|A real San Francisco treat - Mrs. Stahl's New York potato knishes|
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|
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 email@example.com or through her website, www.knish.me .
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.