I’ve never gotten the hang of cooking traditional Czech food. I’ve always enjoyed it at pubs or Sunday lunch with the in-laws, but it’s not a real culinary passion, just more of a novelty to share with visitors (Czech baked goods, however, fall in a category of their own and I am always impressed by their Old World elegance and simplicity.) Same goes for that beloved ball of dough, the dumpling. Maybe I’ve just never had a knedlík that’s won me over. The store-bought bread kind are suspiciously uniform and tend to get crusty. The potato variety are waxy lumps. And I’ve simply never been able to wrap my mind around the sweet entree that is the fruit dumpling. For me it has always been more about the pierogis, the kreplachs, and the potstickers of the world.
Little shop of dumplings
After a recent visit to Knedlíky Láznička (Little Spa Dumplings), I’m coming around. Opened in June 2011, it’s a shabby storefront in the nether regions of Holešovice from which owner Petr Kosiner sells his handmade-daily dumplings to an overwhelmingly receptive clientele. “At 600 loaves, I still make less dumplings a day than I wish I could,” Kosiner told us. “I can’t make enough to meet demand and it’s always a pity to tell the customers we’ve run out.” What exactly is the secret behind Kosiner’s coveted side dish? “I use quality, carefully selected flour from mills outside of Prague, and make everything by hand. It’s a labor of love.” The proof, he adds, is in the dumpling. “Steam them and you’ll see—they don’t fall apart.”
On the day we visited the shop, the Czech passion for knedlíky was at full throttle. Customer after customer turned up for fruit dumplings and was turned away. The first rule of Knedlíky Láznička: arrive early. Though we counted among the latecomers, there were still plenty of dumplings to choose from and the accommodating clerk promised to set aside an order of the fruit- and meat-filled for us to pick up the following day. She also held forth on a number of dumpling-related topics. (No one but single men buys the pre-sliced dumplings. Potato dumplings are a huge hit with kids. She’s yet to get a foreigner in the shop. If you don’t want to slice the dumplings the old-fashioned way, with thread, a dumpling slicer is a savvy investment. Eat within a week or store in the freezer.)
Dances with dumplings
At home, we first tried the houskový knedlík bylinkový (28 CZK/750 g), bread dumplings made with generous slivers of parsley, basil, and dill.
Departing the confines of tradition, I made them with pan-fried chicken legs and brown butter cream sauce as a kind of ode to my grandmother’s chicken and dumplings. We steamed the dumplings in a pařák na knedlíky, that basket-like device that rests in the bottom of a pot above an inch of boiling water. The result was akin to pillowy slices of slightly moist, airy white bread that perfectly absorbed the chickeny sauce. The presence of fresh herbs made any seasoning beyond salt and pepper unnecessary.
Though the woman behind the counter had suggested we serve the herb dumplings as an accompaniment to beef sirloin or with a tomato sauce, I would think these particular dishes go best with Láznička’s houskový knedlík (22 CZK/700 g or 18 CZK/500 sg), or classic bread dumplings, just as tasty but obviously plain after our success with its herbed cousin.
I imagine these dumplings also pair well with stuffed peppers, chicken in paprika sauce, and especially goulash. But we opted to further defile the national treasure by dredging a few slices in an egg, vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar batter, lightly frying in a pan, and drizzling with maple syrup. Czech bread dumplings and American maple syrup get along very well. Expats, there is hope for us yet.
The ovocné knedlíky z čerstvého ovoce (29 CZK/3 pieces), fruit dumplings with fresh fruit, disappointed. The dumplings themselves were excellent—fat and gooey, the perfect vehicles for the traditional toppings of cheese curds, powdered sugar, and melted butter. We sampled batches of pear, strawberry, and apricot. The pear dumplings yielded hard, unpeeled chunks of pear. A mere whisper of fruit graced the strawberry dumplings. Apricot proved the most flavorful, though still a bit lacking. The abysmal winter produce selection undoubtedly factors into the scant amount of fruit in the dumplings, and we’ll look forward to trying these again in the summer months. (I do wonder why apple isn’t a more common dumpling choice?)
Bramborové knedlíky s uzeným masem (29 CZK/3 pieces), potato dumplings with smoked meat, came filled with a generous amount of rich, chewy pork neck.
Unlike most supermarket varieties which add starch, these dumplings are made with real shredded potatoes—and we could tell: Láznička’s dumplings had none of the heft and unappetizing slipperiness of the mass-produced kind. We ate them with braised Chinese cabbage. You can also buy a log of the traditional bramborové knedlíky (25 CZK/500 g), which is perfect for fattier meats like pork.
2012: A dumpling odyssey
Kosiner says he plans to expand operations in the near future. As a popular presence at the spring and fall farmer’s market at Anděl, he will continue to add booths at locations throughout Prague in the upcoming season. “I’m inspired by the customers who come to the farm markets and count on their feedback,” Kosiner says. He admits that his loyal clientele does influence the menu which will eventually include Kosiner’s personal favorite Carlsbad dumplings (Karlovarské knedlíky), yeast-free dumplings comprised simply of bread, spices, and egg and similar to American stuffing, bacon dumplings with parsley (slaninové knedlíky), “hairy” dumplings tossed with sauerkraut (chlupaté knedlíky), cottage cheese dumplings (tvarohové knedlíky), and gluten-free dumplings. Numerous Prague restaurants including U Vejvodů, U Švejka and Malostranská pivnice, as well as various butcher’s shops and smaller eateries have begun stocking Kosiner’s superior product. “Where our dumplings are supplied, you’ll know it,” he boasts.
For newcomers to Czech food, kitchen novices who want to impress Czech friends and family, or those in need of a last-minute souvenir—the dumplings travel extremely well, but note that multiple loaves are surprisingly heavy!—Kosiner’s shop promises knedlíky done just right.
Knedlíky Láznička (Little Spa Dumplings)
Dukelských hrdinů 15, 170 00, Praha 7
tel. 775 52 00 52
Opening hours: Monday–Friday 8:00–18:00
Photos by Daniel Zahradníček
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