These gnocchi are a specialty of Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy’s northeast, where they are called knodel in German or canederli in Italian. They are usually rolled by hand (like gnocchi) and served floating in soup, but I prefer them pan-fried until golden brown in sage butter. I like my canederli quite soft, so I make the mixture too sticky to roll out on a counter, and use 2 spoons to drop it into simmering water instead.
Canederli should be made with a close-textured, dense, unflavored, stale bread: if the bread is light and airy, or if it is too fresh, it will absorb too much liquid and therefore call for too much flour, resulting in leaden dumplings. You can use rye bread or whole wheat bread if you like.
I serve canederli as a main course, with an assortment of roasted vegetables, cured meats like Speck (a smoked Prosciutto from Trentino-Alto Adige), and savory cheeses like Asiago or Piave. You can also serve them alongside meat and poultry, where they’ll pick up the sauce; or drop them in a bowl of chicken soup as a soothing starter.
Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as an appetizer or side dish
- ¼ pound crustless day-old white country bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 cup snipped chives
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 2 tablespoons plus ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup whole milk
- ¼ cup to ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra if needed
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 12 sage leaves, thinly sliced
Place the bread in a large bowl. Add the chives, caraway, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper. Stir a bit to mix, then add the eggs and mash vigorously with your hands until the bread breaks down. Add the milk and mash again; the point is to create a dense paste with the ingredients at this stage.
Add the flour and mash again with your hands; the mixture should hold together and form a gluey paste; add more flour by the tablespoon if it does not. The mixture should be sticky at this point; if it is not sticky, it will form heavy canederli once cooked. Depending on how stale and dry your bread is, the mixture will require different amounts of flour: drier, staler bread requires less flour. If not cooking right away, cover and set aside for up to 2 hours at room temperature.
Before cooking all the canederli, I suggest testing their texture so you can adjust with additional flour if needed.
When you are ready to serve, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of the salt. Using 2 spoons, drop 1 tablespoon of the batter into the boiling water, and cook until it bobs to the surface. The canederli is not fully cooked at this point, but you can gauge its texture; if it has fallen apart and disintegrated into the water, the batter requires additional flour to hold it together, so add a bit of flour and mix again to incorporate, then test the batter again. It is fine if a few small bits do come away, but the test canederli should remain mostly whole.
Return the water to a gentle boil. Drop the batter by the tablespoon into the water, forming about 20 tablespoon-sized dumplings. They will look misshapen and lumpy, and some small bits may float off and break away, but that is fine. Maintain the heat so the water is just simmering, not vigorously boiling, or the canederli may disintegrate. Cook 8 minutes, uncovered.
Remove with a slotted spoon to a tray. You can do this up to 4 hours ahead and hold at room temperature on an oiled tray, covered with plastic wrap.
Melt the butter with the sage over medium-high heat in a nonstick 12-inch skillet. Add the canederli and sauté 5 to 8 minutes, or until golden all over, turning to cook evenly. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt and serve hot.