With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the rearview mirror and Sukkot just ahead (starting Wednesday evening) we're paying a lot of attention to traditional foods that make holidays special. But there's one iconic Jewish delicacy that doesn't seem to be associated with any particular religious rite -- the knish.
Baked or fried, this savory filled pastry started out as humble peasant food, writes Gil Marks in his authoritative Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. He traces it back to a medieval Slavic fried patty called knusz. Eastern European Jews transformed it and eventually brought it with them to Manhattan's Lower East Side, where it still is going strong in delis and, famously, at Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery.
A fun food fact noted by Marks is that a rule in comedy "is that K is a funny-sounding letter, and thus the knish, along with kasha, kishke, knaidel and kreplach, found its way into various vaudeville routines" -- and onto our plates.
In her Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Joan Nathan observes that in its earliest incarnations, in addition to being stuffed with potatoes, the knish might also contain cheese or cabbage. Served with soup, that was the entire meal: "In this country, their form has become daintier: they are now standard Jewish finger hors d'oeuvres," common at bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.
We've heard it said New York is the only place to get a decent knish. Not true. In fact, Angelenos can hold their own in any knish quest. Turn the page for six of our favorites.6. Schwartz Bakery
At Schwartz Bakery, the oldest Glatt Kosher bakery in Los Angeles, established in 1954, you can find a tasty, no frills parve potato knish (meaning it contains no dairy or meat ingredients.) Manager Mark Hecht says the recipe originally came from Hungary: "When you think of a bakery you think Danishes, you think bread, you think cookies, and that's where the Hungarians excel. They're amazing bread bakers. A knish -- while it's not a Danish, because it's a different dough -- it falls into that category, that morning kind of item."
Hecht recommends serving the knishes warmed up. The bakery sells large knishes for $2.50. Mini potato knishes are sold by the dozen for $10.95, but these must be special ordered. 8622 W. Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles; (310) 854-0592, as well as 5 other locations.5. Factor's Famous Deli
With a cup of soup or a side of salad, these big bad boys are a meal in themselves. The $4.95 kasha and spinach/potato are vegetarian and there's also a meat knish, all over-stuffed and baked inside of a puff pastry dough. Co-owner Suzee Markowitz told us the recipe goes back more than three decades, when chef Lily Friedman was in the kitchen. Markowitz recommends eating the knishes with the deli classic Beaver Sweet Hot Mustard. The catering department also sells mini knishes by the dozen. Props to our waitress for a good deli joke: When we said we wanted to share an order of kasha knishes, she quipped, "Mi kasha es su kasha." 9420 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 278-9175.4. Ventura Kosher Meats
Found in the deli case of this bustling Tarzana butcher shop and grocery store are three varieties of knishes for $2.50 -- potato, kasha and spinach-potato, which is one of our favorite noshes. The filling is not mashed, but consists of diced potato nestled in a bed of spinach. The dough is a flaky puff pastry, the same covering that is used in the equally tasty bourekas.
"Some people buy one for lunchtime, alongside some deli, and some people take them home, so they'll buy six," said company president Moshe, who was too modest to promote himself by giving his last name, wanting the store's food to be the focus. In discussing the history of knishes, Moshe pointed out that for poverty-stricken immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, the filled pastry was "something to uplift the soul." 18357 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; (818) 881-3777.