Plenty of Knish in the Sea

What defines a feast? Is it the number of dishes, the volume of the servings, the size of the crowd? It’s a curious term with particular significance when dinner parties are discouraged, or downsized at best. The answer lies somewhere in the annals of history, while remaining firmly rooted in this present moment.

Let me explain. Years ago, I first learned of the Feast of Seven Fishes. The origins are hazy, details are scant, but the basic idea is that Roman Catholics would eschew meat before holy days, such as Christmas, eating fish instead as a form of fasting. That’s simple enough, but why seven? Theories abound, but none hold water. Some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, the seven sins, or seven days of the week. When it comes to the celebratory meal, however, you may just as well find 10 different fish dishes on the table, or even 12. Others might take a shortcut by combining everything into one big stew. All bets are off for this helter skelter celebration. The “feast,” built upon the principles of abstinence, could be decadent or downright austere.

As you might have guessed though, my curiosity about the concept has nothing to do with seafood. The mere title started forming new, unorthodox neural connections in my food-obsessed brain. What if we replaced the fishes with… Knishes?

Now that’s something I can make sense of. Call it a Jewish hand pie, empanada, baked bao, kolache, or breakfast pastry; none are too far off the mark. Typically stuffed with mashed potatoes or toasted buckwheat, it’s humble fare with universal appeal. One knish could be a substantial snack, while two make a hearty meal. Three knishes might be somewhat extravagant, but seven? Seven would definitely constitute a feast.

Thus, I present to you a new holiday tradition: The Feast of Seven Knishes! Stemming from a single master mashed potato filling, it may be a bit time-consuming to complete, but not complicated. Traditional inclusions are typically very simple, humble ingredients, so I tried to stay true to the art with a few of the basics.

Caramelized onions make everything delicious, so they’re a fool-proof way to get this party started. My secret ingredient is a pinch of baking soda to speed the process along. Sure, they get a bit softer that way, but texture isn’t so critical when they’re wrapped up in a crisp pastry shell anyway.

Spinach is also a classic all-seasons addition, adding a verdant vegetable into the mix, even if it’s just frozen and thawed. Such is the case here to make light work of the process, though you could certainly wilt down a fresh bundle if you had some handy. Likewise, kale, collards, swiss chard, or any other dark leafy greens would be right at home here, too.

It’s hard to beat the rich umami flavor of even plain button mushrooms, but a dab of truffle oil definitely bumps it up to the next level. Just a drop will do, lending volumes of bold, earthy, savory taste to every satisfying bite. You could omit the extra flourish in a pinch, though it’s well worth the investment, even for a small bottle.

Departing now from the beaten path of knish history, tender red beets brighten the next filling with a bright, rosy hue. Kissed with the woodsy notes of liquid smoke, it’s the kind of thing I’d gladly eat straight out of the mixing bowl. Look out, plain mashed potatoes; this one might just beat you to the table next time.

Inspired by another one of my favorite potato pastries, samosa spices enliven this curry-scented knish polka dotted with toothsome green peas. Truth be told, if you merely wrapped the dough differently and tossed them in the deep fryer, they’d be identical with the Indian appetizer. Now that’s fusion fare I can get behind.

Finally, defying the odds, and perhaps common sense, I couldn’t leave you without a sweet treat to end the meal on. Yes, you can have knishes for dessert, too! Buttery brown sugar batter riddled with gooey chocolate chips evokes the nostalgic flavors of cookie dough. Mini chips ensure equal distribution of the chocolatey goodness, though you could also chop up your favorite dark chocolate bar for a variety of different sized chunks.

No matter how you define a feast, or what your personal interpretation looks like, there should always be room on that table for at least one knish. If seven varieties is too grand for this unique season, feel free to multiply just one filling that strikes your fancy by seven. There’s no shame in loading up on only your favorite flavors. That could still be considered a plentiful feast, too.

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Let It Snow

It’s the icing on the cake, the spoonful that helps the medicine go down, but sometimes, it’s better when sugar doesn’t instantly disappear from view. Rather than hiding in the background, doing all the heavy lifting behind the scenes, certain recipes can benefit from a delicate dusting of powdered sugar, gracing the surface of crackle-top cookies, coffee cakes, and flaky pastries like freshly fallen snow.

Sucre neige, also known as “snow sugar,” is scientifically formulated to be impervious to moisture or temperature. That means it won’t melt or dissolve on top of doughnuts, cookies, fruit tarts, and or any sweet treat you can throw at it. A light sprinkle will look as fresh as a pristine mountain peak, even after a day in the sun. Though it looks identical to conventional confectioner’s sugar, it’s made from dextrose rather than sucrose, which is considerably less sweet. The tiny particles are coated in a thin layer of palm oil, which acts sort of like a culinary raincoat. Titanium dioxide is usually added to keep it shining bright and perfectly white.

Considered a specialty item found in professional restaurant supply stores rather than the average supermarket, it’s frustratingly difficult to find at a moment’s notice. Happily, there is a way to make your own! It won’t have quite the same refinement as the impeccably processed commercial variety, but it will contain considerably fewer chemical additives, and cost a good deal less. Now you can have a brilliantly white Christmas, any day of the year.

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Czech Mate

How did such a humble, unassuming Czech pastry become so deeply intertwined with Texan foodways that it became an inextricable part of southern culture itself? While it remains largely unknown just beyond state borders, kolaches are serious business to any conscious eater. I had never heard of such a thing before visiting the Lone Star State, but kolaches are as essential to the local cuisine as barbecue. Arriving along with European immigrants in the late 1800s, central Texas became the nexus of kolache creation.

Technically, the savory version most popular in my immediate area are klobasneks, NOT kolache. Both employ a lightly sweetened, buttery yeasted dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings, but genuine kolaches are sweet breakfast treats, employing fruit preserves, cream cheese, or poppy seeds for flavor. Klobasneks are arguably more popular in these parts, calling for any sort of meat, from sausage links to ground beef to shredded chicken, cheese, jalapenos, and sometimes even egg and potatoes. Truth be told, any sort of stuffing might reside within these baked buns. For the sake of simplicity, they all get wrapped up under the kolache moniker. Those wise enough to tell the difference are also smart enough not to pick a fight.

Terminology aside, what makes for the best kolaches? It’s all in the dough. Supple, pillowy soft, catching the light with a subtle buttery shine, the tender bread should practically melt in your mouth. Impossibly light for such a rich mixture, it’s a delicate balance of art and science to achieve the perfect crumb. Years of experience with tireless practice are the secret ingredients; otherwise, the standard recipe is largely unexceptional. Flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and all the other usual suspects are present.

The key is all in quantity. Speaking with chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish, his carefully honed formula makes liberal use of butter, both in and brushed on the rich dough. Coming from a long line of Czech bakers, his recipe reflects that heritage to create the best version around, vegan or not.

“When I said I wanted to open my own place, one of the first things I did was make and sell kolaches at various events in an effort to get my name and face out there,” chef Vanis explained through email.

“Before that, when I lived in Houston, I would occasionally pick up work at a bakery that made kolaches. Even though grandma always had kolaches made and on hand, I was never a part of making them, like I sometimes was with cinnamon rolls. I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy them so much now. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but as I think about the baking and enjoyment of kolaches, there’s an opportunity to create new memories that are connected to grandma’s house. I don’t feel like I missed out on a chance to bake them as a child. I do feel grateful that I have those fond memories attached to them now.”

According to Craig, poppyseed or plum are the most traditional fruit fillings, but the sky is the limit. Any jam or preserves will bake in beautifully to make sweet pastries, and any sort of savory meatless or vegetable stuffing can create a hearty stuffed bun.

What remains a mystery is why the art of the kolache has stayed contained within the Texas Czech Belt, when the base formula is infinitely adaptable, and its appeal so universal. If you’ve never been so lucky to see them in local bakeries, do yourself a favor and start your own family tradition, baking from scratch.

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Well Butter My Biscuit

Like clockwork, come mid-November, one particular recipe on BitterSweet starts getting a flurry of fresh page views. Thanksgiving revives long-forgotten cravings for tried-and-true, classic comfort foods, so I would expect any of the pumpkin pie variants to attract new attention, or perhaps the more adventurous Cheeseburger Stuffing, but no. That would be too obvious.

Of all things, it’s the Garden Herb Biscuits that go viral. Created without any holiday in mind, and still not one I would necessarily associate with a traditional Thanksgiving feast, there’s apparently a spot at the festive table for them in many homes out there. If you ask me, we can do better.

By no means am I suggesting you go biscuit-less (heaven forbid), but let’s make something special this time around, fit for the occasion.

Soft as butter itself, with equally tender yet flaky layers and a subtly sweet flavor, these alluring magenta biscuits are the perfect fusion of southern comfort and southeast Asian flair. Purple sweet potato could do in a pinch, or even the average orange-fleshed yam, but part of the appeal is definitely the gem-like periwinkle hue.

Accented with the tropical aroma of coconut milk, each bite, each crisp but supple crumb melts away in a pool of nostalgia on the tongue. Memories of happy childhood meals and celebratory dinners bubble up to the surface, buoyed by an undercurrent of wanderlust, satisfying the need for new and novel experiences.

Who knew such a simple biscuit could contain these complex, seemingly conflicting characteristics, all with incredible grace and always, great taste? Apparently all the people searching for them in years past; I’m the one late to finally get the message.

Don’t let the holiday season pass you by without a batch or two of these brilliant biscuits gracing your plate. They’re not just for dinner, after all. Leftovers make for some of the best breakfasts one could dream about… If you can resist their lure fresh out of the oven, that is.

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A Pumpkin In Every Pot

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, you recently carved a delightfully ghastly jack-o’-lantern face out of pie crust. I know, it’s quite a reach, but humor me for a moment, will you? Imagine, with those features missing from an otherwise perfectly good, full sheet of pastry, the possibilities for further baking witchcraft.

Pumpkin is still at play here, but under a more savory guise, you see. Humble pot pie pulls on an autumnal cloak in this phantasmic fall affair. Beneath that buttery, golden brown exterior lies a rich stew of tender orange squash, bolstered by an infusion of pumpkin puree throughout. A touch of umami tomato paste and warming spices sets it apart from the standard child’s play.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Such a wildly abstract thought could easily be written off as a dream… Vanishing almost as quickly as the dish itself.

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All Jacked Up

Gather ’round the campfire and pull your loved ones in close. It’s time for a ghost story more haunting than the Winchester Mystery House, more frightful than Frankenstein, and more bewitching than the lovely ladies of Salem. I’m talking about the tale of Stingy Jack.

Naysayers may call it a myth, but legend has it that Stingy Jack was a classic con artist, scraping by on someone else’s dollar while swindling his way into another man’s coin purse. He was already a man on the fringes of society, making more enemies than friends, so it should come as no surprise that eventually, the only creature willing to share a drink was the Devil himself. When last call came, predictably, Jack didn’t have the means to pay for his drink, so he made a dangerous bet with the devil instead.

Calling out his demonic power or lack thereof, he suggested that there was no way the devil could turn himself into the necessary coinage. With enough taunting and cajoling, already somewhat tipsy himself, Satan proved his prowess, transforming into a gleaming golden coin without any difficulty. Snapping up the opportunity along with the cash, Jack decided to ditch the bill and keep the money instead. Securing it in his pocket next to a silver cross, the Devil was prevented from transforming back into his original form.

Only when Jack died was demon freed, and quite peeved, to put it lightly. Hell was too good for this malicious man, so he set him off into the night, with only a piece of burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. Somewhere along the line, repeated reiteration of the story turned the turnip into a pumpkin, and that’s how we ended up with Jack-o’-lanterns.

Mea culpa; perhaps that was more of history lesson than a horror story. I can’t help but find myself enchanted by the origins of our strange holiday traditions. If you made it this far through my rambling tale, though, you definitely deserve a drink. How about a shot of applejack, on the rocks?

Better yet, let’s put it in the pumpkin.

That, my friends is the TRUE history of how the Applejack-O’-Lantern Pie came to be.

Cradled in a flaky pastry crust lies a layer of spiked and spiced apple filling, topped by a creamy pumpkin custard. Tender fruit mingles with brown sugar-infused pumpkin puree; each bite is highly spirited, in all meanings of the word. It’s a sinfully good treat to commemorate villainous old Stingy Jack… Just don’t make any deals with the Devil to secure a second slice.

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