When I lived in New York for 10 years in the 1960s, going to the Lower East Side was a very regular part of my Sunday routine. However, while the name Yonah Schimmel might sound familiar to anyone traveling the same circuit during that time, regrettably, I never came across Mrs. Stahl. That’s because knishes were not part of my regular eating regimen.
That said, being a food writer and cookbook author, Knish (Brandeis, 2014) by Laura Silver was a fascinating read – because I learned more about the “pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough” – but even more so because I learned about Silver’s favorite source of knishes: Mrs. Stahl in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. When Mrs. Stahl went out of business, Silver’s “mourning” took the form of her search for “Jewish soul food.”
Silver has written on food and culture for the New York Times and the Forward, and she is the author of what her publisher calls “the one and only absolutely definitive biography of the knish,” making her the world de facto authority on the Jewish pastry.
Mrs. Stahl’s produced “baked round mounts, each plump with a stuffing, savory or sweet. Each piece – the size of a fist or just bigger – revealed a hint of filling on the top, a bald spot, as if for a yarmulke…. If you cut the knish in half, the cross-section revealed a membrane of dough that split the innards into chambers, like those of the human heart.”
From this, we divert to two of the strong influences in Silver’s life: her Riga-born grandmother who arrived in New York in 1906 and their relationship until her death, as well as the 2005 closing (after 70 years) of the infamous Mrs. Stahl’s, which started her on the journey. “Knishes,” she writes, “were my family’s religion.”
Beginning with the Brighton Beach Neighborhood Association, Silver investigates many New York connections to the knish; she travels to Israel, Paris, Warsaw, Bialystok and Knyszyn, Poland, where she found her family’s roots. She goes to Banff and St. Paul, where she finds groups of seniors making knishes, and San Francisco where she meets Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughter.
Closing her book, she lists the best spots for knishes today, including New York, Michigan, Baltimore, Boston, Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Minnesota. The book also contains many pages of interesting notes, an extensive bibliography, an index and acknowledgments. In between, she recounts her visit to such knish hot spots as the Pasta Factory in Vineland, N.J., which purchased Mrs. Stahl’s bakery knish recipes. Then she tells the story of Gussie Schwebel, a New York knish maker, who learned that Eleanor Roosevelt was going to be in town and wanted to introduce her to the knish, several of which were dispatched at 5 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1942, to the first lady’s New York apartment.
Even if you’ve never been a big fan of knishes, this is an utterly charming book that recreates a bygone world and captures Silver’s hope that “Jewish soul food” is ready for its second renaissance.
In San Francisco, Silver met Toby Engelberg, Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughter and includes the famuos family recipe.
TOBY ENGELBERG’S POTATO KNISHES
3 1⁄4 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water
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 stand mixer (with a dough hook). Turn out on board and knead, incorporating all pieces. Knead until dough is one piece and is smooth and glossy. Turn off oven. Oil dough and place in oiled, covered bowl. Place in oven until ready to use. Let rest at least two hours; the dough should barely rise, if at all. Keeping the dough overnight in the refrigerator is fine. Bring back to room temperature before use.
6 lbs russet or new potatoes
1 cup oil
1⁄4 cup salt, or to taste
1 1⁄2 tsp pepper
8 cups raw thinly sliced onions
Scrub potatoes and peel (except if using new potatoes with very thin, unblemished skins). Boil about 20 minutes until knife tender and drain. Mash with a potato masher. Add oil, salt (not adding all at once and tasting as you add) and pepper, and mix. Stir in the onion.
Assembling and baking:
Vegetable oil and flour as needed
Preheat oven to 450°F. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or table top. Roll with a handle-less, rod-style rolling pin out from the centre until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1/16-inch thick.
Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place two-inch diameter line of filling about two inches from top edge. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a two-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 filling three to four times, being sure to always brush oil on the dough first. Cut to separate the filled potato knish log from the remaining dough. Cut off edges of filled dough. Cut the filled roll into pieces about six- to eight-inches long and coil like a snail, tucking last end under the coil. Alternatively, place roll onto ungreased cookie sheet, and slash with a knife crosswise every two inches. Either rolls or snails should be placed on the pan with an inch of space between. Repeat with remaining dough on countertop. When that is used up, repeat with reserved dough.
Bake 20-25 minutes (starting knishes on lowest oven rack and raising to top rack after about 10-12 minutes) until tops are browned and knishes are cooked through. Cool in pan. If cooked in rolls, cut into serving pieces. Knishes can be reheated in the oven or in a skillet on the stove top.
Makes 16-18 knishes.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant feature for janglo.net and leads weekly shuk walks in English in Jerusalem’s food market.