World's leading knish expert Laura Silver joins the Clever Cookstr to talk about the storied history of the knish and tips for making knishes at home.
CC: And my understanding is that there is a word root history about the knish that’s specific to that point.
LS: That’s true. Actually, one of the interesting points of my research is a look into Aramaic. And I found out that the world "aknish" means gathering, or in gathering, coming together and, in fact, the word "kanishka" in Aramaic is the word for a gathering place, like the synagogue or something similar. So when you make knishes you can make your own home or kitchen into a holy place, a sanctuary, for coming together. Which could be really useful for people who might be looking toward the holiday with just the tiniest bit of dread.
CC: I love that. I feel like that’s how cooking should always be. I want to get into some of the specifics about how we make knishes at home. Let’s talk about some of the important tips to keep in mind, from the dough, to the filling, to the cooking.
LS: First of all, I’d say pace yourself. Give yourself a few hours. I’ve done it late at night, or made knishes in the morning, but it’s good to get the ingredients a bit in advance. You need potatoes, obviously. The dough’s pretty simple, flour and water basically. I’d make that first and put it in the fridge overnight if you can. Use onions. If you go with a potato filling, please use onions. It will make it exponentially delicious. And I’d say experiment a little. See what works for you. I’ve had people put in dill for that kind of Old World feel. And some people even put some potato in the dough. I heard of a Polish recipe where people put sour cream in the dough. Up to you.You can make the dough first, refrigerate it, and after it’s refrigerated, take it out, knead it, and roll it out really thin. The experts I’ve spoken to say the dough should be thin enough to read the newspaper through. So it takes a little upper arm strength, but I’m sure you can do it. I like to use a French rolling pin, the one with the tapered edges, but surely that’s not necessary. As for the filling, here’s another tip from the granddaughters of Mrs. Stall, whom I met in my research while working on the book. Their grandmothers and mothers were also involved in the knish business and this store was there for 70 years. Their tip is to use oil, more oil than you think it could possibly take, within reason. You have to find your own level, but it makes it taste good. Basically, the original knish was vegan. If you use oil then you don’t have to use butter and it can be vegan. They’ve even made gluten-free knishes, which are pretty tasty.
CC: So there are lots of ways to customize it to be perfect for your meal.
LS: Exactly. It’s fun to make really small knishes, cocktail-sized knishes are all the rage, and I’ve even made some micro knishes. Sort of the size of a half dollar for people who say, “Oh, I can’t. It’s too fattening.” First of all, it’s not that fattening, especially if you make it yourself, you know everything that’s in it. It’s like silver dollar pancakes. You can make silver dollar knishes for an auspicious new year.
CC: That’s perfect. I would love to go to a wedding where there was a passed hors d’oeuvre of mini knishes. That would be adorable.
LS: It’s coming back.
CC: Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Laura. For more knish tips and history, check out Laura’s book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, and join us next time on the Clever Cookstr for more tips and tricks from the kitchens of the world’s best cooks.
Recipe: Mrs. Stahl’s Potato Knishes
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, Sept. 27, 2012.)