Early into the coronavirus quarantine, maybe a few weeks in—I can’t trust myself on matters of timing now that every day is the same—I had to clean out my freezer. My mother, who lives 1,627 miles away from my tiny Manhattan apartment, was sending me groceries, so I was clearing the old to make way for the new. I left North Dakota at eighteen, and though I’ve been in New York for ten years, she still fusses over me.
In the back, I found a big bag of spätzle, a kind of German noodle. She’d left it during her last visit, hidden in my freezer just in case I ever wanted to make knoephla soup.
I’ve evangelized about the dish for a decade, assuring college roommates, colleagues, and boyfriends they’ve never tasted anything better. Once, when I brought a boyfriend home with me, my friends ribbed him so badly for mispronouncing the name that he resented them for years.
No one outside the Dakotas seems to know what knoephla is, but everyone there does, and everyone’s mom’s is the best. (My mom’s, of course, actually is.) The thick soup, loaded with fat dumplings and rich with heavy cream, is available in every diner and truck stop along I-94, and in every household from Grafton to Bowman. I’ve evangelized about the dish for a decade, assuring college roommates, colleagues, and boyfriends they’ve never tasted anything better. Once, when I brought a boyfriend home with me, my friends ribbed him so badly for mispronouncing the name that he resented them for years. For the record, it’s neh-fluh.
Despite all that talk, I’d never made it myself. That felt wrong! It’s a treat for when I’m home, isn’t it? But I can’t go home for a long time. My parents are immunocompromised. I live in a coronavirus hotspot. My mom still takes care of me. To take care of her, I’m staying here, at the time I wish I were home the most.
So, I made the soup! I even made my own dumplings—from scratch, thank you very much. I kneaded and boiled dough, made the base, shredded the chicken breast, and added the finishing heavy cream. It tasted just like my mom’s, which is to say that it tasted just like the best recipe in North Dakota.
While I ate, I forgot about the global catastrophe and my own isolation, and while the peace didn’t outlast the final bite, I felt more clear-headed when I was done. Knoephla reminds me who I am. It binds me to where I’m from and the people I love, even when they’re 1,627 miles away.
Marge Ellefson's “Embarrassingly Easy” Knoephla
3 tbsp. chicken base
2 boneless chicken breasts, diced
2 10.5-oz. cans cream of celery soup
2 10.5-oz. cans cream of chicken soup
A dash each of garlic powder, black pepper, dried thyme, and dried basil
2 bay leaves (optional)
1 quart whole milk
1 pint whipping cream
4 cups flour
Large pinch salt
2 cups milk
In a large saucepan over medium heat, whisk chicken base into 1 cup warm water until dissolved. Add chicken breast and cook until chicken turns white. Add all four cans of soup and seasonings. (If you use bay leaves, remember to remove them before serving.) Mix well, then add milk. Simmer over medium to medium-low heat, stirring periodically to avoid burning, while you make the noodles.
Combine flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in milk and eggs. Whisk milk and eggs together with a fork, then mix everything together. Let the dough sit for 15 minutes. While you wait, bring another large pot of water to a boil. Season it with salt. When the dough is ready, tear off a piece, roll it into a rope, and snip it into roughly half-inch dumplings. Repeat until you’ve used all the dough. Drop the dumplings into the boiling water and cook over medium heat for another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Using two forks, shred the chicken in the soup base to the best of your ability. Then, combine the dumplings with the base. When serving, add whipping cream to each bowl, stirring to mix, according to each eater’s preference.