Knödel is usually translated into English as “dumplings,” but that word makes me think of gyoza or shumai or soup dumplings, little delicate things filled with little delicate meat that you can eat in a bite or two. Knödels are… not that. They are giant, dense spheres of bread or potato, filled sometimes with just more bread or potato, but sometimes with bacon, or chopped meat, or a whole apricot. Knödels are wonderful and I love them.
When I decided to start this blog, I also decided to learn to cook Austrian food properly, to give the Austrian members of our tiny household a taste of home. And it turns out that the first knödel — the Urknödel, as our cookbook calls it — was made at Mondsee lake, only a few miles from my parents-in-law’s house, around 2000 BC. So I’m going to start with a humble knödel and gradually build a whole little Austrian menu around that. My first knödel probably should be the humblest semmelknödel, which is just bread, eggs, butter, milk, and onion. But we’re going to be eating these things at least once a week until I can make them perfectly, so I’m upgrading to a Tiroler Speckknödel, which is pretty much a semmelknödel with bacon in it.
(According to the Austrian Ministry of Sustainability and Tourism, the origin story of the Tiroler Knödel is that a group of soldiers stopped in at a guesthouse late at night looking for food, and the proprietress invented the knödels using the leftovers in the kitchen. But more likely, it was just something that a farming family in the mountains could easily and cheaply make from ingredients they produced themselves.)
My default source for all Austrian recipes is a cookbook we got as a wedding present from our Aunt Heidi, called “Die gute Küche” (The Good Kitchen). It’s kind of “The Joy of Cooking” of Austria, a little bit old and proper, but with every standard Austrian recipe in it. Their version, called just Tiroler Knödel, is made from 120g bread, 2 eggs, 80g bacon, 50g onion, and 100ml milk. I also found two alternative recipes online — here and here, and the second is worth watching just for that man’s delightful Tirolean accent — and did a little taste test. The “Gute Küche” version had the lowest ratio of bread to, umm, not-bread, and so wasn’t as dense and doughy as I was hoping for. The blog.tirol version, whose photographs I am jealous of, had no onion (!) and breadcrumbs (!!) in it, so was a little bit dry and bland compared to the others. The delightful-accent version included some chopped sausage in addition to the bacon, which I just replaced with MORE BACON. This one, the Modified Delightful Accent Knödel, was clearly the taste test winner.
- 300g old bread — I used a few kaiser rolls cut up and left out overnight
- 200g speck — German bacon, you can probably use some other bacon but it won’t taste right
- 1 large onion
- 3 eggs
- 250ml milk
- 2 tbsp parsley
- salt, pepper, and majoram for seasoning
- Cut up the bread into little cubes, maybe 1cm squre. Leave them out overnight. They should basically be croutons.
- Cut the bacon into small cubes and mince the onion into tiny pieces. Fry the bacon. Then fry the onion in the bacon fat. (The original recipe calls for frying the onion in a mix of butter and oil, then adding the bacon to that. That seems like entirely too many fats in the pan at one time to me.)
- Empty the bacon-onion pan into the bowl of bread cubes. Add chopped parsley, seasonings, eggs, and warm milk.
- Mix all that stuff together with your hands and then press it down into the bottom of the bowl. Leave it sit for about 20 minutes.
- Wet your hands (important!) and form the dough into little spheres. You can make them bigger or smaller, but they will expand when you cook them so don’t make them too big. For this step it’s important that the knödels are pretty firm and that the outside is smooth and kind of creamy from the water on your hands.
- Boil a large pot of lightly salted water and cook the knödels for about 15 min at a bit less than fully boiling.
Tiroler Knödel is usually served in a bowl of beef soup, covered with a very large sprinkling of schnittlauch (chives), with a side of saurkraut. One member of my family finds the beef soup too bland, and the other would spend the entire meal picking the chives off her knödel, so we had it with goulash, like you would semmelknödel. The knödel should be firm and quite dense, not crumbly, and is excellent for soaking up sauce or soup.