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Knish - Jewish pasties

"It’s heavy, redundant, and resolutely mild — not remotely designed to ignite your taste buds in any way — but, at its best, it’s also warm and filling and deeply, deeply comforting." Grub Street

I think it was the name that sucked me in to this one. According to Jamie Oliver (how would he know? Is he Jewish?) it's pronounced ke-nish which I guess we would all have surmised anyway.

It turned up in a Smitten Kitchen newsletter, which I have to say has proven to be a good source of inspiration on a fairly regular basis.

A while back Deb Perelman, the author of Smitten Kitchen featured knish as her main focus for that newsletter, and the picture shows her slightly non-traditional version. Non-traditional because it's not just a potato filling - or even a slightly less traditional but common, potato and onion filling. No she has dared to add cream cheese, leeks and kale to the potato and even contemplated adding bacon - which of course was a complete no no for a Jewish dish. She didn't but adds "I showed remarkable restraint. (Though, no need for you to.)

And, as I investigated the genre I realised that she wasn't alone in departing from the original plain jane edition, although surprisingly the departures, and the form, were amazingly unadventurous really. One wonders why. A vague kind of respect for all things Jewish? Or are the Americans, at heart, not that adventurous? For today the knish is overwhelmingly an American Jewish - no NewYork City thing. How come?

It's origins go back to Medieval France, when the Jews were expelled from the country and had to make their way to Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe. Well medieval anyway - Wikipedia tells it slightly differently:

"the  ancestor of the knish was a medieval fried vegetable patty or fritter called knysz; eventually it became a stuffed item." Wikipedia

Eventually when potatoes were introduced to Europe, Catherine 1st of Russian decreed that the Jews - probably all her farming citizens - had to plant potatoes on their lands, and so the potato was adopted as the basic filling for a rounded pastry - in the Ashkenazy tradition anyway.

Then in the 19th century when the Jews were once again driven from their homes, and found themselves in America, they brought the knish with them. It was cheap comfort food, sold on street corners on trolleys, and eventually in shops. Below is the Yonah Schimmel Bakery - supposedly the first of those shops, which is still there, still selling knish and the one shown below is your basic potato version. They do have many others, including sweet ones. None of them look that great though I have to say and Grub Street who did a review of the best potato knish in New York said of them:

"If we’re being totally honest, the knishes at Yonah Schimmel leave something to be desired: The pastry is a bit like soft parchment paper and doesn’t quite hold up to the admittedly delicious, generously portioned filling."

Their vote for the best? - This one, from Ben's Kosher Deli. Even that doesn't look that great does it? But then, I think it was Felicity Cloake, who said something along the lines of things that didn't look that great could still be delicious, although I'm sure she put it better than that. Can't find the quote now. Of course.

Deb Perelman was also doing her best to convince us that this fundamentally uninteresting sounding thing was much more that it appeared to be:

"carbs, wrapped in more carbs brushed with egg, baked until flaky outside and steamy inside and filling enough to require the cancellation of all other meals for the remainder of the day." Deb Perelman/Smitten Kitchen

In recent times in fact I have found that David and I are eating more and more versions of stuff put inside two layers of pastry, or a half enclosed stuffing, or even something just sitting on pastry. Pastry anyway because:

"There is never enough crust. The layer of puff, shortcrust or toasted crumbs seems plentiful till you bring your homemade pie to the table. It is only then, as plates are passed round, that you realise your handiwork has its shortcomings, and the beloved layer of pastry, its topside crisp and dry, its underside soaked with gravy, is inadequate.

I tackle the problem today by making almost twice the amount it would normally take to cover a beef pie, and baking the excess alongside. The pie ... shares a baking sheet with a piece of extra crust, shaped and cut into wedges and fork-pricked like a round of shortbread, ready to be offered to those who understand the glory of the crust." Nigel Slater

So maybe that's what it's all about - the pastry not the filling. Although as a lover of potatoes too, I can well believe the filling is worth it as well.

"Anyone who is a fan of this Jewish dumpling has had that moment when you bite into a knish that you think has cooled, when in fact the potato center is still molten hot. It's a truly painful, but somehow totally worthwhile experience. And it's an experience I never learn from and repeat every time I make this dish." Sydney Oland/Serious Eats

What intrigued me as well about this particular form of what is really street food, was that the form was not consistent - in spite of these comments from the current owner of the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery:

“I don’t mean to insult anyone else, but a knish is round, baked and made of potato or mixed with potato. It’s not square. It’s not fried.”

Deb Perelman's recipe seems to me to be a good one to follow and she has clear pictures describing the basic and traditional method

"Purists demand a specific shape made by forming the dough into a rectangle, loosely filling it with the mixture and rolling it into a Swiss-roll shape. Then, like a sausage maker, the dough is given a twist every couple of centimetres or so. By cutting the twists, the little knishes are then set onto those cuts and the upper most twist is then poked in to form a pleated top." Ruth Joseph/ Jewish Chronicle

That said there were indeed a large variety of forms on offer - completely open, partially open, a whole in the middle, completely enclosed - squares, rounds, rolls ...

The one at the top there is from a pastry chef who once had a Michelin star, and, honestly they don't look that tempting do they? The next one is from Deborah Kaloper on SBS, then there's a cheese version from Lorraine Elliott of Not Quite Nigella who always manages to make her food look great and the last is Claudia Roden's recipe from her The Book of Jewish Food, which I'm guessing should probably be the authoritative source.

As to the filling - well whatever you fancy really, although mostly mostly people weren't all that adventurous: Jamie Oliver, who did make his look good - or his stylist and photographer did filled his with mushrooms; and at the other extreme Tom Kerridge was very traditional and stuck to potatoes and matzo meal.

A curiosity. But I guess it's only a bit less plain than a Cornish pasty which is always delicious. Maybe the pastry is really worth it - I think it's a form of flaky pastry.

Just one more thing. In America - well New York - it is traditionally eaten with lashings of mustard. And again, interestingly not even Jamie offered any other rather more exotic things to splash over it. I mean Ottolenghi - why haven't you tackled the knish - he is half Jewish after all.

They say that American food such as this is becoming a bit fashionable. And I'm sure that any predominantly Jewish area of your local town will have some knish somewhere.

Not good for you though. Now that's a definite.

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Knish-knu it must be good for you. I love a bit of pastry wrapping up something quite ordinary making it an exotic delicacy! 🤣

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