Canederli are bread and speck (a type of ham) dumplings that come from the Alto-Adige region of Northern Italy. There is no direct translation of “canederli”; the Italian word for dumplings is “gnocchi”. But it sounds suspiciously like the Czech word for bread dumplings which is knedliky. Very interesting for an area of Italy where the majority of residents speak German as their main language. In German the name for bread dumplings is semmelknödel, and is thought to come from the Bavarian region of Germany which is….guess what. Right next to Czechia and in a direct line north from Alto-Adige.
I first tasted them at a roadside restaurant in the Dolomites.
The Dolomites are majestic mountains made of calcium and magnesium – ancient coral reefs from an ancient sea that were pushed up to the surface in some miraculous way. The real name of these mountains is “Pale Mountains” due to their color.
But as the sun sets, they look like they are set ablaze, and for just a few moments they transform from gray to orange.
It is in in this area and these conditions that speck is made. Just like prosciutto, they use the leg of the pig. But speck is slow-smoked for a few hours every day over a period of months. The rooms are ventilated to allow the winds and the air of the mountains to pass through and flavor the meat even more. It has a mellow, but rich flavor that can’t be duplicated anywhere else.
The dumplings themselves can be made with speck, or spinach, mushrooms, or even covered with sugar and filled with fruit and jam for a dessert. Most commonly they are served in broth or a butter sauce with cheese. This was a really great butter/cheese version.
My favorite way is in broth, and I don’t put any cheese on it, but feel free to top them with a good Grana if you wish. This recipe has both spinach and ham, and they are fluffy like fluffy little pillows in your mouth. They are poached in the broth, but next time I may just steam them instead. I think that would work just fine, and it makes sure that the broth stays clear.
Canederli (Italian Bread Dumplings)
8 oz old bread, crusts cut off and cubed
1 C flour
1 T baking powder
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 C diced speck, ham, bacon, or pancetta (I used a mix of pancetta and ham)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 T onion or shallot, minced
4 C chopped baby spinach
4 minced sage leaves
1 quart chicken broth
In a saucepan, over medium low heat, add your meat, and a little bit of oil if you need it. Depends on what kind of ham or bacon you are using. Obviously, if using an American style bacon you will need to drain the oil because you don’t want all of that in the dumplings. Add your shallot and garlic, and once the shallots are translucent, add your spinach and sage. That mound of spinach becomes quite small in just a few minutes! Take it off the heat and let it cool down.
Whisk the flour and baking powder together, and then combine them with the bread cubes in a large glass bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the egg well, and then mix in the milk. Pour this over the bread cubes, and stir it in well. Stir in the meat and spinach mixture and then use your hands to start to start mixing it. It should start to come together like a dough. Cover and let sit for about an hour. Sometimes I don’t wait that long.
Remix the dough with your hands and fingers, but don’t overmix. I also don’t recommend doing it with any kind of machinery, because it could get overmixed that way as well. Just use your hands. Grab enough dough to form dumplings a little larger than a golf ball. They will puff up as they cook. The dumplings should form really easily and automatically want to go into that shape. The dough will be moist, but should not be wet. You may want to sacrifice one to see if it will hold up to poaching. If it falls apart, you can fix the dough before rolling the rest.
Canederli making is not an exact science! As you start to form the balls, you may discover that not all of the bread was soaked, so you may need to add a little milk. Or maybe they are not staying together very well, so you need a little more flour. It all depends on the type of bread, and how much moisture is in the egg.
Line up the dumplings on a baking tray and get your broth to a simmer. You want to “poach” these at a low heat. Not boil them. Again, I think I’ll try steaming them next time, as I think that will work just fine, and then the broth will stay clear. Cooking them directly in the broth can sometimes make the broth a little cloudy from any flour that escapes.
Gently place the dumplings in the broth with a slotted spoon. They will be heavy and want to sink down. I do four at a time so they don’t stick together. Cover the pot and let them sit and cook. They are done when they puff up and begin to float on the surface. Sometimes I turn them over just to make sure. Honestly, they take less than 5 minutes to cook, and they are PERFECTLY done. If yours take longer, it doesn’t matter, again, there can be many variables.
Place them in a bowl and ladle some of the broth directly over them. You can add herbs or cheese if you wish. Truly a comfort food!
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