Knish is the sort of food that collects adjectives like "humble" and "homey." It's not pretty, but it's delicious and a powerful connection to family and culture.
By: Linnea Crowther
2 years ago
As part of Legacy.com's ongoing Recipe Vault series, food bloggers and network stars share how recipes connect us to those we’ve lost. In this edition, author Laura Silver introduces us to knish—a comfort food that connects her to her family as well as a broader Jewish culture.
Knish is the sort of food that collects adjectives like "humble" and "homey." And certainly, the traditional Eastern European Jewish snack, made of mashed potatoes and other fillings covered in dough and cooked, is both humble and homey. It's not pretty, but it's delicious, and it's one of the most filling snacks you can find. It's also, as author Laura Silver discovered, a powerful connection to family and culture.
Silver, the author of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, took on a massive project of researching the history of the knish after she was hit with two losses. First, her grandmother died. Not long after that, the legendary Brooklyn deli Mrs. Stahl's, home of Silver's grandmother's favorite knishes, closed. The closing of Mrs. Stahl's seemed to make Silver's personal loss more real.
"Brighton Beach is where my grandmother lived at the end of her life," Silver told us in an interview, "and I couldn't visit her without bringing knishes from … Mrs. Stahl's. And I certainly couldn't go to Mrs. Stahl's without thinking of my grandmother. So even after my grandmother was gone, Mrs. Stahl's felt like a portal to her, in a way. I could visit my grandmother's gravestone in Long Island, and place a stone upon it, as is the Jewish custom, but even more potent was going to Mrs. Stahl's, because that's where I immersed myself in this aroma and this ritual we had in common. So when Mrs. Stahl's was gone, that was severed, in a way."
With the loss of that connection, Silver felt the need to act. First, she wanted to learn what happened to Mrs. Stahl's… and find out if she could still get her hands on that all-important knish. She discovered that the recipe was indeed out there, in the hands of Stahl's granddaughters, who shared it with her. But as she was seeking out the recipe, she found herself in a rabbit hole of knish history so fascinating that it fills a book.
"I discovered that my family was in fact from a place in Poland called Knyszyn, so that really sealed the deal," Silver told us. That's pronounced "ka-NISH-en," a lot like the food itself, and the food holds a prominent spot in that town's culture. Not only does the town hold a knish baking contest, but they also attach special importance to knish when it comes to mourning. Silver notes, "There's a legend from the town of Knyszyn that says that professional weepers or wailers, the women hired to cry and mourn at funerals, would pass out knishes." This goes hand-in-hand with a Jewish tradition of eating round foods while bereaved, to honor the circle of life.
The food eaten at times of grieving in Knyszyn is, for Silver, always a reminder of the grandmother she lost: "Kasha knish – kasha is buckwheat groats – it's pretty impossible to eat one of those and not feel like she's looking over my shoulder." But there's yet a deeper connection to be found in knish – a tie to a lost culture. "This food connects me to my grandmother, but it also connects me to a whole civilization that's pretty much obliterated."
Knyszyn, home of the knish, was once – unsurprisingly – a predominantly Jewish town. That all changed in 1941, when it was occupied by Germany. "There are zero Jews," Silver reports. "And we know what happened." When Silver found her family's roots, along with the knish's, in the Holocaust-torn town of Knyszyn, she felt deeply moved to tell the food's whole story. "I counted," she says. "Just in one branch of my family, there were 50 people murdered in the Holocaust. … Just holding onto this food and its history, and finding out more about where it comes from, is a way to anchor myself and my family history – hopefully for the future too."
Through her research and her book, Silver hopes to reignite a love for knish, bringing people together around the food that represents, for her, both a loved one and an entire culture. "I do think something new happens when people come together to cook," she says. "It's a lot of effort, but it's also channeling this long history of love and caring." And at America's favorite food-related holiday, Thanksgiving, there's a place for knish at the table: "Americans are so multi-ethnic that we have a habit of including an ethnic dish at our Thanksgiving table. For Jews of Ashkenazi or eastern European background, it wouldn't be that uncommon for it to be a knish. So you could find a knish on a Thanksgiving table. It fits right in – it's just another form of potato."
If you want to include knish at your family's holiday table, you can use the classic recipe that fed customers of Mrs. Stahl's – including Silver and her grandmother – for decades. Silver included it in Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, and she shared it with us, too.
Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes
Excerpted from Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver, published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, May 6, 2014. www.upne.com www.knish.me
Fannie Stahl’s granddaughters summoned recovered memories to bring this recipe to life. Toby Engelberg, who sold her knishes in the Bay Area for a while, enlisted the help of her elder cousin from New York, Sara Spatz, who, as a young woman, worked in her grandmother’s shop in Brighton Beach. I was there to learn. What struck me most was the aroma. It filled the kitchen as soon the skins were peeled from the first onions, and lingered long after the last tray of knishes had cooled.
3¼ cups flour
1 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water
Turn on oven on low until dough is ready. Mix flour, sugar, and salt. Add oil and water. Mix with a spoon until the dough pulls together, or use a food processor or stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on board and knead it, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece, smooth and glossy. Turn off the oven. Oil the dough and place it in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until you are ready to use it. Let the dough rest at least 2 hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring it back to room temperature before use.
6 lbs. russet or new potatoes
1 cup oil
¼ cup salt, or to taste
1½ tsp. pepper
8 cups thinly sliced raw onions
Scrub potatoes and peel them, unless the new potatoes have very thin, unblemished skins. Boil potatoes for about 20 minutes until knife tender, then drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Mix. Stir in the onion.
Assembling and baking
Vegetable oil and flour as needed.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handle-less rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1 ⁄16-inch thick.
Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place a 2-inch-diameter line of filling about 2 inches from the top edge of the dough. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch strip on the bottom edge of the filling. Pick up the dough with filling and roll again onto the oiled dough, compressing the filled dough as you turn it. Repeat until the dough covers the filling three to four times, being sure always to brush oil on the dough first. Use a knife to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about 6 inches long and coil each piece like a snail. Tuck the remaining end into the bottom of the coil. Alternatively, place stuffed roll of dough onto ungreased cookie sheet and slash with a knife crosswise every 2 inches. Leave an inch of space between each roll or coil of dough.
Bake 20–25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the over and raise them to top rack after about 10–12 minutes. Let the knishes cool in pan. If you cooked the knishes in long rolls, cut them into individual pieces.
Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stove top.
Makes about 18 knishes.
(From: Faith Kramer, “Mrs. Stahl’s Famous Knish Recipe Finally Found—in San Francisco,” j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California, September 27, 2012.)