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
- 1 egg
- 60g flour
- 60g wheat semolina
- 7 or 8 ripe apricots
- sugar cubes
For the bread crumbs:
- 100g butter
- 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.