Austria is not only home to more cows than people (and that’s a good thing, because those cows are responsible for incredible dairy products), but also to a legendary variety of Knödel, which come in both savory and sweet form and are a beloved culinary treasure. The word Knödel alone refers to their ball shape, but gives no indication of taste, ingredients, or filling. Knödel are as much of an integral part of Austrian cuisine as rice is in Asian countries, with different parts of Austria producing their own local versions of these delights. Some are quite hearty, such as Tiroler Speckknödel, while others are fluffy pillows of dough filled with the summer’s ripest fruits.
Like in many Austrian families, the production of Knödel filled with fruit has a long tradition in my own family, including my great-grandmother (who was the queen of Knödel, Strudel, and other Austrian pastries), my grandmothers, and my mom. However, there are two different ways to prepare the dough – one is made with potatoes, the other with Topfen. Called Quark in Germany, Topfen is a creamy cheese not unlike ricotta, but drier and with a different taste. My mom usually makes her dough with potatoes, because that’s how my dad likes it, while I am partial to the dough made with Topfen. I find that the Topfen gives it a lighter texture that is a better match with the fruit. I also like to stuff my apricots with a sugar cube, which not only intensifies the aroma of the fruit, but results in a wonderful pool of apricot juice at the center of the Knödel.
The most popular fruit for Knödel are apricots (called Marillen in Austria) and plums (Zwetschken), with the most fragrant and sweetest apricots growing in the Wachau, a scenic stretch along the river Danube not far from Vienna (Richard the Lionheart spent a few months in captivity there at the end of the 12th century – it’s fair to assume though that he wasn’t served anything as fancy as Marillenknödel, and not just because his captivity fell during the cold winter months).
The following recipe can be easily replicated as long as you have access to Topfen (Quark). Unfortunately, there is no substitute for it. A word on the bread crumbs: these are traditionally made from Semmeln, a small white bread extremely popular in Austria, and are called Semmelbrösel (Brösel = crumbs). You can substitute with regular bread crumbs (make sure they are not salty though). Marillen- or Zwetschkenknödel are either eaten as a main course, or for dessert. They are usually preceded by a light soup if eaten as a main course.
Marillenknödel (makes about 7-8 Knödel)
For the dough:
250g Topfen (10% fat)
finely ground peel of 1/2 lemon
50g butter at room temperature
pinch of salt
60g wheat semolina
7 or 8 ripe apricots
For the bread crumbs:
120g Semmelbrösel (substitute with bread crumbs)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
powdered sugar for dusting
1. In a bowl, mix 1/4 of the Topfen with butter, lemon peel, and a pinch of salt until creamy.
2. Add egg, remaining Topfen, flour, and semolina and mix well.
3. Cover and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.
4. Cut a slit into each apricot wide enough to take the pit out. Be careful not to cut them in half!
5. Stuff each apricot with a sugar cube.
6. Using your hands, roll dough into a thick log on a floured surface.
7. Cut off equal slices and flatten with your hands.
8. Put an apricot in the center of each flatten piece of dough, and enclose fruit with dough.
9. Roll in the palm of your hand to achieve a uniform ball shape.
10. Bring water to a boil in a wide pot. Add 1 teaspoon salt.
11. Add Knödel and turn down heat so water barely simmers.
12. Simmer Knödel for about 7 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare bread crumbs:
1. Heat butter in pan until melted. Add both sugars and bread crumbs.
2. Add cinnamon and stir until bread crumbs turn golden.
3. When Knödel are done, lift out of water with a slotted spoon and let drain.
4. Transfer to pan with breadcrumbs and cover evenly.
5. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately.
Pizza is one of my favorite Italian dishes, as long as it resembles the real deal, and not some bizarre concoction from a fast food chain. I know everyone likes their food differently, so no offense to anyone, but pizza crust stuffed with fake cheese and topped with clumps of mystery meat is not pizza. That’s about as far removed from pizza as instant coffee is from cappuccino made with an espresso machine. The ultimate affront though are those awful garlic sticks on the side, especially when they are pimped with one of those slimy sauces that come in little plastic containers.
Whether you like your pizza crust thin or thick, one thing is for sure – making pizza at home is fun and tastes so much better than the frozen or delivered stuff. In fact, there’s no comparison. While I am partial to tomato sauce on my pizza, I don’t always feel like making it, especially in the summer when I like dishes to be light and easy. Representing the three colors of Italy’s national flag, this is probably the easiest pizza you can make at home. With the aid of a food processor, making the dough is a snap, and once the dough has risen you’ll be eating home made pizza fresh from the oven in no time. It’s a real treat in the summer when ripe tomatoes and fresh basil add their intense flavor to this dish. Buon appetito!
Pizza Tricolore (serves 2)
For the dough:
1 tablespoon dry yeast
pinch of sugar
2/3 cup warm (not hot!) water
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, depending on the flour
your favorite ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced
a few tablespoons of ricotta
some grated parmesan cheese for sprinkling
fresh basil leaves
1. Put the water, yeast, and pinch of sugar in a small bowl or cup.
2. Let stand for a few minutes until foam and bubbles appear on the surface.
3. Put flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the dough hook.
4. Add olive oil and water and yeast mix, and process until a smooth dough forms.
5. The dough should be elastic but not too dry or too sticky.
6. Knead dough a few times on a floured surface. Form into a ball.
7. Put dough in a bowl lightly brushed with oil, and cover.
8. Let rest for about 20 – 30 min. or until doubled in size.
9. With a rolling pin, roll out dough on floured surface to desired thickness.
10. Transfer dough to baking sheet.
11. Spread a thin layer of ricotta cheese onto dough.
12. Sprinkle with chopped garlic
12. Distribute tomato slices evenly, and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese.
13. Season with salt and pepper.
14. Bake in a preheated oven at 220C/425F for about 15 minutes or until edges are golden brown.
15. Let pizza cool, sprinkle with basil leaves, and drizzle with some olive oil.
I’m usually a bit suspicious of sauces made with bell peppers, because they tend to have a rather bitter and unpleasant taste. Roasting the peppers is a good way to avoid this problem and add a layer of smokiness, but I have to admit I avoid the process of roasting peppers myself like the plague. For some reason, it always ends up such a mess – the peppers first come out of the oven in all their roasted glory, but when I set out to peel them, it goes downhill from there. What I am left with is a battlefield of shriveled up peel that sticks to my fingers like glue, and pieces of bell pepper that are smashed beyond recognition. Not a good idea. I don’t like store bought roasted peppers either though, because they just don’t taste that good and have a strange “preserved” texture to them.
Enter this wonderful sweet bell pepper cream. No roasting or peeling required at all, and the best part? The sauce is incredibly creamy, yet there’s not a lick of cream in it! And making it couldn’t be any simpler. Just simmer onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers in extra virgin olive oil and water until they are tender and the water has evaporated, give it a few spins in a blender, and voila, you have an exquisite sauce for spaghetti!
The subtle sweetness of the bell pepper sauce forms a lovely background for the sharp arugula and the salty Speck in this dish. It’s great with some crusty Italian bread, and a nice glass of red wine. If you need inspiration for picking a good bottle of red, head on over to Stevie and Heguiberto’s great blog, Weird Combinations where you’ll find lots of fun reviews of (Californian) vineries and their liquid products!
Spaghetti With A Sweet Pepper Cream, Arugula, And Speck (serves 4)
200g red bell pepper, cut into small cubes
100g red onion, thinly sliced
100g cherry tomatoes, cut in half
4 slices Tyrolean Speck
extra virgin olive oil
1. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a casserole pan and add onions and peppers.
2. Sautee over high heat for about 2 minutes, stirring.
3. Add tomatoes and 500ml water.
4. Salt to taste and let simmer uncovered until peppers are tender and the water has evaporated.
5. Blend in a blender until creamy.
6. Cook spaghetti al dente in plenty of boiling and salted water.
7. Drain spaghetti. Do not rinse.
8. Mix sauce and pasta in the same pot you cooked the spaghetti in.
9. Divide spaghetti among plates, and top each plate with a slice of Speck and a few stems of arugula.
Some flavors are a match made in heaven. Think of sticky rice with mango, or cantaloupe and prosciutto. Whenever I have cantaloupe, I always want a slice or two of prosciutto with it. The salty prosciutto perfectly balances the sweetness of the melon, and it’s such a perfect combination of flavors that can hardly be improved upon. Or so I thought.
The classic ham/melon pairing gets seriously dressed up in this wonderfully refreshing salad, which makes an elegant appetizer or a light lunch on a hot summer day. For a new twist, I used Tyrolean Speck instead of prosciutto, which has a more rustic and smoky aroma than its Italian cousin. There’s also the mellow taste of mozzarella, while mint and basil add little bursts of summer flavor throughout the salad. For a nice crunch, the salad is topped with lemon and parmesan croutons and dressed with a lovely olive oil and balsamic vinegar marinade. If you can’t find lamb’s ear lettuce, substitute with arugula. If unavailable, use prosciutto instead of Tyrolean Speck.
Cantaloupe Salad With Parmesan Croutons (serves 4)
For the croutons:
90g baguette, cut into small cubes
30g grated parmesan cheese
20ml extra virgin olive oil
finely grated peel of 1 lemon
1/4 garlic clove, finely chopped
50ml extra virgin olive oil
20ml balsamic vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 Cantaloupe, cut into thin slices
12 thin slices Tyrolean Speck
250g mozzarella, torn into small pieces
lamb’s ear lettuce or arugula
handful of mint leaves
handful of basil leaves
1. In a bowl, mix bread cubes, parmesan, oil, lemon zest, and salt to taste.
2. Sautee coated bread cubes in a pan over high heat until crunchy and golden.
3. Set aside and let cool.
4. In a small bowl, whisk together ingredients for the dressing.
5. Cut melon into small wedges.
6. Arrange lettuce on plates, and top with melon, mozzarella, and Speck.
7. Drizzle dressing over salad right before serving.