Ask any Jew of European origin to describe “Jewish soul food” and you’ll likely get one of several answers. For many people, it would be chicken soup (preferably with matzo balls), also known as “Jewish penicillin.” For some it might be sweet and sour stuffed cabbage, or roast brisket.
But for many, including author Laura Silver, the quintessential Jewish soul food is the knish (rhymes with “dish,” with both the “k” and the “n” voiced).
I can’t disagree. I have wonderful memories of my Philadelphia grandmother’s meat knishes: flaky, melt-in-your mouth pastry wrapped around onion-scented chopped beef and liver. They were heavenly.
A hand-held meal
The knish is the gustatory cognate of many hand-held, savory pastries, including the Cornish pasty, the Italian calzone, the Mexican empanada, the Middle Eastern bourekas and the Indian samosa.
Like those other pastries, knishes were popular with the working classes because they were inexpensive and filling. In the early- to mid-1900s, New York was full of pushcarts and storefronts that sold them.
Knishes also figure prominently in my memories of my other grandparents, who lived in Brooklyn.
They lived in the Brighton Beach area, about a half-mile from the ocean. It was always an adventure to visit them, especially in the summer, because we could walk to the beach and boardwalk.
I was amazed to find beach vendors hawking not only ice cream and sodas but also hot knishes. The ones they sold on the beach were filled with mashed potatoes and onions and deep fried – kind of like a McDonald’s apple pie made with potatoes. We never bought them – who wanted a hot pastry on the blazingly hot beach?
Memories of Mrs. Stahl’s
But when we walked home it was a different story. At the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Coney Island Avenue, we’d pass by Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. Mrs. Stahl didn’t sell meat knishes, but she sold just about every other kind: potato, kasha (buckwheat), cabbage, spinach, mushroom apple, cherry, cheese, cherry-cheese.
We’d always buy a bagful of knishes and take them back to Grandma and Grandpa’s for a hearty snack.
Turns out Mrs. Stahl’s, a neighborhood staple since 1935, was Laura Silver’s favorite knishery too. She would go there when visiting her Brighton Beach-dwelling grandma. After her grandmother died, eating a hot Mrs. Stahl’s kasha knish was a way for her to rekindle fond memories.
And then in 2005, Silver was heartbroken to discover that Mrs. Stahl’s had morphed into a Subway. After 70 years, the Brighton Beach landmark was gone.
Gabila’s, the primary source of the square Coney Island-style (fried) potato knish, was also gone (though you can still buy their goods wholesale or online), as were many of the knish bakeries in Mahattan’s Lower East Side.
Silver set out to do some research on her favorite food. The result is her book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.
Silver seeks out the descendants of the great knish dynasties of yore and meets Toby Engleberg of San Francisco, and Sara Spatz of New York, granddaughterss of Fannie Stahl (the Mrs. Stahl) who give her the original potato knish recipe, reprinted below.
She also traces the development of the delicacy back to Eastern Europe. In the process she discovers that some of her own ancestors lived in the Polish town of Knyszyn (pronounced “Nish”), which may or may not have been responsible for the derivation of the word “knish.”
Silver’s book includes a list of 18 places throughout the country where you can still buy a good knish.
A dough so thin it’s transparent
The key to making good knishes is creating a very elastic dough that you can roll out so thin you can just about see through it. Then you oil the pastry as you roll it around the filling; the result will be a very flaky, crispy crust.
My grandmother sliced the log of filled dough with the edge of her hand, which not only separated the individual pastries, it also sealed the cut edge.
If you have a free afternoon and feel adventurous, try your hand at recreating Mrs. Stahl’s potato knishes. Then invite a dozen friends over to get ’em while they’re hot.