Monday, January 11, 2010

Lucky Knish

In the cold and exhaustion of the week before Christmas, Matt and I took advantage of an unexpected drive down to Midwood, in pursuit of the perfect knish. Sure, I won't say we didn't also visit Di Fara (and score the last pizza of the evening before they locked the doors), but our real mission was entirely knish-based. We didn't have to pursue them too long, because our friend and new neighbor Russ, who also drove the getaway car, knew exactly where to look. I honestly don't remember the name of the store, or I'd share (Russ?), but in their kind of sorrowing, surly way, they were making and selling the hands-down best knishes I've ever had. We arrived near the end of the tray, so we took what we could get, which was potato and spinach. The spinach was good, but the potato was better. Since potato knishes are the vanilla ice cream of the knish world, the pure form by which quality is judged, and this was the best potato knish I'd ever had, I have to conclude that these were the best knishes in the world. They also had an unusual volcanic shape.

It was a really, really good knish. (Who am I kidding, they were really really good knish-es, plural. I would not buy just one knish). All the same, even though Yonah Shimmels' are dry and Sahadis' sour, I'm not going to trek to Midwood every time I want a reasonable knish. Before I'd even finished my last knish breakfast, I was planning to make my own.

Jew food is a little like that. While a complicated Indian or Chinese dish usually makes me resolve to return to the restaurant as often as possible, Jewish food is usually simpler, with fewer elements and simpler methods, and given the right ingredients and palate (I was born to it), I can usually make a kasha varnishkes or matzo ball soup as good as any restaurant's. It's not a judgment, it's just a simpler style of cooking. A knish, after all, is basically mashed potatoes in a pie crust, a relative of the pasty and the pot pie.

And yet, I'd never attempted it before. It took the world's best knishes to fuel my need, and the long dark days between Christmas and New Year to yield the time. And New Year is the time to eat round foods and dumplings, for luck and prosperity, in many traditions. In mine, we now eat knishes.

I figured that it would take a few tries to find a good recipe. My online searches (uncharacteristically) yielded ambiguous results, so I went to the library and flipped through Claudia Rodin and Joan Nathan. Many of the featured knish recipes went the flaky route, using prepackaged puff pastry or filo sheets. I finally located one that looked a little more like what I was after in Joan Nathan's book The Jewish Holiday Kitchen.

My first attempts were surprisingly good, maybe not Midwood knish good, but as good as any others I've ever had, and better than many. Slightly underseasoned, maybe, but Jews oversalt, self included.
Like any filled dumpling, the recipe begs to be played with, so play away:

Heidi Wortzel's Knishes
adapted from The Jewish Holiday Table, by Joan Nathan

(I halved Nathan's quantities, as her recipe makes a party's worth and more-the quantities below will still make a sizable tray)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 11 Tbsp butter or margarine
  • 5-7 Tblsp ice water 
  • 1 egg yolk

Cut butter/shortening into flour and salt. Add ice water and blend to make a lump of dough. Knead briefly to blend the butter. Refrigerate dough for one hour or overnight.

When ready to fill, heat oven to 425. Roll the dough into a long rectangle about 1 inch round. Cut the rectangle into 1 inch pieces (or vary the sizes according to inclination, and roll pieces out into thin rounds. Fill the rounds with the filling and twist the dough up like a dumpling to close. Dough will not entirely cover the top of the knishes. Brush knishes with egg yolk mixed with 1 Tblsp water.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Potato Filling:
(use your imagination here)

  • Potatoes, peeled and cubed.
  • 1/5 Tblsp butter or chicken fat
  • 1/5 Tblsp oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • cracked pepper to taste
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten 
Boil the potatoes until tender. Drain.

While potatoes boil, fry onions to golden brown but not quite crisp.

Mash the potatoes until smooth. Stir in the onions, pepper, salt. Taste for seasoning. Stir in the egg.

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