It's hard to believe that It was 16 years ago this May that I set off to Italy to learn how to cook the local cuisine. It was on my first trip to Italy 22 years ago as a young art history student that I knew I would need to return and spend some time falling more in love with Italy. It's a special place full of history and mystery, and a whole lot of delicious food just waiting to be discovered. One dish that has stuck with me all these years, is a Trentino-Alto Adige specialty called Canederli. These speck-studded bread dumplings (similar to Austrian Knödel) are a hearty dish that, like so many Italian dishes, use up the leftover scraps from the pantry. The recipe calls for bits of stale bread, an egg or two, some sauteed greens and onions, a small chunk of smoky speck, and a pot of rich broth (brodo) or some butter and parmigiano for serving. The restaurant where I worked in Trento used a mixture of wild greens that grew in the nearby alpine pastures, but you can use spinach or radicchio in yours if you can't find fresh alpine-grown greens ;)
There is nothing overly tricky about making Canederli - except, the mixture must rest in the refrigerator for two hours, in order for the egg and flour to properly absorb with the bread and form the right texture. If you don't let the mixture rest long enough, it may fall apart in the boiling water when it's time to cook the dumplings.
This recipe will make enough for a first course for up to 6 people, or a more hearty main course for 4. You can serve your canederli in a bowl of rich beef, chicken, or vegetable broth (Canederli en Brodo) or tossed with a little melted butter and some freshly grated Parmigiano. In Italy, Canederli are often served as a dish alongside roasted meats or with a fresh green cabbage salad to help cut through the richness. If you prefer to make your Canederli vegetarian, leave out the speck! If you are looking for an alternative to speck, you can use a similar amount of proscuitto or pancetta instead - but speck is the regional specialty.
Once your mixture has adequately rested, its time to form the canederli. I recommend using slightly wet hands to work with the sticky bread mixture, it definitely makes it a little easier to form the Canederli! Divide the mixture evenly into golf ball sized balls and make sure they are tightly formed with relatively smooth sides. Your finished Canederli will have some craggly edges but will mostly stay together in a ball while they cook.
Canederli in butter with Parmigiano
11 ounces stale sturdy white bread (quite thick, crusts removed)
1 scant cup warm milk
5 oz Speck, cubed
2 eggs lightly beaten
1 small onion peeled and minced
1/4 cup Parmigiano, grated, plus more for serving
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp nutmeg, grated
1/3 cup steamed spinach, squeezed very dry and chopped (or sauteed finely chopped radicchio)
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup salted butter, melted, for serving OR 8 cups good quality broth (beef, chicken, or vegetable)
1. Tear the bread into small bits and put in a bowl. Add the warmed milk and beaten eggs. Mix everything together until a cohesive mixture forms, and place in the refrigerator covered for 2 hours.
2. Cut the speck into small cubes and peel and finely chop the onion. Cook the speck and onions in olive oil and butter for 5 to 8 minutes in a skillet over a medium heat, or until the onions are tender. Pour off and discard fat. Set pan aside to cool.
3. Using your hands, mix together the pre-soaked bread with the cooled onions and speck, grated parmigiano, spinach, salt, black pepper and nutmeg. Add the flour and mix again until a homogenous mixture forms. Leave the mixture to rest for another 30 minutes.
4. Using wet hands, form the canederli mixture into golf ball sized portions, about 12. Place the dumplings on a floured surface until you have made them all.
5. If you are serving your Canederli in broth, bring the broth to a simmer and drop the canederli, one at a time, into the heated broth. Alternatively, bring water to a simmer and season the water with salt. Follow the same instructions. Don’t overcrowd the pan - you may have to cook them in batches and keep warm while you cook the rest. Simmer the dumplings for approximately 10-12 minutes, or until each dumpling rises to the top, and has gently puffed - this means the dumpling has cooked all the way through. Remove canederli carefully with a slotted spoon to a plate until all of the dumplings have been cooked.
Serve two to three dumplings per person, covered with heated broth or tossed with melted butter. Garnish with grated Parmigiano.