Last weekend me and my roommate, M.S., spent two full days in the most Christmasy city I’ve ever been to in all of Italy and in all of my life.
Bolzano, a small town in the Trentino Aldo-Adige region of Italy is well-known for its German-Austrian culture and annual Christmas markets. In fact the city used to be a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire up until 1915 when the Triple Entente allies offered Italy the regions of Tyrol and Istria during WWI. Despite its Italian reign, the region has largely maintained its Bavarian identity. Most citizens speak German, Italian and an Alto-Adigian dialect, and sausages, sauerkraut, and potatoes are South-Tyrolean staples.
Visiting Bolzano is like taking a step into a winter wonderland. It’s as if Mrs. Claus herself decorated the city: giant handpainted ornaments hang over the streets, green garland line shop windows and doorways, and the smell of homemade apple strudel and mulled wine fills the air. It’s old-fashioned and even though I love New York City’s Rockefeller Christmas tree lit up from top to bottom, when it comes to Christmas, I for one prefer old-fashioned.
We spent most of our time walking around, admiring the shops and local Chrismas markets. Most of the stands were full of useless, but cute little trinkets, such as painted gnomes, homemade wreaths, countless variations of owls figurines (seriously, why are owls so popular?), alpaca knitted hats and scarves, scented candles, and typical food products (speck ham, cheese, liquers), which naturally interested me the most.
Oh and we ate. We ate all the Bavarian food we possibly could fit in our hungry little tummies. It was as if we wanted to get as far away from traditional Italian food as possible, which of course is impossible considering almost everything we ate was South-Tyrolean and South Tyrol, whether the local people accept it or not, is located in Italy. So even if it didn’t seem like we were eating Italian food, all those sausages and strudels were actually “Italian”!
We ate bretzels, smothered in speck ham and Edmental cheese. We shared Gnocchi Tirolesi served in a deer ragù and porcini mushrooms sauce. We feasted on meats of all shapes and sizes: sausage, pork loin, ham, and pancetta. We tosate with German Frost beer and drank Gluwein (hot mulled wine) out of christmas mugs until our tongues turned purple. And the next day we got up only to down two pieces of apple and nut strudel, a cappuccino, and a bratwurst sandwich. Whoever says Bavarian food isn’t good hasn’t been to Bolzano.
The one dish that was completely foreign to me was Knödel – known as canederli in Italian, or bread dumplings. I kept seeing these little round dumplings everywhere and after trying one at dinner, I decided that they were by far my favorite thing I had ate during the whole trip.
On our way home, while sitting on the train and snacking on German spiced Lebkuchen biscuits, we discussed more about food. M.S.’s birthday was only a few days days away and so I asked her what she wanted to have for her birthday dinner. She thought about it for a moment and after discussing several possibilities of Gramigna pasta with sausage (a Bologna favorite) or Eggplant Parmesan, she decided it would only be fitting if we kept on with the German theme and made Knödel bread dumplings. I agreed, accepting the dish as a new IP365 kitchen challenge.
When we got home, M.S. said to me, “Hey! Why don’t we look in your Italian cookbook for a Knödel recipe!” (I have this awesome book called Rustico that breaks down typical Italian recipes by region). Sure enough when we opened up to the Trentino Alto-Adige region there was a Canederli recipe, broken down step-by-step, in English. This Knödel business was going to happen.
So we went to the supermarket, got the ingredients, all of which were pretty basic with the exception of the speck ham, which M.S. had to wait in line for at the deli station and deal with a rude shop employee who nearly laughed at her when she asked for 400 grams of speck. What’s so funny about 400 grams of speck? We’re still not sure but we’ve decided to boycott that deli station for awhile.
Despite the rude speck setback, we had all the ingredients and made Knödel! We even made our own vegeterian version of spinach Knödel. It was WAY easier than we thought it would be. So easy that I think Knödel might be a new weeknight favorite. Here’s how it’s done:
How to Make South-Tyrolean Bread and Speck Dumplings
(recipe adapted from Rustico by Micol Negrin)
1 cup whole milk
1/2 lb stale white bread, crusts removed and diced into 1/2 inch cubes (bread should be quite firm, so I would buy a loaf a few days before and let it sit out to dry)
1/4 lb speck, cut into 1/8 inch cubes (if you can’t find speck, pancetta or bacon would be an okay substitute)
2 cups of green onions, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup unbleached flour, plus extra for the tray
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 quarts broth (chicken or vegetable are both okay)
Beat eggs and milk in a large bowl. Add bread, speck, 1 3/4 cups green onions, salt, and pepper. Work the mixture with your hands until the bread breaks down. Mix in the flour with your hands until the mixture holds together and forms a gluey paste. If the mixture is too liquid, add more flour by the tablespoon until it starts to hold together.
Sprinkle some flour on large tray. This is where we will put our canederli once they are formed. With moistened hands, shape canederli into walnut-sized balls and place on floured tray. Continue to form the canederli, spreading them out on the tray. If the tray becomes too full, make another floured tray and continue to add your canederli until all the mixture has been used.
Meanwhlie in a large pot bring 4 quarts of broth to a boil. Drop the canederli into the broth and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, uncovered. The broth should be just below the boiling point. When finished, remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl.
Now you can choose from two serving methods:
Method 1, The Butter Method:
Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add the canederli and cook 5 minutes until golden all over, turning to cook evenly. Serve hot and sprinkle with the remaining green onions. This is a good method if you’re serving the canederli as a side dish or appetizer.
Method 2, The Broth Method:
Alternatively, you can serve the canederli in broth. If making as a main dish, I would recommend doing this.
You can also form the canederli ahead of time (up to 6 hours). Place them on a floured tray, cover with a towel and refrigerate.
Buon appetito! Guten Appetit!