When I was growing up in the hardscrabble world of 1980s Brooklyn, knishes were as ubiquitous as pizza, bagels, or any of the other foods my people will gladly give obnoxious lectures about regardless of whether or not we’ve been asked. Before the city was full of food trucks selling lobster rolls and $20 grilled cheese sandwiches, the sidewalk nosh racket was dominated by hot dog carts. If you weren’t in the mood for a sumptuous Sabrett that had spent hours floating in a steaming vat of cloudy hot dog water, you could get a stale pretzel that might have been picked at by a pigeon, or you could opt for a knish. If none of these options appealed to you, you could go fuck yourself.
And so the knish—those tender rectangles of onion-flecked mashed potatoes wrapped in slightly flaky mustard-yellow dough— became a staple of every New Yorker’s diet. We ate them warm, we ate them cold, we split and griddled them, we schmeared them with Gulden’s (brown being the only acceptable kind of mustard to serve with knishes). Then, beginning in 1996, knishes began to disappear from the streets of New York thanks to former mayor/current gargoyle Rudy Giuliani, whose administration told the city’s beloved hot dog carts to 86 the knishes… or else.
When Giuliani assumed office in 1994, he began addressing “quality of life” issues that would gradually strip the city of its charm and make it more hospitable place to billionaires. He banned dancing, he banned ferrets, and in 1996 he effectively banned hot dog carts from selling knishes by adding cooked potatoes to the health department’s list of potentially hazardous foods. If the pushcart owners were unable to pony up several thousand dollars for bigger, fancier contraptions with ovens and running water, plus some extra scratch to cover the additional “processing” permit needed to legally heat up knishes, they needed to leave knishes behind, lest they suffer the wrath of the Department of Health.
Plenty of New York hot dog heroes scoffed at these new regulations, continuing to sell knishes in the eleven months per year when they weren’t due for their annual inspection. But in 1998 Giuliani appointed a new health commissioner who unleashed an army of inspectors on the city’s hot dog carts, barraging them with surprise inspections in a crusade to rid the streets of lukewarm knishes. Those caught with unlicensed knishes were fined and threatened with confiscation of their carts.
It’s been over twenty years since knishes faded away from daily life in New York City. Although their popularity is a fraction of what it once was, they can still be found in delis, ballparks, and in the city’s few remaining knisheries, like Yonnah Schimmel on the Lower East Side, or Knish Nosh in Queens. They are not gone nor have they been forgotten—they’ve merely been cruelly separated from their soulmate, the dirty water dog. It’s about damn time we brought them back together.
- 725 g flour (about 5 cups)
- 1½ Tbsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp. turmeric
- ¾ cup canola or vegetable oil
- 1¼ to 1½ cups water
- 3 lbs. russet potatoes
- 1 lb. yellow onions (about 3 medium), finely diced
- 1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. spicy brown mustard
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- Black pepper, to taste
- 1 egg
- 3 Tbsp. softened chicken, bacon, or duck fat, or cooking oil
- Frying oil
- Hot dogs (Sabrett, if you can find them)
- Spicy brown mustard
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
Wash the potatoes and use a fork to prick them twice on each side to allow steam to escape. Rub the potatoes with a few drops of oil to lightly coat, then place in the oven directly onto the top rack. Bake until you can easily insert a knife straight through the potato, about 50-60 minutes.
Set a cast iron or other oven-safe skillet over high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom completely. When the oil shimmers, add the onions with a big pinch of kosher salt and cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly, until much of the liquid has evaporated and the onions turn lightly golden. Spread the onions out in the pan and move to the oven to roast, stirring every 10 minutes until they turn a dark, rich brown, about 30-40 minutes.
Let the baked potatoes and onions cool completely. (If you’d like to split your knish-making over two days, put them in the refrigerator overnight.)
Remove the skins from the potatoes, cut them into small pieces, and put them in a large bowl with the vinegar, mustard, salt, and one half of the cooked onions. Mash the potatoes well, either by hand or with a mixer, then taste for seasoning and add more salt/pepper/mustard as desired. Add the egg and mix until fully combined. Put the remaining onions into a sealed container to serve alongside the hot dogs.
Pulse all the ingredients together in a food processor they begin to to come together, then process on low speed for 30-60 seconds until a smooth, soft dough forms. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.
Split the dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured wooden board or countertop, roll each half into a large rectangle (at least 18 x 20") and no thicker than 1/8". Use a sharp knife or pizza wheel to cut the dough in half horizontally, then make three equally spaced vertical cuts so you end up with eight relatively even rectangles.
Using your fingers, spread a thin layer of the softened chicken/bacon/duck fat all over the dough. Put 1/3 cup of the potato mixture towards the bottom end of each small rectangle; roll up the dough, making sure there are no air pockets, then pinch the edges tightly to seal.
Using the same motions you use to make a Play-Doh snake, roll out each knish until it’s about 8" long; check the seams to make sure they’re still tightly sealed, then place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least an hour. (You can also speed-chill in the freezer for 30 minutes.) Repeat with the second half of the dough for a total of 16 knishes.
Preheat your air fryer to 425 degrees. Brush as many knishes as can fit in the machine comfortably with just enough oil to coat, then place seam side down in the air fryer basket and cook for 12-15 minutes, flipping over halfway, until crisp and golden brown.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Brush the knishes with a bit of oil and place seam side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes until crisp and golden brown.
Fill a Dutch oven or cast iron skillet with at least 4" of cooking oil and set over high heat until oil reaches 350 degrees. Working in small batches, fry the knishes for about 5-6 minutes, rotating as needed to cook evenly.
After allowing the knishes to cool for at least 10 minutes, use a serrated knife to cut them open. Simmer hot dogs in a pot of water until they’re hot (about 5 minutes), then serve them in the knish buns with brown mustard and the leftover roasted onions.
Leftover knishes can be stored in the refrigerator for five days, or frozen for up to three months. To store: wrap each knish individually in parchment or wax paper, then in a large container or zip-top bag. Frozen knishes do not need to be thawed before reheating, which can be done in the microwave (about 2-3 minutes), the air fryer (15-20 minutes at 400 degrees), or in a 375-degree oven for 30-40 minutes.