Behold: a blob of off-white dough the size of a slightly squished softball, fetchingly dusted with a thick layer of poppy seeds and sugar, languishing in a shallow pool of vanilla sauce or butter. Of course it’s delicious.
This is the Germknödel. Germ (hard ‘g’) is a fluffy yeast dough made with sugar and fat. A Knödel, of course, is a dumpling. This hefty, pasty lump of Germ is filled with Powidl—a hot, sweet puree made from plums, cloves, and cinnamon, cooked for hours and reduced to a purple-black jam. It comes with melted butter, or with vanilla sauce. And this is an entree, not a dessert.
Like the foods of many a former empire, Austria’s cuisine has been absorbed and adapted from the lands it used to own. They say the Germknödel was introduced into Vienna’s well-to-do kitchens by a Bohemian cook, from the western Czech lands in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, back when it stretched from Trieste to Krakow to Belgrade. It’s also a Bavarian staple. You’ll find it in some of the more traditional restaurants throughout Austria, but unless it happens to be winter, you’ll have to search hard. In over 30 years I have rarely seen it on a menu when there wasn’t snow on the ground, or in a restaurant below an altitude of 3,000 feet. This is what people eat in Alpine ski huts with all-wood interiors, mounted antlers and wooden skis on the wall, and soggy ski gloves drying on tiled heating stoves, where the fare has a carb-loaded logic of its own.
In Austria, spending time in the outdoors, and especially the Alps, is a birthright. Schoolchildren have a day set aside for a class hike at the start of school year, and a one-week holiday in winter, often earmarked for ski trips with school-classes or with family. When I was a young teenager, our school’s ski team trained for youth ski races. After a morning of getting whacked by slalom poles and freezing our fingers on lift runs, we would sneak into the closest Almhütte for hot chocolate and Germknödel. A ball of yeast, the size of a softball. In the Alps, it makes perfect sense.