Give Us These Tates and Daily Bread
Ask an expat in Berlin which foods define the city’s cuisine when compared to the rest of Germany, and you’re likely to hear about street foods like Currywurst or Döner Kebap; but ask Germans raised outside the city, and you’re more likely to receive a thoughtful look or a shrug. Yet Berliners, born and raised, East or West, point almost unanimously to the same home-cooked dish as their first response:
400 g Ground Veal or Low-Fat Beef (e.g., 90/10)
30 g Stale white bread (e.g., ½ of a medium roll, or Brötchen), in roughly 2 cm cubes
2 Anchovy filets, well-drained (if packed in oil) or rinsed (if packed in salt), then minced finely (optional)
1 Yolk from 1 large egg
1 White from 1 large egg
1 Medium onion, finely diced, ends or scraps reserved
1 tsp Dijon or smooth Düsseldorf mustard
2 Bay leaves
1 tsp Whole cloves
1 tsp Juniper berries
2 Tbsp neutral oil (e.g., Sunflower or canola)
2 Tbsp All-purpose flour (or similar moderate protein content wheat flour, e.g., 405)
2 Tbsp capers, well-drained
1 Tbsp White vinegar, or the strained packing liquid from the capers
Ground white pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
50 g Pine nuts, lightly toasted
50 g Hazelnuts, roasted and peeled, unsalted
400 ml water, plus more for boiling Klopse
Boiled semi-firm/waxy potatoes (e.g., Yukon Gold, or Festkochend);
or, white rice, to serve
Large pot, preferably 4 liters or larger (Note: Klopse will shrink very slightly, not expand.)
Large non-reactive bowl
Small non-reactive bowl
Yields 3–4 servings.
- Pound, crush, grind, process, or blend the pine nuts and hazelnuts with 400 ml water. The finer you make their texture, the faster flavors will extract, though the resultant pulp will require a finer straining device to separate their mass from the liquid.
- Leave the mixture to steep for a minimum of four hours, or up to 24 hours stored in the fridge.
- Strain and filter out the pulp using a fine mesh strainer followed by cheese cloth, a nut milk bag, superbag, or coffee filter. Reserve both the liquid and solids, stored separately in the refrigerator, in air-tight containers.
- Bring a pot of water to boil with the bay leaves, cloves, juniper berries, and the onion ends or scraps.
- Add the stale bread cubes and just enough of the pine-hazelnut liquid to moisten in the smaller bowl. Knead gently until moistened through. Leave to sit for 2 minutes.
- In the larger bowl combine the meat, eggwhite, anchovies, finely chopped onion, mustard, 2 tablespoons of the pine-hazelnut solids, ¼ tsp salt, and a pinch of white pepper. Mix by hand until everything just comes together.
- Squeeze out the excess liquid from the bread and add to the larger bowl, kneading the mixture gently until a homogenous mass forms. Aim to remove any air pockets.
- Reduce the pot of water to the barest simmer manageable.
- Roll the meat mixture into round dumplings approximately 5 cm in diameter, or about ten Klopse altogether. (Note: For a smoother result, wet your hands slightly in water before forming each dumpling.)
- Gently lower the dumplings into the simmering water one by one. Simmer for 9–14 minutes; the dumplings will float and shrink slightly long before they are done. (Note: If you do not have a rapid read probe thermometer, be ready to remove one dumpling and slice it open to check for doneness; other than appearance, it will still end up great to eat. Do not let the pot come to a rolling boil!)
- Meanwhile, make a roux in the small saucepan. Heat the oil over medium heat, then add the flour, whisking to combine. Whisking constantly, cook the roux to a blonde state, or approximately two minutes. If you are unsure, have a smell, carefully: if it is not ready yet, the mixture will still smell like raw flour.
- To the roux, slowly pour in 200ml of the unused pine-hazelnut liquid. Build a dairy-free bechamel by adding the liquid in 4–5 additions and whisking constantly in between each addition will help to reduce lumps. Lower the heat underneath the small saucepan to medium low. Add the vinegar or liquid from the capers and stir to combine.
- Ladle in the Klopse cooking liquid from the larger pot, a few tablespoons at a time, whisking for at least 30 seconds after each addition to see how the resulting mixture thickens. Avoid adding any of the aromatics to the bechamel, however, as the fat that has rendered out of meat as the Klopse simmered is crucial to the final mouthfeel and flavor! This resulting gravy’s ideal texture is thinner than a traditional Western finishing sauce, yet thicker than a soup; after dipping a spoon into the mixture, running your finger through the gravy on the back of the spoon should yield a bare line that closes back up slightly. Once this stage is reached, add white pepper to taste.
- When all of the Klopse are cooked through, gently remove them from their bath, draining well. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl and add one ladle of gravy to the egg yolk, stirring and adding additional gravy until the outside of the bowl is warm to the touch and the mixture is homogeneous. Lower the heat under the saucepan to low and pour the tempered mixture in the bowl back into the saucepan, whisking quickly to fully incorporate. Cook the mixture over low heat for an additional minute, whisking constantly.
- Turn off the heat under the gravy and add the whole capers, stirring to combine and warming throughout. Adjust with salt to taste as necessary, plus any additional white pepper.
Plate the potatoes or rice, then the Klopse, and finally ladle the gravy generously over the entire plate or shallow bowl, making sure that everyone gets enough capers for their taste.
Helles beer, or other light, pale lager with moderate bitterness
Königsberger Klopse represents a clear but subtle monument to everything that Prussian regional cuisine finds comforting. The combination of thrifty and shelf-stable or reused ingredients, with hefty doses of umami, kept this imperial original popular on both sides of the Wall. Although the complete dish brings together plain boiled potatoes with yesterday’s bread, the delicate Klopse themselves intimate a real sense of homecooked care. It’s little wonder why so many Berliners describe the dish as nostalgic.
The dish takes its name from the city now known as the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, previously the long-held eastern port of imperial Prussia that they named Königsberg, over which they fought with the Kingdom of Poland, who deemed it Królewiec in the early modern period.
(Feeling comfortable yet?)
Earlier versions of the dish suggested more of its seaside namesake, and relied on salted herring, then later, salt beef, with one starchy extender or another. Klops as a form, method, and use of recycled starch suggest common ancestry with Eastern European dumplings, the same family that includes the Ashkenazi Jewish matza ball, here melded with broader German and Holy Roman imperial cousins, those meatball dumplings such as the Leberknödel.
In its more modern form, with more meat, less extenders, and preserved fish serving mostly as an umami booster, the overall flavor profile reads as a homey reconstruction of that persnickety bistro dish vitello tonnato. German cookbooks direct home cooks to build the gravy that ties everything together from a buttery bechamel featuring plenty of whole milk or even heavy cream, then thinned out with some of the spiced cooking liquid, enriched with egg yolk, and polka-dotted with capers. What comes out onto the plate is a surprisingly rich, deep flavor, despite its uniquely runny gravy, more a plush bedsheet than a heavy sauce blanket.
The features that stand out most from the German version of this gravy is the combination of hazelnut notes from the roux and the pleasantly fishy notes from what renders out of the Klopse into the cooking liquid. Both of these elements come through more clearly than the taste of the milk or cream, which seem to take a backseat, seemingly there for their texture. The kosher solution came out while testing some recipes with accidentally over-toasted pine nuts: there it was, that fishy note! Hazelnuts also presented themselves as an obvious substitute for cooked butter; all too many recipes speak to the hazelnut quality of browned butter, so why not skip that complication, too?
While the resulting gravy benefits significantly from the added egg yolk that cream-based recipes treat as optional, there’s another advantage to this method. For those guests whose observance of kashrut keeps them from mixing meat and fish, or who have fish allergies, the solids left behind from making the mixed-nuts “milk” lent some of that same punch offered by the anchovies. Try adding both, which extends the mixture one bit further, and simplifies the rest of the balancing act involved, without sacrificing any of the dish’s familiar taste. This version also ends up requiring even fewer fresh ingredients to keep on hand!
There are four additional considerations worth keeping in mind if you want to experience the dish as Berliners described it to us:
- Northern Germans, and Prussians more specifically, often consider the most basic unit of bread to be the white Brötchen, or “small roll.” In practice, these are crusty little loaves a bit larger than a fist, unenriched and made from straightforward bleached flour, weighing about 60 grams when left to stale for a day. These are often bought daily from a corner bakery or grocery, and not intended to last much longer than that. What’s most important here is that you absolutely should include both the crumb and the crust of whichever stale white bread you choose!
- Using white pepper is for more than just looks in this case. While the dish is still interesting with black pepper, the specific floral qualities of white pepper mesh better here.
- The potatoes ought to be semi-waxy (per the US system of thought regarding potatoes) or semi-firm (per the German system for marketing potatoes). If you are purchasing ingredients in the USA, the Yukon Gold variety hit the right textural mark. If you are shopping in Germany, look for full-sized potatoes labeled Festkochend. You want something that holds together when you slice into it, rather than a floury or mealy potato; at the same time, you don’t want something so waxy that the sauce runs right off it! (So save your rubies and young fingerlings for another dish.)
- Sharp, smooth mustard is a must, the inside partner to all those zingy capers; avoid anything wholegrain or sweet!
Our recipe suggests making more nut milk than strictly necessary, but any leftover dry solids from pressing the pulp make an easy addition to smoothies or cookies. If you nail the gravy on your first try, leftover liquid can be easily transformed into an off-beat version of the cocktail ingredient orgeat: mix to completely dissolve an equal amount of sugar into your remaining nut milk, both measured by weight, before popping that finished syrup in the fridge. Use within a week, especially for simple cocktails that highlight this less-usual combination of nuts.
Cocktail: Army and Navy
50 ml dry gin
15 ml lemon juice
10 ml orgeat
Shake with ice and strain into a glass.
This makes for a great dessert after another meal!