Saturday, October 13, 2012

Knishing Cousins Share Potato Knish Recipe and History (Oh, and it's Blog Appetit's Seventh Anniversary!)

I can't believe today is Blog Appetit's seventh anniversary - thanks everyone for the help, support, advice and readership over the years.  Watch for a celebration post.  Meanwhile, please enjoy this special post (and potato knish recipe), my 695th. -- Faith

A real San Francisco treat - Mrs. Stahl's New York potato knishes
In a sunny San Francisco kitchen one recent afternoon, two cousins passed on a New York knish tradition.

Toby Engelberg and her cousin Sara Spatz were showing food writer and documentary filmmaker Laura Silver how to make their grandmother’s knishes. Engelberg’s grandmother was no amateur knish maker; she was Fannie Stahl, founder of Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, one of the city’s legendary purveyors of the stuffed, baked Eastern European savory pastries.

Silver, a New York-based knish historian and expert, had been looking for years for Stahl family members and the recipe for the knishes she had grown up eating. To Silver the plump dough circle is more than just food. It is a “catalyst for talking about memories” and “a vehicle for nostalgia.” 

“It was amazing to find Toby. It went beyond my wildest dreams that I’d be making knishes with a descendant of Mrs. Stahl and in San Francisco,” said Silver, who had come West just to meet Engelberg and learn to make her knishes.

Silver had spent years tracing records and false leads for Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes only to find a clue on an on-line food forum posting by a Stahl relative. Through him, she found Engelberg. They had an “instant connection” and not only did Engelberg have the recipe, she was the family genealogist and was able to fill in the blanks on Silver’s research.
Laura Silver (left), Sara Spatz and Toby Engelberg with knishes
“The fillings are what I remember,” Engelberg said. She prefers the traditional fillings such as potato onion, cabbage or kasha (buckwheat) and is still tweaking her re-creation of her grandmother’s recipe. Working with Silver was “a great chance to get our story correct,” she said.

Engelberg, an architect who moved to San Francisco in 1988, once contemplated making knishes commercially, but she said the market for her hand-made savory pastries was not there. Now she makes the knishes for her annual holiday parties and for friends “who are really into it.” 

A camerawoman recorded Engelberg at work for Silver’s documentary on the Eastern European filled pastry. The dough was stretched out whisper-thin on the slate counter of her kitchen. Engelberg, often consulting with Spatz (who came from New York to participate), would spread a line of filling across the top, brush the dough with oil and turn the dough over until the pastry encased the stuffing. After a few more turns, the filled rope of dough was ready to be cut, shaped and baked into Mrs. Stahl’s famed knishes. With Silver helping out, the cousins made dozens of knishes for a party that night filled with appreciative friends who shared their own knish memories.

Mrs. Stahl began selling her knishes on the beaches and boardwalks of Brooklyn in the 1920s. By 1935 she had opened her shop in the Brighton Beach neighborhood. The cousins, daughters of the youngest and oldest of Stahl’s five children, reminisced about their grandmother’s shop including the machines that stretched and rolled the dough and the workers hand shaping the knishes at giant tables. The shop was sold in the mid-1960s a few years after their grandmother died. Subsequent owners kept the business going until 2005 when it closed for good, although a New Jersey pasta company still markets its frozen knishes under the Mrs. Stahl’s name to food service and other accounts.

In addition to researching knishes connections in New York and San Francisco, Silver has traveled to Minnesota, Poland and elsewhere on the trail of historic and modern knish makers.

“There’s a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer about Yiddish that says the language is dying but it is never dead,” Silver said. “You can say the same thing about knishes.”

Her work in chronicling and celebrating the knish’s history while trying to introduce new eaters to the pastry has been supported by several organizations, including the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her book, tentatively entitled the “Book of Knish,” is on track to be published late next year by Brandeis University Press. She hopes to have a pilot of her documentary ready to debut next year as well.

Silver is also working on an exhibit about knish history and other projects and invites folks to share their knish stories and local resources. Silver can be contacted at or through her website, .

Below is Engelberg's recreation of her grandmother's potato knish.  For a different style of potato knish, see this post and recipe on Blog Appetit.

Toby Engelberg's Potato Knishes
Makes about 16-18 knishes, depending on size
These ethereal pastries are Toby Engelberg’s re-creation of the family potato knish recipe from Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes. The recipe uses a strudel-like dough for the outer wrapper. (Some of Mrs. Stahl’s competitors used other styles of wrappers and had different methods of filling and cooking their knishes.)
After filling the dough, Engelberg cuts it into 6-8” lengths and winds them into coils before baking. You can also just score the wrapper into 2” sections and bake without shaping.  
3 1/4 cups flour
1 Tbs. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water
Turn on 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 2 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.  
Potato Filling
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 the new potatoes have 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 the Knishes
Vegetable oil as needed
Flour as needed
When you are ready to prepare knishes, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or table top. Roll with straight (handle-less, rod-style) rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1/16” thick.  
Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place 2” diameter line of filling about 2" from top edge. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2” 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 6 – 8” 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 2”. 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 until knish wrapping is browned and knishes are cooked through. Start knishes on lowest oven rack and raise to top rack after about 10-12 minutes. 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.
A slightly different version of this post first appeared in the j. weekly.


Kitchen Riffs said...

Seven years? Congrats! That's quite an achievement. Nice knishes! I haven't commented much recently, but I'm still reading. Anyway, thanks for 7 years of terrific writing, and let's look forward to years and years more.

FJKramer said...

Nice to hear from you Kitchen Riffs - thanks for your readership and support.

Sara Floor Miller said...

Oh wow, great post. I have been hungry for knish lately, I just may have to make them myself. Wonderful post that truly does tell a story! Hope to meet you at Food Buzz!

Angela said...

I love your blog! You should totally post some of your stuff on

My friends and I use it all the time to find random food blog stuff. Anywho, cool site!