Chabad teacher cooks at intersection of knish and delish

Chaya Berkowitz knows how to put out a spread.

When I arrived at the Chabad House in Walnut Creek last month for Chabad of Contra Costa’s “Joys of Kosher Cooking: Knish and Kugel Edition,” the table was laid out with numerous varieties of the two foods in question and several green salads, too.

Representing the knish family were several plates of potato, mushroom and sweet potato knishes. But the kugels! Who knew there were so many different kinds? Of course, the usual potato and sweet noodle were there, but how about one made from challah — which tasted more like a bread pudding, actually — or the spinach-cauliflower and apple kugels? Many platters were elevated on pedestals to give the table a more celebratory look.

Like many Chabad women, Berkowitz has been offering a kosher cooking series, one in Walnut Creek and another in Brentwood.

Of course, getting large quantities of food on the table — both for their bigger-than-usual families and for the numerous guests who come for Shabbat and other festival meals — is part of the job description of being a Chabad woman, and it is a mission they take seriously.

“Food adds a lot to our family life,” said Berkowitz.

On the night I attended, there were at least 30 women who had come to learn tips on making these canonical Jewish dishes. In about an hour and a half, Berkowitz breezed through several recipes, sharing helpful advice as well as timesaving techniques.

For example, always make potato kugel in a Pyrex or ceramic dish; it comes out much crispier that way. Berkowitz often uses Yukon Gold potatoes for kugel, because their skins are thinner than many other potato varieties and therefore the hassle of peeling them is eliminated.

Technically, kugel is a baked pudding or casserole, and its varieties are endless, though I would never have thought to call her apple kugel a kugel. A base of oats, brown sugar, flour and oil were mixed together directly in the pan (saves washing a bowl, which caused one observer to remark: “You’re a girl after my own heart”) and then patted down onto the bottom of a foil pan. Sliced apples were laid on top. A sauce made from heating sugar, flour, vanilla, cinnamon and water was poured over the apples, and then more of the crumb topping was sprinkled on top.

For the spinach-cauliflower kugel, Berkowitz used premade pie crusts from Safeway. “Safeway and Sprouts still have parve crusts,” she said, for those who keep track of such things. “Everyone else went dairy on us.”

Berkowitz used a 20 oz. bag of thawed frozen spinach and a 20 oz. bag of frozen cauliflower (using fresh doesn’t taste any better in this case, she noted, and it just takes more time to process the vegetables) and blended them with mayonnaise, MSG-free onion soup mix, eggs, oil and a bit of flour. Using a stick blender to blend the mixture, she then filled two pie crusts and sprinkled corn flakes on top for crunch.

Chaya Berkowitz and a few of the 26 knish fillings that were made in advance photos/alix wall

When it came to knish-making, Berkowitz said she consulted with many Chabad women and they all said the same thing: Making your own knish dough is a time-consuming affair, and they don’t bother since kosher puff pastry can be easily found in many places. Berkowitz recommends Pepperidge Farm, though she had gotten a huge box of a different brand from Restaurant Depot.

She had made potato, mushroom and sweet potato fillings in advance, so all the participants had to do was cut the dough into the shapes they wanted, put a scoop of filling inside, and either pinch or roll them up. Some made wonton-style knishes, some made round ones. One participant asked whether you can boil them, and the answer was a definitive “no.”

An egg wash is the final step, which we were left to do at home.

One attendee, Irina Kolomey, told me she is more of a soup and salad person, but she tries to attend all of Berkowitz’s kosher cooking events to widen her repertoire. And Tracy Gordon appreciated knowing the trick of mixing the dough right in the pan, as well as learning that often the same amount of oil can be substituted for butter.

We took our knishes home to bake — they also freeze well, Berkowitz said — and I enjoyed them the next day. While the puff pastry definitely simplifies things, I found that they made the knishes taste much more like borekas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — there’s nothing wrong with borekas — but those looking for an authentic knish experience may need to make their own dough.

Potato Knishes

Makes about 2 dozen

6 medium potatoes

1⁄4 cup oil

2 large onions, diced

2 eggs

salt and pepper

puff pastry sheets

Glaze: beaten egg with sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Boil until soft and mash them. Heat oil and sauté onions until golden and soft. Add onions and eggs to mashed potatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste as well as other seasonings of your choice.

Fill dough with potato mixture and shape. Glaze with beaten egg and sesame seeds. Bake for 35 minutes or until golden brown.

“Kosher Cheesecake Factory” is the next class. Includes nondairy recipes. 7 p.m. May 20 at Chabad of Contra Costa, 1671 Newell Ave., Walnut Creek. $10. or (925) 937-4101


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."