For me, every recipe tells a story that reflects back on its culture, time and place. And when that recipe is Jewish, there is also centuries if not millennia of tradition and religious observance to understand, as well.
The “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks is a new resource combining history, religion, cultural anthropology and more to explain not only what foods such as ajin taimani (Yemenite bread), kichel (Ashkenazi egg cookie) and yakhna (a Persian meat stew) are, but also why they came about, where they migrated from and how they changed over time — often with recipes.
The book also contains listings for Jewish holidays, food customs and a Jewish food history timeline. Marks’ background as a chef, rabbi and historian shines through. For anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish tradition and life, it is a valuable resource. And for those of us who enjoy exploring our own (and others’) Jewish food heritages, it is an invaluable one.
Take, for example, the humble potato knish.
In Marks’ listing for knish — which opens with a quote from writer Sholem Aleichem — he describes the treat’s origins as a medieval Slavic fried patty. He then traces its evolution into “a small, round, fried, filled pastry” and then to the baked form similar to what we know today.
The knish’s importance increased as home ovens became more available, and also when there was an increase in potatoes being planted in and imported into the Old Country — thus creating the potato filling I so fondly remember. The entry goes on to detail the changes to the knish and prominent events in its history after it crossed back into the New World; it concludes with the role the pastry now plays in Israel.
Here is my adaptation (including a spicier Southwestern variation) of Marks’ recipe for “Ashkenazic Filled Pastries,” or knishes.
Makes about 8 large or 36 small
Adapted from “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” by Gil Marks
3⁄4 lb. potatoes
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbs. vegetable shortening or margarine
1 tsp. salt
about 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 lb. potatoes
2 Tbs. oil
2 cups chopped onion
1 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. ground black pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten
egg wash (1 large egg beaten with 1 Tbs. water)
Note: Marks does not specify what kind of potatoes to use. I used large creamers, similar to new potatoes.
For the pastry: Boil potatoes in lightly salted water until tender. Cool. Put through food mill or slip off skins and mash. Use 2 cups of mashed potato for the dough. Reserve extra for another use. In a large bowl, combine mashed potatoes, eggs, shortening and salt. Slowly add in flour and stir until soft dough forms and no more flour is absorbed. Mix dough with your hands if needed. Knead the dough for a minute or two on a lightly floured surface. Cut into fourths, shape each into a round and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
For the filling: Prepare the 1 lb. of potatoes as described above. Use 21⁄2 cups for filling. Heat oil in a large fry pan and sauté the chopped onions over medium heat until golden brown. Stir into the potatoes. Add salt and pepper. Cool. Taste and correct seasonings. Stir in the egg.
To assemble: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a large baking tray or line with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1⁄8-inch thick. For large knishes, cut 5×4-inch rectangles. For small ones, cut into 3-inch squares. Put 1⁄4 cup of filling in each larger knish and about 1 Tbs. filling into the smaller ones. Draw edges together and pinch to seal. Put seam side down on baking tray. Brush with egg wash. Bake until lightly browned, about 20-25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Southwestern variation: Use 2 cups of potato for filling. Add 2 cups of shredded cheese and 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of roasted, peeled, chopped green chilies to the filling mixture.
Faith Kramer is a Bay area food writer. Her columns alternate with those of Louise Fiszer. She blogs her food at www.clickblogappetit.blogspot.com. Contact her at email@example.com.