This year I got the pleasure of going to Illinois for Christmas to visit my family. This is something I haven't gotten to do in about 12 years. Kind of crazy right? It felt just like home, not much had changed in the small town of Morrison where my Grandma Butkus lives, and where my dad and his 5 siblings all grew up. I had forgotten what my family thought of as Christmas traditions and was pleasantly surprised to know that making kugelis for Christmas was still on the schedule.
What is kugelis (coo-goo-lis)? Well in short it is a traditional Lithuianian potato dish. But there is so much more to it than that. So lets start a little more from the beginning. My Grandmother, Evelyn, told me this dish came from her mother-in-law, Great Grandma Theresa, and was something she would make often. She said that Theresa would also use the kugeulis filling and make it into potato pancakes, pure genius if you ask me. Fun fact, my great grandpa Joe came through Ellis Island after leaving Lithuania. My great grandparents Theresa and Joe (full Lithuanian) were an adorable couple who had two children, my grandpa John and his brother, Joe. A seriously handsome family.
So like I said this recipe originates from great grandma Theresa (pictured above). It comes to me via my Uncle Andy. This is something he makes every Christmas, and it is well known for being his favorite dish. He has been making it for 20 years now. So when I wanted to write a blog about it, I thought who better to teach me how to make it than my Uncle Andy?
It all starts with a package of bacon. This is how you know this dish will already be a hit. You dice up a package of bacon and cook it. Find a good sturdy casserole dish and coat it with butter. While the bacon is cooking you want to start washing your potatoes (about 5lbs). I’ve never seen a cleaner potato than the ones my Grandma washed, the woman is efficient. Then you can crack 9 eggs into a large mixing bowl. To that mixing bowl you’ll add about a half cup of flour and some pepper. Go ahead and preheat your oven to 425. Now the next step needs a little explanation because there are two ways you can execute it. There is the “Lithuanian” way, which is hand grating your onion and potatoes. Or there is the “modern Lithuanian” way which is using a grating machine that my Uncle Andy owns. To his credit he went the extra mile and got an official Lithuanian electric grater, or at least that is the story he is sticking to. So since he was the chef and I the sous chef, we used the electric way. This also helps to avoid the infamous bloody knuckles I’ve heard about since I was a kid.
Side story. I asked Andy, “what can I do next?” and he told me to find a mixing bowl that we could put the grated ingredients in. So I looked through my Grandmas kitchen and found a bowl in my favorite color and immediately picked it. It was this gorgeous teal ridged bowl. I kept making such a big deal about how much I loved this bowl and it was so neat. That’s when my grandma told me that the bowl had been passed down to her from my great grandma Theresa and was easily from the 1930’s. I knew I had good taste.
The next step is to grate the onion into a mixing bowl. And once you’ve got the onion grated into the fabulous teal bowl you’ll then start grating your perfectly washed potatoes. You’ll have this soupy potato onion mixture. That mixture will get added to the mixing bowl that has your eggs, flour and pepper in it. This is about the time Andy tells me I can be the one to mix it. I asked him if I should use a wisk or a spoon and he just smiled and said, “hands”. It was gooey. It was wet. It was egg-y. It was a sensory culinary inaugural experience. While I was mixing Andy added the bacon. Once the mixture was fully hand-mixed we poured it into our greased casserole dish. Put in the oven for 10 minutes at 425 then bring it down to 350 for about 50 more min.
The end result it potato heaven. Its creamy while being crispy, you get the saltiness from the bacon and the pepper gives it the right amount of heat. It is easily one of the best things I’ve eaten, maybe its because its from my heritage and the heart and soul of my family, or maybe its because its just that damn good. I asked a couple people from my family how they would describe it, my cousin Kate said, “it’s like potato pudding, but really really good potato pudding”. My other cousin Mike said, “potatoey casserole of bacon awesomeness”. My youngest cousin Samantha says, “its like a potato casserole thing, but with bacon”. Lastly, Uncle Andy said, “it’s really hard to put into words, but its just a good hearty potato dish”.
Needless to say I had an incredible time. Spending time with family over Christmas was amazing and learning how to make a Lithuanian tradition was just the icing on the the Christmas tree cookie. I hope you'll take the chance to try this potato heaven kugelis, from my family to yours.