In a sunny San Francisco kitchen one recent afternoon, a New York knish tradition was being passed on.
Toby Engelberg was showing food writer and documentary filmmaker Laura Silver how to make her grandmother’s knishes. Engelberg’s grandmother was no amateur; she was Fannie Stahl, founder of Mrs. Stahl’s knishes of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, N.Y. — one of the city’s legendary purveyors of the stuffed, baked Eastern European savory pastries.
Silver, a New York–based knish historian, had been looking for years for Stahl family members and the recipe for the knishes she had grown up eating.
“It was amazing to find Toby. It went beyond my wildest dreams that I’d be making knishes with a descendent of Mrs. Stahl and in San Francisco,” said Silver.
After years of scouring records and chasing false leads, Silver finally found a clue in an online food forum posting by a Stahl relative. Through him, she found Engelberg. And not only did Engelberg have the recipe, but also she knew the family tree and was able to fill in the blanks on Silver’s research.
Engelberg, an architect who moved to San Francisco in 1988, once contemplated making knishes commercially, but said a market for them doesn’t exist in the Bay Area. Now she makes the knishes (using a re-creation of her grandmother’s recipe) for holiday parties and for friends. Her favorites are potato onion, cabbage or kasha (buckwheat).
During the Sept. 15 meeting, a camerawoman recorded Engelberg and her cousin from New York, Sara Spatz — another granddaughter of the famous Mrs. Stahl — at work for Silver’s upcoming documentary on knishes.
All the while, Engleberg and Spatz reminisced about their grandmother’s shop.
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 shop was sold in the mid-1960s, a few years after their grandmother died. Subsequent owners kept the business going until 2005, although a New Jersey pasta company still markets its own frozen knishes under the Mrs. Stahl’s name.
In addition to researching knish connections in New York and San Francisco, Silver has traveled to Idaho, 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 has been supported by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and other organizations. She expects her forthcoming book, tentatively titled the “Book of Knish,” to be published in late 2013, and she hopes to have a rough cut of her documentary ready next year, as well.
Silver is also working on an exhibit about knish history and other projects, but regrets not having much about “California knish-iana.” She said she would “welcome any leads” by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website, www.knish.me.
Toby Engelberg’s Potato Knishes
Makes about 16-18 knishes
31⁄4 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.
6 lbs. russet or new potatoes
1 cup oil
1⁄4 cup salt, or to taste
11⁄2 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:
Vegetable oil and flour as needed
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Roll out about half the dough on a lightly floured counter or table top. Roll with handle-less, rod-style rolling pin out from the center until dough is thin enough to see through, about 1/16-inch thick.
Oil top edge of dough with a pastry brush. Place 2-inch diameter line of filling about 2 inches from top edge. Pick up top edge and drape over filling. Brush oil on dough in a 2-inch 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- to 8-inches 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 inches. 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.