A mid-October fire at a Long Island knish factory has starved the country of square, fried Coney Island potato pies during the lead-up to the once-in-a-lifetime confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. But let’s be frank: this is a mere hiccup in more than 500 years of knish history.
For the uninitiated, a knish is an onion-strewn, potato-stuffed pillow of a pastry born of Eastern Europe and popularized on the streets and boardwalks of New York City at the start of the 20th century.
And it’s a repository of nostalgia and a tether to tough times and the work of American immigrants. So this upset in the knish ecosystem is not just about the absence of square yellow pocket of dough. You don’t have to be Jewish to love a knish, which explains why eager eaters of every ethnic distinction have found themselves disarmed, speechless and gaping mouthed at deli counters, hot dog stands and supermarket shelves from Houston Street to Houston, Texas.
The square knish is no stranger to hardship. The ill-timed fire at Gabila's, the self-proclaimed "largest manufacturer of knishes and knish-related products in the world," is the latest in a string of knish misfortune.
Elias Gabay, the founder of Gabila’s, arrived in New York in 1919 from a town called Niš (pronounced Nish) then Yugoslavia, now Serbia. Two years later, he opened a basement restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Mr. Gabay sold knishes from a pushcart. In 1925, his bid for citizenship was turned down for “lack of knowledge.” The next time around, he used his knishes — his business card introduced him as “king” of potato pies — to become naturalized.
In the 1990s, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani banished knishes from New York City’s hot dog carts on the grounds that potato pies were not being kept at requisite temperatures. (The restrictions were later rescinded.)
And in 2006, Elias Gabay’s grandson and namesake, Elliott Gabay moved the plant from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Copiague in Long Island where it is now run by a fourth generation family member.
Gabila’s didn’t come to be the premier name in Coney Island knishes by having an easy ride, and now the company is vowing to restart production of its square knishes (the round are still available) sooner than it had warned on its online store.
"We are definitely hoping to have the machine up and running the week of Thanksgiving or at worst the week after," one of the store's owners, Stacey Ziskin Gabay, said Monday, Newsday reported, despite the website's warning that it won't be able to produce any square knishes until mid-December.
Eager knish eaters would be well advised to invoke humility and to hope for a Hanukkah miracle. If all else fails, potato pancakes, those rough-edged cousins of the knish and the traditional holiday nosh, are still readily available for home frying from Gabila’s and many other outlets.
Plus, those who are really craving a taste of the age-old Coney Island delicacy can certainly make their own. Here’s a recipe!
DIY Square, Fried, Coney Island Style Potato Knishes
Recipe courtesy of Noah Wildman of Knishery NYC
Yields 12-16 knishes
[Note: Gabila’s knishes are considered parve – neither meat nor dairy. This recipe calls for chicken fat and includes a vegan option.]
1 cup mashed potatoes, russet
2 whole eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 tbsp chicken fat (OK to substitute vegetable shortening)
16 oz all-purpose flour
Plus: 1 quart peanut oil for frying
Put the first four ingredients in an electric mixer and beat until fully combined. Add flour and use a dough hook until the mixture comes together and pulls off the side of the bowl. Wrap tightly in plastic and chill a minimum of one hour, ideally over night.
10 lbs of onions, chopped and caramelized
10 lbs of russet potatoes, mashed by ricer or food mill
1 lb chicken fat (OK to substitute vegetable shortening)
1 dozen eggs, lights scrambled
Salt to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
To slow-caramelize onions, place them in a large metal or glass pan, dress with 1/2 cup of fat of your choice, toss with salt, and place in a 250-degree oven for 6-8 hours, tossing every hour or so. Alternately, place onions in a large frying pan with a little oil and at high heat, keep tossing and moving them until brown and about one-fifth the original volume.
Mix all the ingredients together. Hold until ready to assemble.
Roll out dough to 1/8 inch thickness on a floured surface, cut into long rectangles. Place a small to moderate scoop of filling on one side then fold over, sealing the three open edges with wet fingers. Press down to encourage the filling to hit all 4 corners of the dough. Hold on a floured board until frying.
Fill a deep, heavy-bottomed pot one third of the way with oil. Heat it to 375-400 degrees. Gently lower one or two knishes into oil at a time, do not crowd them. Remove when a knish looks golden, brown, a little blistered and too delicious to resist. Drain on paper and serve immediately.
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And if you’re in New York, you can sample some of KnisheryNYC’s handmade, albeit round, knishes (Still, no worries about mechanical failure here.) at the ribbon cutting for 4 World Trade Center on Wednesday, November 13 at 11:00 a.m.