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The Battle of the Knoedel

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The story of a German secret weapon transformed into a delicious dish by the Italians.

 

If you ever see the word knödel on a German menu, make sure your affairs are in order before you proceed. For more than one tourist choked to death on one of these tennis-ball-sized savory dumplings. People in Leipzig proudly tell how they got rid of an entire division of Napoleon's army with only one pot of knödel left in a house for the invading troops to find. This victory is celebrated by a famed monument, the Knoedelschlachtdenkmal, shaped as a giant knödel pot.

Such is the magic of Italian cuisine that when the lowly knödel crossed over the Alps into Südtyrol, an Italian chef picked him up and with but one kiss the ugly German toad and transformed it into a charming Prince. To dispel any health-threatening confusion, the knödel was renamed into canederli, its Italian name.

I had the best canederli in my life at Vigilius, a fancy designer hotel 1500m high in Südtyrol. Such was my prejudice against German Knödels that when the chef stepped out of the kitchen to come and meet me, I could not believe my eyes. Hans Peter Pinkowski, the chef, is a German trained in Austria. Pinkowki: We also make proper Knödels in Germany, only it's not so common. Many cooks just mix everything together. Some even add flour - that will choke the client for sure. But I learned to make Knödels in Austria, the country where most things Germanic originated. We make all sorts of Knödels, traditional ones like Leberknödels (with liver), Speckknödel (with dried pork) or Spinatknödels. As long as you keep the proportion of dry to wet ingredients, you can add anything to the knödel.

Spinach Knoedels [knuh-dayl]
Yields 25 pieces
500gr/1lb stale toast bread with the crust removed (weight without the crust)
100ml/3 oz milk
200gr/7oz shallots
A large handful spinach leaves, about 100gr/3oz
3 eggs
A bunch of chives
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
100gr/3oz butter
Cheese to grate, ie Graukäse or good, freshly grated Parmesan.

The basics of knodels is a classic problem of cucina povera: how to accomodate stale bread in an attractive manner. Sicilans dry and and crumble it to sprinkle over pasta or include in meatballs. Valaisians boil stale rye bread with blackcurrant syrup and wine to make a dessert. Here they dice the stale bread, soak it in milk, add some eggs and wilde leaves and make little balls which they boil in broth.

Remove the crust from the toast bread. The bread needs to be rock-hard stale - end of story. If it isn't, wait another day. Do not toast it, the staling process is not like drying nor burning, it needs to be stale.

Cut the bread into small dices.

Peel and finely dice the shallot...

... then let is sweat with a piece of butter in a hot pan on medium-high heat.

Clean and stem the spinach, then add to the shallots as soon as they are soft. Toss over high heat until the spinach is soft.

Remove to a cutting board and cut the spinach leaves lengthwise, then crosswise.

Bring back to the hot pan and add the milk. Now the quantity of liquid you use will make or break the knödel. If the spinach have rendered a bit of liquid, decrease the quantity of milk to get the same 100ml/3oz.

Pour the mixture over the stale bread. You don't put any flour in proper knödels, that would make them chewy. The way to make proper knödels is to first let them soak the liquid for half an hour, and only then add the eggs, Pinkowksi told me.

Beat the eggs (here I'm using just one as I prepared a third of the quantities indicated as I could not have paramedics present during tasting).

Snip the chives.

M. Pinkowski does not grate any cheese in his knödels but only on top right before serving. However, many recipes prefer to grate some inside the knödel too. Here I used a real fancy cheese, some Graukäse I bought in Campo Tures in the valle Aurina, in the confines of Italy and Austria. Some other day I'll tell you all about this cheese and show you how it's made. Let me just say that it is a very, very tart cheese whose appearance only will have you confess anything in a matter of seconds.

After 30 minutes all the liquid should have been soaked up by the bread. Add the beaten eggs, grated cheese, chives and season to taste. I admit I used a little more liquid than the 100ml indicated by Mr Pinkowski, only to find later that the eggs added a lot more fluid. You do not second guess a German cook.

Here is your fresh knödel dough. In German restaurants it can happen, especially in times of war, that the dough is reused the next day, and then the day after. This is called weaponising the knödel. But if you are making them for yourself or for people you like, better make it right before dinner.

Wet your hands and dig into the dough and shape a little ball the size of a golf ball. Make sure the balles are smooth. No holes. Mine are really beginner knödels, too wet, too large bread cubes, big spinach leaves. Check the lead pictures to see Mr Pinkowski's knödels for reference. Lay the knödels on a plastic tray or an oiled wooden board.

Fill your largest pot with water, add salt, cover and bring to a rolling boil. My friend Karl Telfser, who owns a catering company in Südtyrol, prefers to steam the canederli/knödels, otherwise when you boil them half the taste disappears in the water. Add the knödels one by one...

... and let them boil for about 20 minutes. You can boil them for 20-30 minutes. Check that the internal temperature is 65°C at least - that's a must for sanitary reasons. Here at Vigilius we make the knödel dough every day so the risk is not that high, but in Germany and Austria sometimes they keep the same dough for a couple days - you get the picture, explained Pinkowski.

Remove with a slotted spoon or sieve. DO NOT empty the whole pot into some net and hope to get knödels you can get people to eat. It won't work as the weight of the water will turn them into pudding. Fish them out from the water one by one - that's the only way to go.

Melt a large piece of butter in a saucepan...

And roll the knödels in the melted butter until fully coated.

Serve as a first course with grated cheese on top and a salad. I give people two knödels a piece - double what's needed to do the job.


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41 Comments

I think there's a German saying that goes "that tastes like another". Congratulations Francois on another great recipe, which I will try out as soon as possible. And in case I haven't said it yet, your photography is exquisite. You should really think of publishing your site in book form
  • #2
  • Comment by Bine
Is that a Forst beer I see in the first photo? Oh, I HAVE to go to Südtirol again soon. Thanks for the Knödel recipe. I've always wanted to make some myself, but up to now I just didn't dare - yet thanks to your detailed desription and excellent photos I think I might give it a try...
  • #3
  • Answered by fx
Bine, the beer wasn't mine, I had a couple Holünderblüte / blackcurrant flower syrup that sent me straight to heaven.
  • #4
  • Answered by fx
Alan, thanks and let me know if you know a cookbook literary agent or publisher! In this article I'm using little off-camera strobes, they are great fun.
  • #5
  • Comment by MiniMooh
Great recipe, as always, looks very tempting. But I am a bit disappointed of your nationalistic undertone. I know, the germans are not very well liked in Switzerland, but I thought you would know better then that?! Besides - I had great Knödel in a restauarnt close to Leipzig, so your impression of german cooking may be a bit dated.
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
MiniMooh, but I love the Germans just as much as the Italians - and both are well liked in Switzerland. Nothing nationalistic, but I nearly choked many times on bad knödels in Germany and they are just better in Italy. I did all my interview with the chef in German, a language that I had to learn at school just like you would if you wanted to learn, say, Swedish. So I feel entitled to point out a comparison between the same dish on both sides of the border, both sides who speak the same language.
  • #7
  • Comment by Esterhase
So what happens to the dough when you leave it for a day or two?  Do they typically not refrigerate it?
  • #8
  • Comment by Ben
Beautifully done once again. However, could one use a food processor on the bread to get rough breadcrumbs instead of cutting them into cubes?
Nice article, I can't wait till my German Wife gets home tonight!
Oh honey, I'm craving knödels, again...
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Dave, if she follows the recipe her knödels will take you straight to the valhalla!
  • #11
  • Answered by fx
Ben, no way to do this with a food processor, you'd end up with a pudding fit for hundred-year-olds to eat with a straw. The cutting into cubes is really fun and with a long serrated blade it's done in no time. Check the last scene from Kill Bill II to see how suspenseful that can be!
  • #12
  • Answered by fx
Esterhase, fresh eggs, milk and air is a fine breeding ground for bacterias. There are many, many microorganisms all over the kitchen, and some of them can kill you if they can multiply. Leaving such a dough in the fridge or, even better, outside in the kitchen, for a night or longer, might cause the Knödel to become a disease-infected sponge. If you fail to boil it long enough to bring the core temperature high enough, you'll serve your guest with a potentially lethal dose of nasty bacterias. Such is the risk when eating Knödels in the wrong place.

Are you a character from John Le Carré's novel Smiley's People? Same name!
I've had my fair share of cantine knödel since I moved to Munich, and I would say that bread knödel is mostly fine to eat without paramedics present. The potato versions can send you into a deep coma if you're not cautious.

I have had some great knödel in Munich, too, but I do suspect that the Italian version is regularly a bit lighter in taste. This one looks great with the spinach, I'll have to try it!
Excellent! I will definitely be making these - maybe tomorrow? We always have a yummy dinner on Friday nights because we used to go out, but after having a baby, we don't get to go out as much, so I usually just make something decadent on Friday.  
  • #15
  • Comment by Esterhase
I assumed refrigerated would be ok for a day or so, but unrefrigerated? That sounds like a new capital punishment method!And yes I am *the* Toby Esterhase - j/k :P  He and Smiley are my favorite two characters from that trilogy.
Hey Francois -- I made the Knoedels last night! Your recipe.  Very simple and delicious! And I'm sure I didn't do it perfectly, so I can only imagine how good they are when done right. My dough was really dry even after the eggs (I couldn't have formed balls, they wouldn't have stuck together), so I added a pinch more milk, then even a pinch more egg because I didn't want to add too much milk. Hard to know if they were right or not, since I've never had them before. But I think it worked well. The held together well, very delicate and tender, but did not fall apart. Oh, you know what ever, I lightly toasted fresh bread, I didn't use the stale. I forgot that your post said only stale bread. So, I'll make sure next time it's stale. We'll see if that makes a difference. I like also the idea of adding liver! Do you just add it like you did the spinach? I have some liver pate and I wonder how it would taste to melt that in?
  • #17
  • Answered by fx
Traci, thanks for trying this and congratulations on your result! You are absolutely right with the liver, it is one of the four canonical Knödels in Südtyrol in fact. Mr Pinkowski indicated 100ml liquid for 500gr bread and I also had to ask more. He is playing with his cards close to the jacket, maybe there should be more liquid...
  • #18
  • Answered by fx
Toby Esterhasy, you did a good job with Grigoriev, I guess he won't need too many knödels to have a heart attack!
  • #19
  • Answered by fx
Daniel, let me know of your best knödel eating places in Munich. There is one I like right next to the cathedral, they do wicked Kaiserschmarren, but do they make the best knödel in town?
  • #20
  • Comment by Martin
On the food processor question, my father, a native of Munich, uses a meat slicer to cut loaves of stale bread into thin (5 mm or so) slices. He puts the slices in a large bowl, adds the wet ingredients, gives it a quick toss with his hands, and lets everything soak for a while (as above).

Using the slicer saves a lot of time, and doesn't seem to affect the end result. If the bread isn't really stale, he'll slice it in the morning and leave it for several hours (cut so thinly, it gets stale quickly).
  • #21
  • Answered by fx
Martin, this sounds like a nice trick to prepare lots of knödels! What does your father put inside to flavor them?
Hey FX,

I'm reviving this comment thread to tip you off about some Munich knödels, as requested. Since I'm mostly on a student budget, I can't really recommend any of the cities' pricier locations, but they tend to focus on non-Bavarian cooking anyway.

You mention a place next to the cathedral, might it be Augustiner am Dom? They serve good, typical Bavarian fare at reasonable prices. Another good spot in the city is the Ratskeller, a cavernous restaurant located underneat the Rathaus. Very good food, reasonable prices, and a large selection of wines. Geheimtipp: Lammhaxl. A third central location is the Weisses Brauhaus (located on Tal 17), which is very, very traditional. You can get all the Bavarian food you ever wanted here, and a lot that you never wanted (like the brain, or Saure Lunge). Affordable, and the service is typically Bavarian, i.e rude.

Last, but not least, Wirtshaus zur Brez'n on Leopoldstraße close to Münchner Freiheit is a very popular Bavarian restaurant. I had a Haxn with Kartoffelknödel there a couple of days ago, and the knödel was very good. Rather light and springy, not too sticky, and with good sauce absorption. They also have great schnitzels and cold platters. Recommended.
  • #23
  • Answered by fx
Daniel, I have to visit those places next time I'm in town, thanks a lot for the tips! Once we had dinner at KüK Monarchie, very unique concept to say the least, pleasant people.
  • #24
  • Comment by Rosedarpam
I have been looking for a recipe for knoedel for many years.  I once had lebbenknoedel in Tokyo in the 1950's.  It was served with a delicate but savory consomme.  I intend to try your recipe and will also try to make a liver version. Thanks.
  • FX's answer→ Have fun with the Knödels!

  • #26
  • Comment by Lowell F
Intersting recipe.  My mother is Tyrolian (No. Alps between Austria and Italy) and she has made a similar dish since I was a child.  My Grandmother brought it here from the old country.  I'm 56 by the way.
Mother makes it a little differently.  She makes the baseball sized dumplings with the cubed bread, onion, parsley egg and a little milk. She adds small cubed salamy and even a little bacon.  Then she makes a soup broth for the dumplings.  Sure is good.
  • FX's answer→ Lowell, there are many, many recipes for canederli but none as good as one's mother's version!

  • #28
  • Comment by Daniela
I have to say, going by your rather bizarre take on German Knoedel, or Kloesse as they are known in many parts of Germany, you haven't got the faintest clue about them. Sure, you get horrifyingly bad ones wherever you go, but what nonesense to suggest Italian ones are better than German ones or vice versa. What they are is different. You get more different types of Knoedel in these countries than you can shake a stick at. And if you really want to find out more about Knoedel, the place you have to go to is Austria, where they make so many different varieties that the German or Italian versions simply can't keep up. And indeed, you use flower to make certain types, although never in vast quantities if you want to keep them light. Plus you get ones made with potato, others with ricotta-type cheese (called Topfen), some with buckwheat, some filled with fruit, others with cheese or meat, some are made with freshwater fish, and some are made with stale or dried bread, combined with all sorts of other ingredients. What I'm trying to tell you is that it's pure nonesense to make blanket statements about them as per your website.
  • FX's answer→ I'll make sure to give Germanic knoedel another go then!

  • #30
  • Comment by richiek
I agree wholeheartedly with Daniela's comments. I have had German knoedel probably hundreds of times--most are good, some are not so good, but overall have had an amazing variety of knoedel.  Actually my favorite ones I have had have been in Baden-Wuertemberg!
  • #31
  • Comment by roxana

Un enorme placer encontrarme con tu enfoque,soy una cocinera más que experta, y aprecio tu capacidad didáctica,tu manera de presentar las recetas y sobre todo la sensibilidad, y ese pequeńo toque de humor, viví en alemania unos cuantos ańos, espero recibir más delicias tuyas,toda mi gratitud, en la cocina uno no deja de aprender,de sorprenderse, y de repartirse,
roxana
  • FX's answer→ Hola Roxana, estoy muy contento de ler tus commentarios. Gracias!

  • #33
  • Comment by Frans
Personally, I think if you have consulted Hans Peter Pinkowski, a German-born chef, trained in Österreich and working in Südtyrol, your editorial comments about the battle of the knödel/klöße v. the canederli are sound . . . but please don't write off all the knödel/klöße just yet. For example, you asked where to find good knödel in München. I certainly agree with all of Daniel's suggestions, but I'd have to say my favourite is Wirtshaus zum Straubinger @ 5 Blumenstraße, just off the ever so amazing Viktualienmarkt. Small & friendly, not touristy at all; & most of all, a great Bavarian resto.

In the meantime, I always have this debate with my wife . . . where in the world is the best dumpling?
  • FX's answer→ Frans, thanks a lot for your advice about restaurants in Munich, I only know two, KüK Monarchie (if it still exists) and the Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom, where I have Kaiserschmarren. As you can see, not much to go by and I will gladly try the one close to the Viktualienmarkt.

  • #35
  • Comment by Siri Gottlieb
I just discovered this knoedel article and fell over laughing. It's so funny and clever. Can't wait to try them on my next enemy.

I see you haven't posted in a while ... I hope you are OK
Siri in Michigan USA
  • #36
  • Comment by mŞ dolores
 Esta receta la he buscado para llevarla al cole de mi hija ya que la suelo hacer muy amenudo. Yo la aconpańo con un asado de carne de cerdo y esa salsa se aconpańa con el knödel está delicioso.Esta comida la he aprendido de mi suegra que estuvo viviendo en alemania 15 ańos y cuando la hacía era un día de fiesta.(ella nos dejó hace 3 ańos).
  • FX's answer→ Me encanta que vas a probar esta receta para tu hija!

  • #38
  • Comment by John
FX cuisine is my favourite recipe site.  Knoedel reminded me of something my father used to make and I don't know what the name of it is.  Very simple.  Stale bread (pagnotta) olive oil, boiling water, oregano and parmesan cheese.  Have boiling water at hand. Fry garlic in some olive oil until soft.  Add torn/chopped bread pieces and stir for a few seconds, add boiling water and stir mixture until bread softens, add dried oregano and stir again before serving with grated parmesan cheese.  Simple but strangely flavoursome.  
Regards
John
  • #39
  • Comment by John-Christopher Ward
I hope you are well. I truely miss your photos and postings.
  • #40
  • Comment by Julian
hey francois
i've greatly enjoyed your site, and a lot of the recipes you post are delicious. i just tried your recipe for almond sorbet and found it sorely oversweetened but it made a good base for some weird margharitas. one thing i admire about your recipes and by extent about you is your unwillingness to confirm to any trends. because sometimes it just fucking makes me sick, all the weird shit people cook to be "fusion" or "ethnical" or whatever is the catchphrase of the moment.
anyway.
your duck ragu was brilliant. so was your garlic soup, although i took the time to simmer a lot of veal bones and vegetables in water before adding it to the garlic roux. unfortunately you often use ingredients that are a hassle to get.
nevertheless. i always loved cooking and it's nice to find a kindred spirit. keep up the good work.  
  • #41
  • Comment by Dr. Rob Case
Great article !

I was raised in Switzerland and the South Tirol. Your article and pictures brought back many wonderful memories ( minus all the onions I used to chop every day ).

Keep up the good work !

Cheers,

Rob



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