In a tiny shop here, an entrepreneurial family is giving an old-world staple a new look. The knish, a baked round concoction of soft dough stuffed with potatoes or buckwheat groats known as kasha, reputedly originated in Russia or Poland.
Brought first to New York by waves of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, the knish (pronounced ka-nish) has gained widespread popularity across the United States and elsewhere. Now, Bonnie and Mac Wachtler have tweaked the crusty European comfort food and are gaining fans in the Tampa Bay area.
The couple owns and operates Brooklyn Knish on Drew Street west of U.S. 19. Along with their son Brian, they spend most days rolling lengths of dough and mixing vats of assorted stuffings. The traditional potato or kasha fillings are on hand, but so are newer fillings, including jalapeno, potato and cheddar cheese, corned beef and slaw, and a Greek-style feta cheese and spinach mixture.
"We've always had it in our heads to try every ethnic group," said Brian Wachtler. "We'd like to try a Thai chicken knish and a Cuban black beans and rice one."
On a recent morning, Brian rolled a chicken pot pie stuffing into a 48-inch length of dough. He measured four fingers across, then cut off a segment, pinched one side and left a circle of stuffing visible on the other.
"My Russian-born mother would roll over in her grave," said Bonnie Wachtler, a New York native and first generation American. "To her, a knish contained only potatoes or kasha."
Bonnie began baking knishes for her family some 15 years ago, using a recipe from her late maternal grandmother, Faye Sussman. The problem with the recipe, she said, was that Sussman measured loosely in terms of a bissel, a Yiddish term meaning "a little bit" or "to taste."
The basic ingredients included flour, eggs, a little vinegar and chicken fat for the dough, although Bonnie uses vegetable oil for a more health-conscious clientele. Her grandmother's knishes were stuffed with seasoned mashed potatoes or kasha and caramelized onions. Now Bonnie adds an array of other ingredients.
"I have all my family looking through recipes to shoot me ideas on what to put in the knish," Bonnie said.
The idea of taking the family's updated knishes public arose almost three years ago at the St. Petersburg farmer's market, where the couple shopped for produce. Mac thought selling knishes there might work.
After sampling the Wachtlers' wares, the market managers got on board and the business was born. The couple began rolling hundreds of knishes a day in the kitchen of Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater in preparation for the weekend market.
When the crusty treats quickly sold out, the family, including daughter-in-law Angela and daughter, Allison, expanded their markets, toting trays of knishes at various times to eight Tampa Bay area markets and to Jacksonville as well. They bring along a small propane gas oven to heat up the knishes.
Three months ago, Mac and Bonnie purchased their current shop, a former pizza parlor, which they gutted and painted before opening their doors to the hungry and curious. Mostly, they prepare knishes for markets, but they also serve them for lunch and takeout. A knish costs from $3.50 to $4.50.
"We're looking to educate the younger generations as to what a knish is and what it can be," Mac said.