Sunday, January 4, 2015

Do you know from Jewish Food? Knishes and Rugelach

"To know from" is Yiddish-inflected New Yorkese that means to have a firsthand grasp on something that not everyone can know, because, simply stated, they weren't there.  The term connotes a familiarity in the bones and of the soil, even if one is surrounded only by pavement.  It means to be steeped in, but not on purpose and not through study.  It refers to experience acquired by osmosis, default, or both.  It's not something that can be measured on a test; the wisdom, like the phrase itself, is tethered to time and place.

from Knish:  In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, by Laura Silver

I was wandering around a local book fair when I came across this book. The front cover instantly grabbed my attention:  On it sits a photo of a single knish, baked light golden, and perfectly round.  A knish is a small bread ball, baked with some variation of filling, but most often, potato and onion. This image transported me back to the summer of 1994, the last time my grandmother made them for our family. The Knish is my main connection to traditional "Jewish" food. 

I admit, I do not "know from" most Jewish food.  I did not grow up in an area like Brooklyn, NY, with any Jewish population of which to speak. Nor did I have a large extended family, Jewish or otherwise, or go to synagogue or have relatives over for Passover.   Even many of the secular Jewish people I met in college and beyond who were unexposed to religious rituals often still grew up knowing from Jewish culture, especially food.  What I do know comes largely from memories of my Grandma Fanny's cooking.   Because Grandma Fanny lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was a 12-hour plane ride away, I would get a taste of her cooking during her once-every-few-years visits to us, or us to her.  Often during these visits, she made knishes.  I realize that, like many children of traditional cultures who are mainstreamed into the United States,  I do not know from many things that my grandparents did.  Sometimes I envy those who feel their connections to Judaism as something there but unacknowledged on a conscious level, like their own teeth or hair.  I sense there is much I am missing. My friends might roll their eyes at this statement. They have heard it from me too many times.  I suspect it reflects a Romanticized view of ethnic or religious identity, to think, "this is what it is to be [Jewish/Argentine/whatever-identity-you-wish-to-insert]."

As I get older, I find myself yearning for these connections to tradition, but with the cautious involvement of an outsider. I am from Jewish, but also from Galician* Catholic. I am from Argentine background, but born in the USA.   So regarding ethnic-religious identity, I know from the state of "being both, and".  Often, I observe or consciously have to learn traditions, cuisines, or rituals.  Though occasionally, something in the landscape of life -- be it a smell, a sound, or in the case of the knish, a photo -- triggers a memory that makes me exclaim, "Aha!! Omigod, yes I KNOW that!"  Such it was with the knish.

During this past month's Hanukkah celebrations, I decided to look to my Jewish roots and try my hand at baking Knishes. So I followed the recipe from Knish:  In search of the Jewish Soul Food.  The only modification is that I sautéd the onions. Everyone I asked agreed that this needed to be done.  Verdict?

"Superb", said my husband. His background is Russian Orthodox (Christian), so he knows from bread and potatoes, if not knishes.  And he has never known a bread or potato that he didn't like.

"Very good", said my mother, "but they are a bit too salty. Cook them for longer on a lower oven setting, and don't use so much salt or oil in the filling.  That is how my mother used to make them."

So here is my modified recipe. (For the original, see Knish, p. 223)

Grandma Fanny's Knishes

Kitchen Tools:  

2 large mixing bowls
2 baking sheets 
parchment paper
1 pizza cutter (silicone preferred); or sharp knife
1 potato masher
counter space (for rolling out dough)
1 rolling pin

For the filling:

6 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed and peeled, then boiled and mashed.

1/4 cup of oil
1/8 cup of salt
8 cups yellow onions, chopped thin and sautéed in vegetable oil

For the dough:
3 1/4 cups Flour
1 tbs sugar
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup lukewarm water

Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Make the filling:  Peel the potatoes, then boil until fork-tender. Drain.
Sauté the onions in vegetable oil until translucent. Set aside.
Place potatoes in a mixing bowl. Mash them with the salt and oil, and then add the sautéed, chopped onion.  Set aside until cool enough to handle.

In the meantime, make dough.  When done, shape into a ball, cover generously with vegetable oil, and place in a bowl covered with cloth. Let it rest for 2 hours or up to overnite in the refrigerator.

Take dough out; divide into 3 equal pieces.  Keep 2 pieces in the fridge until you are ready to roll them.

With a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll the first piece into a rectangle. Fill one side with  the filling all the way down the side, about 2" in from the edge, in about a 1 1/2" width line. Fill down till about 2" from the bottom edge.
Drape the side of the dough over the filling, lightly compressing the filled dough as you cover it. Roll it over 2 or 3 more times. Using a cutting tool (I prefer a silicone pizza wheel), cut the filled tube from the remaining dough. 
Take the filled tube and cut crosswise every 3-4 inches or so. (The longer the slices, the bigger each knish will be.) Pinch off the ends, coil the small tube like a snail, and pinch-press the ends together.

You will have a small "purse", which you can guide into a circular shape.  Repeat this process until you have used all of the dough and filling. Then do it again with the next 2 balls of dough.
Placed each knish on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, about 2 inches apart.  Brush with egg white, (or with the entire beaten egg if you prefer).

  Place in oven and bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until the knishes are light-golden in color.


Confession:  I do not know from Rugelach at all. Nobody I knew in my family ever made it. I first saw it at Whole Foods from a company named "Irene's", no less, and I decided to make it out of a craving for something yummy and sweet.  Plus I was on a roll for Jewish baking.

I used this recipe from Epicurious.  I figure that if it belonged to someone's Jewish Grandmother, it must be good.

Verdict: With my sweet tooth, I loved the Rugelach.  Hubby did too, though he favors the knishes.

My mother:  "I only eat sweets when I am drunk." (She ate one tipsily, and seemed to enjoy it at the time.  She now denies having done so.)

Store knishes in air-tight containers in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 6 months, if you do not serve immediately.  Then when you want to eat them, heat them up in an oven or toaster oven (NOT a microwave! This will render them limp and soggy) for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees just before serving.

Store the Rugelach in tins in cool, dry place, or freeze. Rugelach freezes well, so freeze any that are uneaten after 1 week, and thaw before eating.  You can reheat them in a regular or toaster oven at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.

So...What food do you know from?

*this refers to the Celtic region of Galicia, in Northern Spain, not the region between Austria-Russia which was home to many Jews in Europe for centuries.  

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