I like to remind bakers about dumplings. That is European style dumplings-matzoh balls, gnocchi, potato dumplings, and späetzle, not stuffed Asian dumplings, which are in a category all their own.
Large or small, sweet or savory, dumplings are little round balls, spheres, or small fat sausage shapes made from flour, potatoes, semolina, or breadcrumbs, then boiled. Then they go into soups, stews, or eaten like noodles with butter or gravy. Leftovers are often sliced and fried in butter. They are satisfying and filling. They are one of those perfect dishes complementing fall and winter comfort food. Leftover poultry from holiday meals? Potato dumplings with gravy is a must. All out of turkey and wanting something else? Gnocchi with ragu sauce coming up. Beef stew, hearty and rich is a natural with späetzle instead of regular noodles. And of course, chicken soup for the soul has matzoh ball dumplings floating in it for a purely delightful meal. Its special!
There are hundreds of regional recipes in German and Hungarian cookbooks (most cities have a traditional dumpling) and as many names for them all rooted in the Latin word nodulus, or little knot. Since dumplings are such basic everyday fare, recipes are notoriously sketchy regarding them, as it is assumed that all cooks know how to make a wide variety of them. Once a skill that every good cook inherited through her family culinary prehistory, dumplings are often neglected today. Here are four recipes that are all you will ever need to serve excellent dumplings for the rest of your life. Frankly, they all have almost the same ingredients. What varies is the shaping technique and size.
Potato dumplings are the largest in the family, usually the size of a woman’s fist. They are often served at weddings and have all sorts of wonderful nicknames like little thieves, heart squeezers, clods, hairy buttons, and belly-pokers. This excellent recipe for authentic knödel is from my friend the late Mary Anne McCready, who used to serve them to rave reviews and cries for seconds. Potato dumplings are good with all types of roasted meats and game, sauced with rich gravies, or bratwurst and sauerkraut/sauteed red cabbage. Traditionally a large cube of day-old bread or Kaiser roll is sautéed in butter or oil and placed in the center of each dumpling before boiling as a special treat (known as Kartoffelkloesse).
Gnocchi, the Italian version, sounds a lot like knödel. It was made at first of soaked bread and eggs by the Romans, then became more sophisticated with the culinary advancements during the Italian Renaissance using potatoes and semolina. You want a real interpretation of how to form a gnocchi? Watch Lidia Bastianich deftly manipulate the dough with her fingers and teach her grand daughter how to do it on her TV cook show. A substantial, filling comfort food like pasta, it is made throughout Italy. Because the dumplings look so plain, there is a saying that if you are called a gnocco (the singular of gnocchi), it is like being called a “puddinghead.” Of course, gnocchi may look plain, but taste great and has a delicate texture. I notice some recipes floating around lately advertising ricotta as the secret ingredient to the best texture; here it is. These plump, little bitesized dumplings cook up just like pasta. If you’ve never cooked with these, you should try them. You might be in love at first bite…
What is real chicken soup without Jewish matzoh balls, also known as knaidlach, made from matzoh meal. Upon being served, ask “Are they matzoh balls or cannonballs?!” to assess if the cook is good at her trade, and the dumplings are as light and fluffy as they should be. Everyone loves a good matzoh ball maker.
My Hungarian relatives gave my mother a tool that looks like a hand grater called a späetzle hopper. Mastering the grating and slicing of dough off a cutting board dipped in boiling water is really an art, so the hand tool to make the dumplings is real nice to have. You spoon the batter into the top hopper, then push and pull it across the grater above a kettle of boiling water; they drop right in and come out perfect every time. Soft späetzle dumplings are specialties in Hungary (where they are called galuska and is a must served with chicken paprikash) and southern Germany, translating to “little sparrows.” They are said to have originated in medieval monastery kitchens for meatless Friday meals. This is the recipe my mother makes, serving the fat little egg dough ribbons with beef stew.
Dumpling connoisseurs agree that the secret to good dumplings is to slide them into the gently boiling water, since they shouldn’t be jostled or overcrowded, otherwise even the toughest dumpling will disintegrate or collect in clumps on the bottom of the pot.
- 1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or semolina pasta flour
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup warm milk
In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt. Make a well and add the egg and milk into the center. Blend well with a wooden spoon until evenly moistened; dough will be stiff like a soft pasta dough. Cover with plastic wrap and rest at room temperature 15 minutes.
In a large stockpot, bring salted water to a rapid boil. Place the späetzle maker over the boiling water; it will rest on the rim of the pot. Place the dough in the hopper and slide the carriage back and forth, dropping pear-shaped bits of dough into the water. (If you dont have a späetzle hopper, roll out the dough like a pie crust on a floured board. Using a sharp, wet knife, score the flattened dough into very small uneven pieces (like deformed lima beans) and blade-flick them into the boiling water as quickly as possible.) Simmer, uncovered, until they float back up to the surface, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and rinse quickly with some cold water. Place in a shallow bowl if serving right away or on a baking sheet to cool. Toss with a tablespoon of unsalted butter and dab of light sour cream to keep them from sticking.
Serve immediately or keep warm in a 325º oven. Serve like noodles with stews and braises. Makes 4 servings.
Silky Potato Dumplings
- 2 1/2 pounds (about 6 large) Russet potatoes
- 9 ounces potato flour (not potato starch flour)
- 2 cups boiling water or potato water
- 1 teaspoon salt
Cut the potatoes into large chunks and place in a 2-quart saucepan; cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until just soft. Drain and cool to room temperature (you can reserve the potato liquid for use in bread or the dumplings; it will keep a day refrigerated). Refrigerate the potatoes, covered, overnight.
Peel the potatoes. Rice or grate the potatoes into a mixing bowl. Add the flour, salt, and boiling water (If using the potato water, add enough water to make 2 cups). Knead the mixture in the bowl to form a soft dough ball. Pull off pieces of dough to make 4 inch diameter round balls (the size of a tennis ball); place on a baking sheet for transporting to the stove.
Fill a large deep saucepan with water, lightly salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Preheat the oven to the lowest setting (Mary Anne uses her warming oven) and place a large shallow baking dish in to warm.
With a slotted spoon slip the dumplings into the boiling water. Keeping the water at a gentle rolling boil and simmer 15 minutes, uncovered. The dumplings will float and be compact looking, and shrink to 3 inches in diameter when cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain and place in the warmed baking dish. Cover by tenting with foil. Keep warm in the oven up to 2 hours before serving. If there are any leftovers, reheat the next day in the microwave. Plan on serving 1 to 2 per person; they will be devoured. Serve as a side dish like mashed potatoes.
Makes about 14 dumplings.
- 1-10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup dry breadcrumbs
- 1/4 cup minced green onion
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 large eggs
- About 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
In a medium bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, onion, basil, nutmeg, and eggs; stir until smooth. Divide into 16 portions and form each into a 3-inch log. Place the flour on a large plate and roll each log in the flour with your fingertips to lightly coat. Place on a baking sheet. Can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.
In a large stockpot, bring 4 inches of salted water to a rapid boil. Slide the gnocchi into simmering water and cook, uncovered, for about 8 minutes. The gnocchi will be dry in the center when cut in half. Remove with a slotted spoon to a shallow buttered casserole (to be heated in the oven before serving) or directly onto individual plates. Serve just like pasta with a Bolognese or marinara sauce of your choice, and more Parmesan passed in a separate bowl. Makes 4 servings.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, or vegetable oil
- 3 large eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup matzoh meal
- 1 tablespoon finely minced parsley, optional
In a medium bowl, combine the butter and eggs. Add the matzoh meal, salt, and parsley, if using. Blend well with a fork until evenly moistened. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
In a large stockpot, bring salted water to a rapid boil. Divide the dough into 10 equal portions. Make balls by rolling the dough with your hands, using some water to moisten them if necessary. Drop them into the boiling water. Lower the heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for 45 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in the hot pot of soup. Makes 10 dumplings.
Excerpted from The Best Quick Breads, by Beth Hensperger. (c) 2000, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.