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American food writer Suzanne Hamlin sent me a piece she wrote about the knish, which she calls New York’s favorite nosh. She says: “If you’ve never eaten a knish you can’t call yourself a New Yorker. If you’ve only eaten one you probably didn’t get the right one. They were sold from pushcarts at the turn of the century. Now there are knisheries, knish nosh establishments, and knish kings, but they are still sold on the street. In Russia and Eastern Europe they were small. In New York they have become huge, like big oversized buns the size of a squashed tennis ball with a thin crisp crust. You also find them as dainty little canapés, sometimes made with strudel dough, and just about everything is used as filling, from liver, chicken, mushrooms, and nuts to spinach and rice. But the favorites are still the old traditional onion and mashed potatoes and kasha [buckwheat groats].”
In France the pies are known by their Russian name, “piroshki,” and also as “beiglach.” Pies are legendary in Russian folklore and fairy tales. They are usually served as zakuski, and sometimes to accompany soup. Pir means “feast” in Russian, and they are indeed special‑occasion foods. For the Jews they were the ideal bites to pass around at events such as a circumcision; a Shalom Zachor, the first Friday evening after the birth of a boy to welcome him into the family; a pidyon ha‑ben or “redemption” of a firstborn boy, a month after his birth; and of course betrothals, bar mitzvahs, and the like.
Various doughs are used to make these pies. In New York the pastry is made with egg or potato‑based. In France they use puff, shortcrust, and a yeast dough. Traditional fillings are meat, chicken liver, mashed potatoes, kasha, mushroom, curd cheese, cabbage, sauerkraut, salmon, and a sweet rice cooked in milk.
Reprinted with permission from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York, published by Knopf.