The Czech dumpling paradise

Classic dishes in what some believe to be the heart of Europe.

Beet salad (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beet salad
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"All our wives and women can cook well,” proclaimed Vojtech Kacerovsky, in his presentation at the Taste of Czech Culinary Roadshow in Los Angeles. The Czech Republic shares borders with Slovakia, Poland, Germany and Austria, and because it is located in Europe’s geographic center, Czechs consider their land to be the heart of Europe.
At the Czech dinner, delicious sweet-and-sour red cabbage came with the main course of roast duck breast and potato dumplings. This is such a classic Czech dish that it appears on the cover of the Czech National Cookbook by Hana Gajdostikova, which my husband, Yakir, bought during a visit to Prague.
When we asked Jakub Cerny, the affable chef from the Michelin-starred Alcron restaurant in Prague who prepared the dinner, what gave the red cabbage its rich flavor, he told us that he cooked it with cranberry sauce, caramelized sugar and white wine vinegar. Other Czech chefs sweeten their red cabbage with prunes or apples.
It’s not surprising that Czech food reminds me of the Ashkenazi Polish cooking I grew up with. My mother used to make such sweet-and-sour dishes as stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce flavored with sugar and lemon juice.
“‘Sweet and sour’ is, without a doubt, the first answer that comes to mind to the frequently asked question, ‘What are the flavors of Eastern Europe’s cuisines?’” wrote Silvena Rowe in The Eastern and Central European Kitchen. “Here we find quinces, sour cherries, tart plums and crimson pomegranates used in savory dishes.”
The firm Czech potato dumplings that came in slices alongside the duck were very different from the kind of dumplings my mother made – light, fluffy kneidlach (matza balls) that she served in our Friday night chicken soup. The Czech potato dumplings, which were made from a boiled potato and semolina dough (see recipe), are only one of the many kinds of dumplings, known as knedliky, that are made by Czech cooks.
“We make dumplings often because we enjoy eating them with gravy,” said Lenka, a Czech woman who enthusiastically told us how to prepare some of her country’s traditional dishes. Dumplings are so popular that roast meat with potato dumplings and sauerkraut is considered the Czech national dish.
In the Czech Republic, cooks prepare potato dumplings several different ways – some make them from a dough of grated raw potatoes, eggs and flour, and serve them with browned onions and sauerkraut. Others use a mixture of boiled potatoes, flour, eggs and butter-sautéed croutons. The Czechs also make flour dumplings, either from a flour and semolina batter with milk, eggs and cubed rolls, or from a yeast-leavened dough studded with diced bread sticks.
Their cheese dumplings are made from Swiss cheese mixed with flour, warm milk and eggs.
For serving in soups, Czech cooks make dumplings from liver or ground meat mixed with bread crumbs, eggs and onion or garlic.
At the dinner, dumplings were served for dessert as well – strawberry dumplings, made of a farmer cheese dough filled with whole strawberries, coated with cinnamon-seasoned toasted bread crumbs and served with strawberry sauce. Chef Cerny told us that he varies the filling according to the seasons, and sometimes uses apricots or blueberries. The Czechs make prune-filled potato dumplings, too, and some cooks coat their dessert dumplings with nuts, poppy seeds or honey.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
Czech potato and semolina dumplings
This recipe is adapted from the Czech National Cookbook. The dumplings are served with all sorts of meats and are a customary accompaniment for what author Hana Gajdostikova calls the Czech platter – sauerkraut, cooked red cabbage, roasted meat, smoked meat and meatloaf – which is often served to large gatherings.
For these dumplings, which are made from potatoes boiled in their skins, it’s best to cook the potatoes one day ahead so they are well chilled before they are grated. Serve the dumplings drizzled with the pan juices from roasted meat.
Makes about 4 servings
❖ 600 gr. (1¼ pounds) baking potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled ❖ ½ tsp. salt, or to taste ❖ 100 gr. (3½ ounces or ½ cup plus 1½ Tbsp.) semolina or farina ❖ 100 gr. (3½ ounces or ¾ cup plus 1 Tbsp.) all-purpose flour ❖ 1 large whole egg ❖ ¼ tsp. baking powder ❖ 1 large egg yolk (optional)
Add the whole potatoes to a medium saucepan, cover them with water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender. Drain the potatoes and let them stand until they are just cool enough to handle. Peel the potatoes while they are still warm with the aid of a paring knife. Refrigerate them overnight in a covered container.
Grate the potatoes into a medium or large bowl, using the large holes of the grater. Add the semolina, flour, the whole egg, baking powder and ½ teaspoon salt. Knead the mixture in the bowl until the ingredients are combined. If the mixture is too dry to come together, add the egg yolk. Transfer the mixture to a lightly floured surface and knead it until it forms a dough that is smooth but still slightly sticky, flouring lightly if necessary. (Adding too much flour can make the dumplings dry.) Form the dough into 2 cylinders of about 6 to 7.5 cm (2½ to 3 inches) in diameter.
In a stew pan, boil enough water to generously cover the dumplings and add a pinch of salt. Add the dumplings. Cook them uncovered over medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and carefully turning them once or twice. Carefully remove the dumplings from the water. Drain well.
To serve, slice the dumplings with sewing thread.
Sweet-and-sour red cabbage with dried cranberries
In traditional Czech cuisine, sweet and sour red cabbage is a popular accompaniment for roasted meats. Like Chef Jakub Cerny’s red cabbage, this dish is flavored with sautéed onions but is simpler to prepare – as it is sweetened with sugar instead of caramel and cooks for only half an hour instead of two hours. Because the red cabbage cooks with vinegar, its color remains bright.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 1 large red cabbage (about 800 gr. or 1¾ pounds) ❖ 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil, butter or margarine ❖ 1 medium onion, chopped ❖ Salt to taste ❖ ½ cup white wine vinegar, or to taste ❖ ¼ cup water ❖ 2 Tbsp. sugar, or to taste ❖ 3 or 4 Tbsp. dried cranberries or raisins, or to taste ❖ Freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
Quarter the cabbage and slice each piece in thin shreds using a large, heavy knife; discard the cores.
Heat oil in a large sauté pan or stew pan.
Add the onion and sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes or until it browns lightly.
Add the cabbage, sprinkle with salt and mix well over low heat. Add the vinegar, water and sugar, and mix well. Bring to a boil, stirring. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes or until the cabbage is tender.
Add the dried cranberries and cook the cabbage uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for 2 or 3 minutes or until the cranberries are tender and the excess liquid evaporates. Taste and add more salt, sugar, vinegar or pepper if desired. Serve hot.