Although my family is half-Irish, we are not big on St. Patrick’s Day food here. I should say I am not big on St. Patrick’s Day food, having suffered through a few childhood years of corned beef and cabbage. I lived in Ireland for a year when I was in college and remember the big food groups being potatoes, Swedes (rutabaga) as big as your head, bacon, butter and cheese with sides of oatmeal, biscuits and “puddings” covered with custard which came out of a tin. I also ate prawn sandwiches from a sandwich shop near Trinity College and gyros from carts off the street. In Dublin, I bought groceries daily and set my milk in a bowl of water on a window ledge: when the rare sun came out, the milk spoiled and it was time to make soda bread.
Yesterday, however, I came across a potato knish recipe on Smitten Kitchen (two, actually). Her knishes were so beautiful that I decided to make some, substituting the classic Irish vegetable, cabbage, where she had used kale. As I peeled and cleaned potatoes, I thought of my Irish grandmother, Grandmother Carroll, and was vigilant about removing every spot and blemish from each spud. Then, as I was sweating leeks and boiling the red potatoes, I realized that I could make the knish into a complete meal by adding some finely diced Canadian bacon to my leek mixture, giving the nod to my mother’s birthplace in Manitoba and the bacon of Ireland at the same time. Ye who eat kosher may recoil in horror here, but I imagine that many an Irish housewife in New York tried a knish or learned to make one from a neighbor and sweetened the recipe with bacon or ham in her own kitchen. I will not be offended if you leave out the Canadian bacon or if you only make knishes from your grandmother’s recipe.
I had never made a knish at all before this and I’m not even sure that I have eaten one. Certainly, no one has ever made them for me. I was up against a new dough. The filling of leeks, potatoes, cabbage and Canadian bacon was not unlike soups I have made this winter, although knishes require no broth and Deb added cream cheese to the potatoes. I followed suit with that: when I tasted the potato filling before making the knishes, the potatoes had a lovely sweet taste, coming from the cheese and the barely sauteed shredded cabbage. The tablespoon of butter in the saute pan came through, too.
I followed the unfamiliar directions: divide the dough. Roll half of it into a 12″ x 12″ rectangle (Hey! I know what those look like from painting). Put half the filling across the bottom of the dough, making it about two inches wide and roll it up like a cigar, twice around with the dough. Mark off dough at around 3 and 1/2 inches (basically cut it into three equal parts). I did not fully understand the instructions for twisting the dough, but I managed to close one end of each piece, converting that to a knish base. Nor did I trim the excess dough as suggested: I just let it wrap part-way around and “glued” it with a finger dipped in water. There never was a Dimmick that did not like extra crust or extra dough.
I even made egg wash because I had seen the beautiful browning on Deb’s knishes and coveted it: in fact it was the browning and the cunning round shape with a little filling showing that made me want to make these knishes in the first place. Brushing things with egg wash is the kind of step I am often tempted to skip because then you have that lonely egg white sitting in the fridge and have to start thinking of what to do with it (it may go into the next batch of waffles or pancakes to make them extra light). I dutifully applied egg wash with a pastry brush.
I am pleased to say that the knishes came out beautifully. They looked something like Deb’s with their browned exterior and a little window of creamy potato peeking out of the tops. The crust was thin and crisp, the filling soft and warm and savory. I served them with some warmed applesauce and a pot of Irish breakfast tea, a warming lunch on a soft gray day.
Food notes: For detailed instructions, please read Deb’s second knish recipe on Smitten Kitchen. I used olive oil for the vegetable oil she calls for and it worked fine. I substituted 1 cup of finely shredded cabbage for the kale. I folded 1/4 cup diced Canadian bacon into the leeks when they were almost done cooking, stirred, and put the lid back on. When the leeks were done, I put the cabbage in with them and cooked the mixture for two minutes more. I saved the potato water from boiling the potatoes because my grandmother taught me to use that in yeast bread. If I had been thinking, I might have cooked extra potatoes and used them to make potato bread. Next time: if you are Irish, you cannot eat too many potatoes, or too much bread either. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!