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Knish Wish

October 13, 2009

I am very fortunate to be participating in this year’s Tournament of Pizza, organized for the second year in a row by All Over Albany.  But it is very difficult to sit down and write lustfully about heavy Jewish food with a belly full of cheese.

Although in some ways it is fitting for this stuffed Jewish thing to be writing about other stuffed Jewish things.  Specifically the knish.

Mrs. Fussy is tired of reading about the food of my people.  And I can’t blame her.  It’s been a long time since the beginning of Deli Days.  But the one thing I walked away with from my advertising career is the importance of message frequency and consistency.  On the up side, after today there are only two Deli Days remaining.

Perhaps I had a knish when I was a very young child.  But if I did, it has been lost to the rivers of memory.  My first memory of eating a knish is a stunning and startling piece of fussy trivia.

As a child in Miami, my family belonged to the big reform congregation, Beth Am.  The temple had a large social hall with an industrial kitchen.  There were large stainless steel tables and counters, walls of refrigerators, and a giant gas stove whose tricky pilot light perpetually made the kitchen smell of gas.

Part of learning about my Jewish heritage found me in that kitchen with a few of my peers, learning how to make a simple potato knish.

Except nobody was in there teaching us how to boil potatoes, slip them out of their skins, and rice them so that the resulting mashed potatoes were light and deeply flavorful instead of gummy and bland.  And nobody was in there teaching us how to use flour, eggs, oil and water to make a rich pastry dough out of the simplest and cheapest ingredients known to our ancestors.

Instead, we were shown to our supplies:
1) An instruction sheet on how to assemble knishes.
2) A box of instant mashed potato flakes.
3) A tube of Pillsbury crescent roll dough.

This was the state of culinary education at the big reform temple in Miami.  It seemed like cooking to me.  And I dutifully assembled my little pouches of dough-wrapped mashed potatoes.

You know what?  When they came out of the oven, the knishes were hot and crisp on the outside and hot and mush on the inside.  I bit into one, and I loved it.  I loved it.  Starch on starch.  White on white.  Pretty much no nutrition to be found anywhere near that thing.  And yet, it was delicious.

Did it hit on some unconscious memory of my cultural heritage?  Was it just tasting something that I had made with my own hands for the first time?  Or was it simply that all the food additives in the ingredients made it improbably tasty?  We will probably never know.

What I do know is that since that first knish I have enjoyed real knishes made in real delis.  Presumably these had not been made from Pillsbury poppin’ fresh dough and potato flakes.  Yet they were still tasty, and oh so comforting.  So, so comforting.

The problem with them is that they are just so heavy.  Corned beef and pastrami are just too good.  I often don’t have any room for any side dishes, much less a knish.  Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially loathsome, and feel like eating myself into a coma, I’ll get a knish to share as a side dish to my sandwich.  And that is more than enough.

If only they were smaller.  If only there were still knish vendors pushing street carts, so you could grab one as conveniently as a hot dog or a taco, depending on which coast you reside.  Hot silky potato snacks are a real treat.  And if that silky potato is wrapped up in something rich and crispy, all the better.

Why this love affair with starches?  Maybe Professor Ted Merwin can shed some light on the matter Thursday when he talks about the Deli in America.  You should come.  I’ll be there.  It’s free and open to the public.  All the details are here.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 13, 2009 9:10 am

    I even went to Yonah’s (sp?) Knishes on the LES to find the best, but I still don’t care for them.

  2. Mirdreams permalink
    October 13, 2009 10:20 am

    My father as a young boy once caught a pigeon on a NYC beach with a potato knish. It was by all accounts a particularly stupid specimen; since he couldn’t find a string to pull the stick propping up his box, he was counting on a bird dumb enough to knock the stick over. New York City’s pigeons did not disappoint him.

  3. NY Deli Man permalink
    October 13, 2009 11:28 am

    Knish Nosh on Queens Blvd. has the best round/baked knishes. The Internet reviews of their expansion are pretty dismal but it appears knish are still the same, albeit expensive.

    I pretty sure “Eats” in Stuyvesant Plaza sells Knish Nosh at their Deli counter.

    As for the fried/square “Gabilla” knish variety, the Kosher Chopper on Central Ave. has them in the frozen kosher freezer.
    Here is how to prepare them:
    Defrost overnight.
    Heat in a microwave for 1 minute.
    Fry in a nonstick pan with a little oil until the skin is crunchy

    I also like putting a few slices of pastrami in a square knish with some mustard.

    Mixing a little Cole slaw in there is also pretty good. You get the contrast of hot potatoes with the cold slaw. Don’t try this on the baked knish though, it will just fall apart.

  4. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    October 13, 2009 11:40 am

    Now I remember the place: Yonah Schimmel’s.

  5. October 13, 2009 5:44 pm

    I tried a knish once in a deli in NYC. Typical over-packed Manhattan type place. They ‘reheated’ it so the outside was warm, but the inside still freezing cold. Not sure that’s how they’re supposed to be, but it wasn’t that great. I think EATS could be a good place to try out.

  6. October 13, 2009 8:36 pm

    What is the Kosher Chopper you speak of?

    • Ellen Whitby permalink
      October 13, 2009 10:45 pm

      Near the intersection of New Karner Rd./Rt. 155 and Central Ave. Pass the Kmart on Central (heading west) and turn left just past the diner.

    • October 13, 2009 11:04 pm

      Oh, Mr. Dave, brave consumer of mysterious packages purchased at Price Chopper… I think you will find the Kosher Chopper quite satisfactory.

      But, you will have to leave Guilderland.

      Be strong. And I look forward to hearing about your adventures with the new found treasure trove of the kosher delicacies.

  7. phairhead permalink
    October 13, 2009 8:53 pm

    i’m a knish slut. i love them all!!!

  8. Ellen Whitby permalink
    October 13, 2009 10:46 pm

    I made knishes once…very successfully, in fact. There was kasha and potato…mmmmmm. I think I might take that recipe out again.

  9. llcwine permalink
    October 14, 2009 9:30 am

    just don’t go to the kosher chopper on Saturday if you are looking to get any of the fresh meats, etc….as those areas are closed.

  10. October 14, 2009 6:22 pm

    Went to Kosher-Chops today, post to follow tomorrow. Thanks for the tip!

  11. Don permalink
    October 14, 2009 8:20 pm

    The problem with the cuisine at Temple Beth Am was not that it was big, nor that it was Reform, but that it was in Miami, where the culinary landmarks are Wolfie’s and Joe’s Stone Crabs.

    Besides, if you’re doing a project with kids, you don’t have enough time to make dough and cook potatoes. (Unless you were in their Day School; then they had no excuse. Blame Jimmy Simon).

  12. Jennifer permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:42 am

    I tried the knishes at Yonah’s on a LES food tour that I organized for a friend. We were so disappointed to find our knishes were being reheated in a microwave. Big turn off. Maybe it would have been better taken home and reheated in an oven but I didn’t bother to find out.

    I grew up in Brooklyn and as kids we used to go down to the bingo hall to get knishes and lime rickeys. They were the yellow square knishes so that’s the kind I think of and crave. BJ’s sells the Gabilla knishes.

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