Swiss Mac and Cheese: Knöpfli

It’s time to introduce another Swiss food.  This one involved some mess making in my kitchen, but I think the recipe is a keeper, in the end.  It’s called knöpfli, and it’s the Swiss equivalent of mac and cheese.  Don’t ask me to pronounce it, by the way. I sound like I’m sneezing when I try.  But you make the pasta from scratch, and the cheese is, of course, Swiss.

Chari made this dish for me when I was in Switzerland. It’s a favorite in their home, as it is in many Swiss homes around the country, especially for the kids.  I’d seen it in the grocery stores, just under a different name (spätzli) and wondered what in the world it was.  It looked like little globs of dough, which, it turns out, it is.  Thankfully, those little globs get covered in butter and cheese, making them much more appetizing.

Before I left Switzerland, I purchased a knöpfli pan, so I could make the dish for Dan at home.  The instructions were all in German, French, and Italian, like everything else in Switzerland, but I figured I could manage it okay with my translator in hand at home.  Last weekend, I tried it out for him, and he came home to me literally covered in dough, cursing at the pot of congealed dough, slightly burned and throwing an overall hissy fit.  He was patient with me, took some pictures, and generally got out of the way while I figured out how in the world to make this stuff.  Chari made it look so easy.

Here’s what I learned.

Ingredients:

2 1/3 cups of flour, sifted
3 eggs
100-200 ml of water (1/3-2/3 cup)
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp butter, cold and sliced into pieces
¼-1 cup of Swiss cheese, grated (Emmental, Appenzeller, etc)

Directions:

In a medium bowl, add the flour.  In another bowl, mix the eggs, 1/3 cup water, and the salt.  Slowly add a little water and mix well as you add.  You want a consistency that isn’t too runny but also will go through the holes in the knöpfli pan with little force.  If you need it to be more runny, add more water and mix.  My recipe (the one from the pan) recommended that it sit for 30 minutes until it formed bubbles. I let it sit, and bubbles never formed.  Maybe they have different types of flour in Europe that bubbles.  I’m going to make the resting part optional.

You might be thinking, “That’s great Amy, but how in the world am I supposed to make this without the pan.”  It’s a bit harder, granted, but there are options here in the States.  For example, the steamer insert on my rice cooker would work just fine.  Many pans have steamer inserts with holes in them that are just about this size.  Just make sure the surface is flat, so you can scrape along it.  My husband came up with the idea of using a cheese grater, the kind that’s flat, especially the ones that come attached to a bowl (Ikea has a great one for this).  Take it off the bowl and use the underside (the dull side) for the dough (I’d be very curious to hear if this works, if any of you try it). You can find kitchen scrapers of various sizes at most kitchen supply stores.

Next, you’ll need to get some water boiling in a tall pot, ideally one on which you could rest your knöpfli pan.  I discovered that you shouldn’t have the water level either too high or boiling too hard. You don’t want to produce too much steam to cook the dough too fast or to scald you while you’re scraping.  But you want the water level high enough to cook the dough in the pot.

I used a measuring cup to dump about 1/3 of a cup of the dough at a time on the pan.  I needed to make sure that I was quick to scrape it, or it cooked to the surface. I also found out that a little kitchen spray, such as Pam, between batches, did a great job keeping it from sticking (In the pictured version, I hadn’t yet figured out this tip and was having an awful time with things sticking.  Also, I had too much steam.).

Once the dough drops through, I picked up the pan and scraped the underside to remove any little bits that didn’t make it.  Then, I stirred the globs that were in there, to make sure they didn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  That’s another reason you want the water level high enough, so the dough doesn’t stick as badly on the bottom.  When they’re cooked through, which only takes a matter of about 30 seconds, they’ll all swirl around on the surface of the water.  I used a slotted spoon to scoop them out onto a plate.

Between batches, I’d load on a slice of butter and a handful of cheese.  The cheese and butter would melt on the hot pasta.  Here, you can use as much cheese as you’d like.  I probably used about ½ of a cup of Emmental in total, but people who want more cheese could add a lot more.

At the end, I’d add the remaining cheese and serve it while hot.  Freshly ground black pepper atop works great, and depending on how much cheese and butter you add, you could add a bit more salt as well, to taste.

The dish was a hit in the Letinsky home, and now that I know how to make it, I’m sure it will be a regular side dish around here. I won’t exactly call it health food, but it’s nice when paired with healthy foods.

Bon Appetite!

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Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 10:25 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Speaking as an (unbiased) husband, I thought this was a really good meal. I’m not a fan of mac-n-cheese but this was really quite tasty. I think it might be because the cheese wasn’t that orangish processed stuff.

    Also, to the kitchen helpers out there, I recommend not making mock screaming noises and cries of “help me!” in a shrill voice each time the blobs of pasta fall into the bowl. I apparently found it much more amusing than the chef.

    AL: that’s my man. =)

  2. Hey Amy, looks like you were pretty successful with your first Knöpfli attempt. Congratulations! Here’s a bit of clarification about the missing bubbles. You are actually supposed to mix the dough vigorously until bubbles form, and then let the dough rest 30 minutes. This lets you know that the gluten has been developed enough for the best texture (giving you and end result that’s not soggy but has a bit of bite). Here in Switzerland they have special flour for knöpfli. You can approximate this flour by adding a few tablespoons of semolina to your flour. Of course, regular flour really works just fine. Go Amy!

    AL: Thanks for the clarification on the flour. I was really scratching my head over that one. You’re right, it did taste fine with our flour, but I bet it tastes even better with the semolina. The gluten talk goes over my head, but I’ll take your word for it. Glad I have an authentic Swiss cook here to help me out as I stumble along!

  3. Oh, I forgot to mention that Gruyère or Appenzeller are our cheeses of choice to go with knöpfli as they are very flavorful. Emmentaler delicate flavour tends to be a bit bland for this dish

    AL: Good point. I can see how a sharper cheese would work. You know, a really sharp cheddar would also work well…just none of that mild yellow stuff. =)

  4. Hi Amy:
    My mother made this recipe for us at special times…however, she made the knopfli bigger like dumplings, scooped them out of the boiling water, put them on a large platter, sprinkled with sharp grated cheddar cheese and homemade bread crumbs (sauteed in butter). My 20 yr old son just asked me to make this soon…I only attempted 2 times, but he remembered and loved it. Still to this day when I go home, I ask for Grandma Biefer’s Knopfli as we called it.

    AL: Sounds wonderful! Thanks for sharing your knopfli recipe!

  5. Ok, I have some other variants. The basic for Knöpfli are the same. However one variant is then, instead of mixing them with cheese, to bake them in a bit of butter in a pan. Makes them crispy and tasty.

    Another variant is called Grischuns, where you mix your cooked Knöpfli with some ham, cream, pepper, a bit of salt (and possibly other spices), top it with cheese (againg, i agree that gruyere or appenzeller is best, unless you have some particular local swiss mountain cheese) and bake it in the oven for around 20 minutes.

  6. Dans ma famille,mon pére,né en 1907,se souvenais des knöpfli de sa grand-mére. Je les passe à la poêle comme les roesti, gruyère au milieu. Avez vous essayé de manger l’eau de cuisson ou il faut laisser volontairement des brins de pâte avec une petite pincée de muscade et du persil frais. Un excellent potage. En 1750 les Suisses étaient pauvres.. immigration aux USA sorry but y can not writting so mutch ii englich Pierre de 2105 Travers Switzerland

    AL: Bonjour! Je suis très heureux que vous ai laissé un commentaire! Heureusement, je parle un peu de Français. Je n’ai jamais essayé de faire le potage, mais je pense c’est un bonne idée pour l’économie! La prochaine fois que je fais des knöpfli, j’essayerai de faire le potage avec de muscade et du persil frais. Merci pour la suggestion!

    And for all you non French speaking types, a translation, first of Pierre’s helpful comment.
    He says that in his family, his father was born in 1907, and he remembers his grandmother’s knupfli. (making it a pretty old recipe!). After he makes the Knupfli dumplings, he puts them in the frying pan (just like you do with rosti), with gruyère cheese mixed in (in the middle, he says). Then, he uses that leftover water from boiling the dumplings to make a soup! He leaves a few bits of dumpling in the water, though, and adds a pinch of nutmeg and some fresh parsley. This recipe is from 1750, apparently, and he says the Swiss were poor back then.

    In my response, I thanked him for writing and told him that I’ve never tried to make a soup from it but I would next time I made Knupfli. I said it sounded like a good idea for economizing!

  7. Bonjour!
    Have you tried making Spaetzle? Its the german semi- equivalent of the Knoepfli, except that the noodles are longer. Usually you eat these types of noodles with Goulash, or just brown sauce. To be honest, as often as I eat macaroni and cheese, Swiss and Germans (from my observations) dont eat Spaetzle/Knoepfli as often… (especially not with cheese)
    P.s. With Cheese its called Kaesespaetzle, you often see the shorter Knoepfli kind of noodle used here.

  8. I really don’t like the reference to mac and cheese. Knopfli are so much more than the old mac and cheese u refer to and, in my opinion, don’t taste anything like mac & cheese! Guess thats the Swiss in me coming out. This traditional meal has many variations.
    In our home, we have always fried our knopfli once they were cold, either in butter or oil. Once they were a golden brown or even a little darker, we put knopli together in layers. First comes the knopfli, then a thin sprinkling of carmelized onions, then some cheese (gruyere or another nice sharp cheese) then another layer of knopfli, onions, cheese and top with knopli. Serve and enjoy. Great with a fresh salad or a beef goulash or some home made apple sauce. We also season our knopfli with a yellow spice called Aromat – which gives it another nice flavour.

    AL: I appreciate your thoughts here! I love the variations you share, and I’ll be more careful about how I categorize it from now on!


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