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Author Laura Silver dishes on knishes

Mac Wachtler carries a tray of potato knishes at Brooklyn Knish in Clearwater, which his family founded in 2008. 
The family’s knishes also are sold at local outdoor markets.

Times (2011)

Mac Wachtler carries a tray of potato knishes at Brooklyn Knish in Clearwater, which his family founded in 2008. The family’s knishes also are sold at local outdoor markets.

TAMPA

“For Hanukkah, we have latkes. But Christmas is an important holiday for Jews. Let's harness the knish for its power to harken back to what's great about being a Jew. It's about not feeling left out."

So says Laura Silver before taking the podium at a recent Tampa Jewish Book Festival talk at Maestro's at the David A. Jr. Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Perhaps the suggestion is a little suspect coming from the world's leading knish expert. She probably thinks knishes are a dandy Easter or Columbus Day treat as well. But there's something to it.

For mourning and for a number of holidays, round foods feature prominently for Jews, a gentle reminder of the circle of life. At Rosh Hashana it's the round challah bread, Passover's hard-boiled eggs, and the list goes on. So in December, Silver suggests a little knish-mas.

Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, started at sundown Tuesday and ends at sundown on Dec. 24.

She says every culture has its stuffed dough pastries — "knishing cousins," she calls them — but she thinks the knish has the upper hand, in part because "its unusual name is a charmer." (Whether you eat them with a knife or your knuckles, please don't go silent on the knish's "k.")

Silver's own knish saga begins with an ending. She grew up eating knishes from Mrs. Stahl's bakery in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. And even as a grownup she made the pilgrimage, picking up a bag of potato knishes to take to her grandmother's nursing home, and even noshing a few in memory once that grandmother had died.

And then, in 2005, Mrs. Stahl's was no more. The recipe was sold to an Italian pastamaker in New Jersey and life went on. But Silver wasn't ready to bid farewell to this "outgrowth of Jewish middle class life, the de facto neighborhood food." She hunted down Mrs. Stahl's descendant in San Francisco and learned knish technique. She ventured to the Polish town of Knyszyn (that's "nishen"), a town renamed, so the legend goes, by the king because he liked the local pastries so much.

She mined knish lore, trolling the streets of Manhattan's long-lost Knish Alley and sifting through library archives to tweeze out knish history (including Eleanor Roosevelt's near-knish illumination). And from all this sprang Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food (Brandeis University Press, May 2014; $24.95).

Over a lunch of potato and cheddar knishes from Clearwater's Brooklyn Knish, Silver charmed the book festival audience with tales of this starchy snack, long beloved as a cheap street food. The dough: usually just flour and water. The filling: often sturdy mashed potato with a little onion. But in that Proustian memory-burnishing way, Silver spoke of the refrain she heard repeatedly in her research: "You can't get a good knish anymore."

People's nostalgia for the knishes of their youth, Silver thinks, is linked to mourning "the loss of a time that wasn't so sexy or lovely, but that nonetheless is gone forever." Still, there's no unanimity about the perfect knish. For some it's with mustard, for others sour cream. Some are purists and insist on potato only, and some are more liberal: a curried beef knish dipped in white chocolate (that's in California, natch). For Silver, some of this knish bickering is part of the fun.

"Where there's knish, there's sparks."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

>>MODERATE

Mrs. Stahl's Potato Knishes

For the dough:

3 ¼ cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable oil

1 cup lukewarm water

For the potato filling:

6 pounds russet or new potatoes

1 cup oil

¼ cup salt, or to taste

1 ½ teaspoons pepper

8 cups thinly sliced raw onions

Vegetable oil and flour as needed, for assembly

Turn 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 standing mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out the dough on a 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 an 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.

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.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or tabletop. Roll with handleless 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 to 25 minutes until the knish skin is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest rack of the oven and raise them to the top rack after about 10 to 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.

Source: Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food by Laura Silver

.Fast Facts

Knish know-how

The Wachtler family founded Brooklyn Knish in Clearwater in 2008. Bonnie and Mac, their son Brian and daughter-in-law Angela sell knishes at Tampa Bay area outdoor markets as well as at their own shop at 2551 Drew St., Clearwater. While they aren't willing to part with their knish recipe, Brian, 40, has lots of tips for home cooks. (There's a great step-by-step video at their website, brooklynknish.com.)

Dough: Traditionally the dough was made with duck or chicken schmaltz (rendered fat), but we make it with canola oil. You have to roll the dough out very thin. The oil keeps it from sticking.

Forming: Roll out the dough into a big rectangle and fill it like a jelly roll tube and cut the knishes from there. Cut a 4-inch piece of tube, seal one end and smoosh it down so it's the shape of a hockey puck.

Fillings: Traditionally the filling is mashed potato, but a little more peppery than typical mashed potatoes and firm, not a whipped, creamy mash. We caramelize onions and put those in the mashed potatoes. In New York knish shops you'll see variations like broccoli and cheddar or spinach and potato. The sky's the limit. Whatever your imagination holds. But don't make the filling too soupy.

Baking: We egg wash them but it's not necessary. It speeds up the process of making them golden brown in the oven and gives them a glossy look. Fresh knishes take 15 to 20 minutes to bake; if frozen it's not quite double that time.

Big picture: This is really mashed potato rolled up in pastry dough. It's not a real technical thing, but it's labor intensive. The greatest thing about a knish is that it's this handheld meal.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

Author Laura Silver dishes on knishes 12/15/14 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2014 5:37pm]
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