and a half empty jar of instant Maxwell House. Clearly her favorite spot for dinner was “out.”

Irene would inevitably tag along with us to temple on the Jewish High Holidays—a yearly ritual also known in our reform temple as Jewish Fashion Festival. On these occasions Irene would forgo the corn muffins and cashews in favor of what she referred to as “her Mother’s” Lokshen Kugel, the noodle pudding that launched a million Jewish Pyrex baking dishes.

The trick to serving Irene’s kugel was to not serve it at all. It was inedible. As implausible as it sounds, her kugel managed to be too wet yet somehow too dry, too bland, yet somehow cloyingly sweet. The only evidence of any custard was a stray curd of cottage cheese here or there. The crunchy noodle topping that many prize was a minefield of potential dental damage. My Mother served it the first year or two, then in subsequent years left it in the oven and as we finished the big holiday meal would “find” the forgotten kugel and exclaim, “Irene! We forgot your kugel! Should we serve it now? Is everyone still hungry? No? I know! We’ll wrap it and have it tomorrow—Irene, make sure I give you some to take home.”

She should have been on the stage, my Mother. But somewhere, deep down, I don’t think Irene was buying the act. I doubt she took it as a “ding” against her cooking skills, for she never claimed to have any. (Yes the other, more tragic, thought was that the kugel was exactly how her Mother had made it.) But it was Irene’s next step that, from my adult perspective, helped all questions about Irene jell into an answer.

The next year she showed up again with “her Mother’s” kugel. I found out while conducting my inspection of the kitchen (a/k/a stealing food before dinner). I saw my Mother stacking what looked like little muffins on a platter. My hungry glance asked and my Mother answered, “Irene brought little kugels.” Then, sotto voce, “I tried one. They’re good!”

Indeed they were. Irene insisted nothing had changed, that it was still “her Mother’s” kugel, just that she’d made little ones in a muffin tin “…and it made all the difference in the world.” But an outside hand had obviously been at play…she was palming cards from a deck hidden up one of the sleeves of her nubby silk suit.

For one thing, each little kugel was just the right mix of silky custard and noodle. There was just the slightest hint of sweetness. In addition to the crunchy noodles on top, there was what looked like a streusel topping, except made from broken matzo—again, just a hint of sweetness, and a toasty crunch that was no threat to your teeth. Clearly Irene was the turnaround queen, for “her Mother’s” kugel became the hotly anticipated side dish for several High Holiday seasons.

After Irene joined the great Canasta game in the sky, my Mother went to work cleaning out the brocade boudoir. Going through Irene’s desk in search of other paperwork she came across her appointment book and found an entry for early September that said simply, “Order kugel.” Hmmm.

The mystery seemed to have run to ground until the final days of cleaning out the boudoir when “Glady”, Irene’s cleaning woman, came in to do one final vacuum of the brocade. She and my Mother started reminiscing about Irene, when my Mother noted the lovely array of jewelry “Glady” wore.

“Glady” explained, “They’re all from Mrs. Irene. Every time I make the kugel she give me jewelry!”

“Always play the ace, Lois!”

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Here’s the recipe for “Her Mother’s” kugel

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