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Knish Nosh

Like its fellow Europeans steaming in the hot dog cart — frankfurters, sauerkraut and pretzels — the knish has by now achieved a pretty solid standing in American society, such that its ancestral origins are no longer much thought about. Its name, though, can’t help but give it away, what with that distinctive two-syllable “k-n” at the front — the others are German, but the knish is unmistakably Eastern European Jewish.

In Eastern Europe, knishes were almost always filled with one of the staple ingredients of the region: potatoes, cabbage and kasha (roasted buckwheat groats) or, for dairy meals, curd cheese. So it was for centuries, until the massive Jewish migration to the United States. This, of course, was a moment of profound change in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, when immigrants, dazzled by the abundance of the New World, not only adopted many of the dishes of their adopted homeland, but — even more fascinating — worked new American ingredients into their own traditional dishes. Of this there may be no more delightful example than the knish.

For illustration we can turn to “Jewish American Cook Book,” published in 1946 by the Jewish Daily Forward; it contains some 1,600 recipes submitted to the newspaper by its readers, and as such provides us an intimate glimpse into the home kitchens of the time. “Jewish American Cook Book” contains 24 recipes for knishes; among them are the venerable potato, cabbage and cheese — kasha, surprisingly, is nowhere to be found — but also in these pages we can see that the knish has been opened up to the full American cornucopia: Here are recipes for apple knishes, banana knishes, green pepper knishes, lima bean knishes, molasses knishes, nut knishes, pea knishes, pineapple knishes, raspberry knishes, raisin and jelly knishes. The knish was limited, it would seem, only by the imagination — and cupboard — of the cook.

However, this outburst of culinary creativity was, as the saying goes, the light from a dying star. By 1946 the balebusteh cookery so vividly captured in “Jewish American Cook Book” was already an anachronism. In the postwar period, with its heavy emphasis on modernity and assimilation, many traditional Jewish foods were lost (petcha, kishka, heldzl and countless more), while others went into retreat. Among these was the knish, which was rarely made at home anymore. As it was conveniently self-contained, the knish became instead a pervasive urban street food, sold from carts to be eaten out of hand by those on the go.

Given the limited storage space available to them, pushcart vendors turned to the gold standard of knish, the single variety that could be most reliably sold to the widest number of people: potato. In the abundance of America, the knish became even more limited than it had been back in Eastern Europe.

Consumers were left with only two alternatives: first, those knishes found in the freezer of the supermarket, which offered a bit more variety but otherwise were as flat, leaden and otherwise unappealing as those sold from pushcarts; and more happily, those rare shops dedicated to the knish, such as Yonah Schimmel’s of the Lower East Side and Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach. Like scientific orchards preserving the genetic code of heirloom apples, they maintained knish diversity through decades of mass-market homogeneity. Molasses, pineapple, and green pepper knishes would seem to be gone forever, but at Yonah Schimmel’s, at least, the Eastern European venerables — potato, cheese, cabbage and kasha — are still (90-plus years after the store’s opening) fully represented, along with such decidedly New World renderings as sweet potato, broccoli, apple, and blueberry.

Still, as with the scientific orchards, a dependence on knish shops will bring some significant problems. The most telling one, of course, is access. Not everyone lives near a knish shop or one of its outlets — indeed, outside of New York very few people do. And even if one does, the knishes to be found there frankly are not always as delicious as one might wish. It’s far better (not to mention far cheaper) to be self-reliant about this, and make your knishes at home.

Toward this end, I’m providing two recipes below. The first is an outstanding version of what is still — for good reason — the most popular of all knishes, potato. The second, rice knishes, is a rather more unusual Old World variety (two slightly less luxe recipes for rice knishes are included in “Jewish American Cook Book”) that has not yet become part of the contemporary repertoire. Neither one of these recipes is difficult to make, and the time involved is about the same as a longish subway ride to the knish shop and back.

The main difference, in the end (aside from the differences in taste and texture, which are substantial), is that you will have made these knishes rather than buying them. Your family and friends will see you with new eyes, and perhaps you will too, as a worthy successor to the domestic innovators of an earlier age.

* * *|

Miriam Weinstein, author of the splendid history “Yiddish: A Nation of Words,” learned how to make knishes from her grandmother Millie (nee Mirke), an immigrant from Odessa. Unlike the pillowy knishes that have become standard in the United States, Millie’s knishes were made like strudel: rolled up and then cut into pieces. (If you prefer slightly larger knishes, cut them into 3-inch slices instead of 2-inch ones.) Try them as an accompaniment to roast chicken; they’re scrumptious.

Potato Knishes

For filling:

2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and quartered

1/4 cup milk (optional)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped

3/4 cup finely chopped mushrooms (optional)

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

For dough:

2 eggs

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup water

1/2 tsp. salt

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 lightly beaten egg plus 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

1. Make the filling: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain and place in a large bowl. Add the milk (if using) and mash until smooth. Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and lightly colored, then add the mushrooms, salt and a generous amount of pepper and cook until the mushrooms are soft and well browned. Let cool slightly, then add to the potatoes and stir to combine. Set aside.
  1. Make the dough: Place the eggs, oil, water and salt in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the flour gradually, stirring first with a spoon and then with your hands, until it is fully combined. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead just until smooth, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Form the dough into a ball, then cover with a towel and let rest for 30 minutes.

  2. Make the knishes: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper. Roll the dough out to 14 by 10 inches, then cut in half lengthwise, creating 2 rectangles each 14 inches by 5 inches. Divide the filling in half, and spread it evenly along the dough. Roll each dough half from one of its long ends into a long roll, pressing the seams together and pinching the ends tight. Press down on top to flatten the rolls slightly. Place the rolls seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet and brush the tops with the egg wash.

  3. Bake until the dough is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Use a serrated knife to cut into 2-inch slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 14.

* * *|

This recipe comes from my friend Chana Pollack, photo archivist for the Forward Association. Rice knishes were at one time made every Shavuot by Chana’s grandmother Fanny Constantine Pollack in the Ukrainian town of Galvanetskya. (Now they are made by Chana’s father, Moshe in Jerusalem.) Originally Fanny made the knishes with a homemade dough, but in later years, living in Canada, she switched to frozen puff pastry dough.

Rice Knishes

For filling:

2 cups water

1 cup long-grain white rice

1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk

1 tbsp. butter

1/4 tsp. salt

1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, fully thawed

1 lightly beaten egg plus 1 tbsp. water for egg wash

  1. Make the filling: Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the rice, condensed milk, butter and salt. Cover the pan and lower the heat to very low. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is very soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool completely.

  2. Prepare the dough: Roll the puff pastry sheet into a rectangle 14 inches by 10 inches. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough in half lengthwise, creating two rectangles each 14 inches by 5 inches.

  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

  4. Make the knishes: Lightly grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper. Divide the filling in half, and spread it evenly along the dough. Roll each dough half from one of its long ends into a long roll, pressing the seams and pinching the ends tight. Press down on top to flatten the rolls slightly. Place the rolls seam-side down on the prepared baking sheet and brush the tops with the egg wash.

  5. Bake until the dough is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Use a serrated knife to cut into 2-inch slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 14.

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