Knishes as we know them today were probably created in New York City, modeled after an unknown European prototype. According to Eve Jochnowitz, a culinary ethnographer, in a piece by Erica Marcus of Long Island’s Newsday, the knish probably had its origins in Western Europe and it accompanied the Jews eastward when, in the fourteenth century, they were expelled from France. This dating, says Jochnowitz, explains why early European references to knishes have them stuffed with meat or cabbage: The potato didn’t make its way from the New World to Europe until after Columbus’s journey in the late fifteenth century.
Whatever their origin the word itself is related to the Italian word gnocchi, the Austrian word knoedle, and the Yiddish word knaidlach, all of which are kinds of dumplings. (Some sketchy etymological research on this produced the word “lump” as the meaning of the “gn” and “kn” root.)
The New York City knish is a kind of dumpling, too—a baked dumpling, much as people call apples baked in pastry apple dumplings. It is stuffed pastry. The traditional New York City fillings are potato and kasha (buckwheat groats), although the old-timers of my youth also liked dusty dry liver knishes. That palate and that taste are gone, and today we have flavors like spinach and broccoli, usually blended with the potato. I’m told the popularity of broccoli is about to exceed pure potato. Sweetened cheese knishes have been around for decades—Yonah Schimmel started making them in his bakery on Houston Street. But, as Erica Marcus remarks, at least there are no sun-dried tomato knishes—yet.
In the classic knish, the pastry encloses only the bottom and sides of the filling, leaving the top of the filling exposed. But there are various styles, including a strudel style in which the filling is made into a pastry-wrapped roll, then sliced. The first knishes were baked, as most delicatessen knishes are today.
Schimmel, a Romanian immigrant, began selling knishes from a pushcart in 1890, just as Eastern European foods were being introduced into the previously German-style Jewish delicatessen. In 1910, he opened the bakery (he called it a knishery) where it stands today, on Houston Street, near the corner of Chrystie Street.
Schimmel’s knishes have had their ups and downs over the years. When I was a boy in the 1950s, it was a regular pit stop for my father and me on our Sunday morning food adventures, but we stopped as much for the glasses of cold borscht and “sour milk,” a kefir-like drink, as for the knishes, which were not as good as those we could buy at our local Brooklyn delicatessen. Today, the knishes are back to delicious form thanks to the current proprietor, Alex Volfman.
In 1921, Elia and Bella Gabay created a different kind of knish, a square knish totally enclosed by a heavier, thicker casing and deep fried. The company, Gabila & Sons Knishes, which is still going strong, now produces more than one and a half million knishes a year, and says it is “The Original Coney Island Square Knish.” The operative word in the claim, however, is “square.” Many other knishes were sold on the beach, and Gabila & Sons’ were not the first.
Knishes for some strange and unknown reason became popular on the Atlantic Ocean beaches and boardwalks of Brooklyn early in the twentieth century. Not just in Coney Island, but in Brighton Beach, which is the residential and beach area next to Coney Island, and all the way out to the boardwalk of Long Beach, which is in Nassau County on Long Island. How a hot item like a knish was deemed appropriate food for stifling New York City summer days is one of the mysteries of the universe. Could it be its manageable size, and that it is self-contained? They were enormously popular, one of the enticing features of going to the beach. Knish stands, often selling hot dogs as well, lined the boardwalks. And hawkers even walked the sand to sell them to the beach-blanket crowd.
The last of the Brighton Beach knisheries, Mrs. Stahl’s, opened in 1935 and closed in 2003, although the knishes are still made and sold wholesale. Les Green, the current owner, explained that the Russian community of today’s Brighton Beach (often called Little Odessa) doesn’t eat knishes. Most of his customers were coming from far away to stock up. So he sells them now to delicatessens, restaurants, and take-out shops in the suburban diaspora.
That Gabila & Sons knishes were made to withstand reheating—and that knishes go so well with a hot dog—does, however, explain how potato knishes came to be one of New York City’s most popular street foods, split and spread with mustard or not. Knish carts were common on the streets of Manhattan before World War II, and after the war Gabila & Sons knishes were sold from the same carts as Sabrett’s hot dogs. For supposed health reasons, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration banned them from the hot dog carts in the mid 1990s, leaving hot dogs bereft of their traditional starch accompaniment, and New Yorkers just plain bereft. We never lost a New Yorker, or even, more importantly, a tourist, to a knish. But go fight City Hall.
Make the filling:
Peel the potatoes, cut them into chunks, and place them in a large pot, covered with cold water by about an inch. Bring the water to a boil. Cook the potatoes until very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the chunks. Drain immediately in a colander.
Using a food mill with the medium blade or a ricer (do not use a food processor), work the potatoes into a smooth puree. Stir in 3 teaspoons of the salt (1 tablespoon) and the pepper.
While the potatoes cook, fry the onions. In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil over fairly high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the onions and fry over medium-high heat, stirring regularly, until the onions are well wilted, about 8 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, and continue to fry, stirring only occasionally, until the onions begin to brown. (This could take as long as another 20 minutes.) As they cook, season the onions with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
Stir the onions into the mashed potatoes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper (I like mine peppery). Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Make the dough:
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the water, oil, eggs, salt, and pepper. Process briefly to mix well.
Add 3 cups of the flour and the baking powder.
Process again until the dough is smooth.
Flour a work surface with some of the remaining flour, and scrape the dough out onto the surface. Knead the dough briefly, just a minute or so, incorporating just enough additional flour to make a very slightly sticky dough. Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic, and let it rest at room temperature for an hour before rolling it out.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Cut the dough into four pieces. Roll out one piece at a time to a rectangle about 18 inches long and 8 inches wide. The long side of the dough should be facing you.
Gather some of the potato mixture in your hand and make a long, approximately 2-inch wide roll of potato along the long side of the dough, about 2 inches from the bottom edge. Bring the bottom edge of the dough over the potato roll and brush the upper edge with egg. Bring the upper edge of the dough over the egg-washed edge.
Repeat with the remaining dough.
Transfer the rolls to lightly greased baking sheets, seams down. Brush the logs with the beaten egg.
Bake until golden, about 50 minutes.
To serve, cut the rolls into 1- to 1½-inch crosswise pieces.