Now that chametz is back on the menu my thoughts return to one of my favourite treats — the knish.
Every nation has its knish or equivalent — the Brits or Cornish love a pasty, the Spanish, empanadas while the Chinese go wild for a wonton. Sephardi Jews plump for a bureka but for Ashkenazi folk, it’s the knish.
While the knish — which also means “a small person” in Ukrainian — is definitely not common here, those who have spent time in the US will be more than familiar with this dumpling/pasty hybrid.
The snack started its life in the 14th century around the time the Jews were making their way from France — from where they had been expelled — to the Ukraine. At that stage it was a cabbage and meat dumpling wrapped in floury dough.
When potatoes became a common food as a result of a law by Catherine 1st who decreed that Jews plant potatoes alongside their grains, potatoes became both pastry and filling combined with fried onions, liver, buckwheat kasha, leeks, mushrooms and the ubiquitous cabbage.
In common with many dishes, the exact recipe differed across Eastern Europe. In Poland piroshki (as they were known) were offered as boiled, baked or fried dainties with similar fillings while the knishes’ cousin, kreplach, originated through the needs of superstitious European Jews.
At Rosh Hashanah they filled baked dough amulets with their New Year wishes suspended around their necks to wear during Yom Kippur, and eventually these amulets found their way into our soup.
When the Jews arrived in America in the late 19th century, Romanian immigrant Yonah Shimmel began selling golden, flaky knishes from a small pushcart, before opening a bakery in 1910.
The Knishery, as he called it, remains today on Houston Street in the Lower East side of New York. Shimmel’s renowned knish’s size has inflated to a large cricket ball-sized squashed bun, in contrast to its previous dainty Romanian equivalent
And why am I so obsessed with the knish? Is it that melting flaky dough or the childhood wonderment of the secret inside: the hidden filling, which still thrills me? I was born from careful parents who considered every leftover as an ingredient for another meal — like the Jewish joke we never saw the original food. And in the beginning, when my mother made dishes from her past, we had knishes — made either of a flaky type of pastry almost a strudel dough, or if she was feeling energetic, puffy pillows of melting yeasty pastry but always delicate in our home.
And as for the fillings — my mother would always start with fried onions, sometimes fried in schmaltz, then added mashed potatoes and often the meat from the soup mixed with minced wurst. Or she would make a veggie option using soft cream cheese with chopped bright green spinach blended with fried onions and a spring onion finely chopped — the perfect any-time snack.
It is well worth taking the time to make these tempting Jewish heirlooms. Do give yourself a day to do it. Make the dough and filling in the morning, leaving the filling to cool. Then fill and bake it in the afternoon or even better, the next day when the flavour will have improved.
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.
Or for an easier method, cut small circles of dough and half fill them with your chosen filling before folding over one side and pressing down the edges to form a half moon. It does not matter as the flavour will sing whatever the shape.
True nostalgic Jewish food has never been elegant. It will never be nouvelle cuisine-style morsels tweezer-decorated with flowers and micro-herbs. It is generous food created by matriarchs — balabostas needing to fill hungry bellies with restricted resources.
My knishes pay homage to their genius in making the mundane taste fabulous.