The shtetl meets the 21st century as chefs redefine the humble knish

A tray of chef Cathy Barrow’s traditional sauerkraut knishes. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

At the battle of the knishes last week, traditionalists vied against experimentalists for the favor of about 400 lovers of the potato-filled pastries.

Five local chefs set up in a ballroom at the University of the District of Columbia. Hundreds of knishes later, the diners cast their ballots and best knish was declared.

Ellen Oberwetter voted for chef Cathy Barrow’s knish, a pareve Northern European beauty with caramelized onion and sauerkraut.

Barrow, whose book “When Pies Fly,” is full of recipes for handmade pastries, including knishes, used her grandmother’s dairy-free dough recipe — a traditional knish flavor to which the sauerkraut gave a surprising sour tang.

Oberwetter said she liked the “cabbage flair” Barrow introduced.

“The Shack” owner Ian Boden’s dill potato salad on a knish dough cracker. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

Ian Boden, owner of The Shack restaurant in Staunton and a knish novice, said he wanted to make something nontraditional in contrast to contrast Barrow, the knish expert. So he served up a cold potato salad made with dill and fermented onion. He served it atop a cracker made of potato knish dough.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who was a guest judge, described Boden’s knish as “creamy, really precise, satisfying experience. It’s like an Amish knish.”

Raskin wasn’t far off. Boden said he gets his inspiration from his Russian-Hungarian heritage and his wife’s ancestry in the foothills of Appalachia.

Boden wasn’t the only one using his background in his cooking. Chef Johanna Hellrigl made what she called a “pesto Genovese knish,” filled with potatoes and green beans. It was her first time making knishes.

Hellrigl is from Liguaria, Italy, the birthplace of pesto — so she dressed each knish with a dollop of pesto made from Genovese basil, pine nuts, garlic, Peconno Sardo and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Chef Johanna Hellrigl’s potato and green bean knish, topped with pesto. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

Guest judge Alex Levin voted for Hellrigl’s knish. “You couldn’t tell it was the first try,” he said.

Todd Gray, of Equinox catering, described his knish as Tel Aviv style — it was filled with chick peas, Aleppo pepper and cumin, giving it a spicier taste than the others. The knish was set atop a tahini sour cream and mint leaf.

Raskin said Gray’s knish was “delightful, crunchy, magical, fancy — maybe too fancy for me.”

Todd Gray’s “Tel Aviv style” knish, made with chick peas, cumin and Aleppo pepper. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

The battle of the knishes had one goal: to raise money for Tzedek DC, which helps low-income Washington residents fight financial debt through systematic advocacy, pro bono legal help and teaching financial empowerment, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, the
organization’s founding president.

But even with all the tasty options, three out of four judges voted for the knish by chef Ed Hardy of Cookology, who described himself as “a gentile raised in Jewish Richmond.” Hardy also lived in New York for five years and studied under Marcus Samuelson, a Swedish chef.

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and his wife Karen Rosen taste chef Cathy Barrow’s dairy-free sauerkraut knish. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

Hardy’s was a potato knish with roasted garlic, and herb and goat cheese, surrounded by a flaky dough. His garnish was a mustard “caviar” (simply, pickled mustard seeds) and dill concoction.

He said he wanted to create a traditional knish, but was “amping up the flavors.”

Ed Hardy’s mustard “caviar” potato knish, the winner of the competition by both the judges’ and guests’ votes. Photo by Jeffrey D. Baker.

This knish also won the popular vote. Ted Rothstein, who grew up in Brooklyn, said the Cookology entry was a “nontraditional knish that had a certain amount of individual flavors.” He said a potato knish is what everyone knows — and so it seems Cookology’s unique take on a traditional food won over the audience.

For Eleanor Arnold, the Cookology knish took a close second to Barrow’s sauerkraut entry. Hardy’s knish, she said, was “almost too much. Too fancy, too much going on at once.”

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Twitter: @jacqbh58

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