The State of North Dakota has only one official food. That’s the official fruit: choke cherry, used for jams jellies, and of course home-made wine. Many believe that cheese buttons should be the official food. As far as I have been able to learn, they are absolutely unique to the state. My step-grandmother made them often as a celebratory dish when I was growing up. I loved them, but I have never eaten them since she stopped making them many years ago. She came from a large German family who farmed on the prairies of eastern North Dakota. No doubt they were part of the immigrant wave of German farmers who came to the Dakotas at the end of the nineteenth century. The immigrants actually came from Russia where they had originally moved with the urging of Catherine the Great. There they were successful wheat farmers, so successful in fact that the native Russians grew increasingly hostile and drove them out. Apparently, North Dakota has many similarities with that part of Russia, so it was only natural that the immigrant Germans again became successful wheat farmers.
My step-grandmother cooked meals for an itinerant threshing crew headed by my grandfather. He had two little boys in tow after their mother had died in the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Both my grandfather and my step-grandmother thought the little boys needed a mother, and so they married. The little boys and their offspring grew up eating a lot of German food including sauerkraut and cheese buttons. There are many variant spellings of the local name of the dish. Perhaps the most common is kase knoepla, but the literal German translation is Käse knõpfen, so I’ll go with that.
Cheese buttons have some amazing similarities with Italian ricotta ravioli. The recipe for the noodle dough is exactly the same as a common recipe for pasta, and the recipe for the farm cheese is similar to at least one version of ricotta. You will note that the dish is remarkably deficient of any green vegetable. Instead it is heavy on bread and flour from the wheat as well as eggs, milk, and butter from the barn yard. That should serve as a warning that this is not a dish for you if you are worried about your cholesterol. But if you like butter, it is hard to think of a better dish. It goes without saying that you cannot substitute margarine or oil.
- 2 quarts whole milk
- ½ cup white vinegar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons salt
- pepper to taste
- Pour the milk into a large, heavy bottomed pot and heat slowly over a medium-low flame, stirring occasionally to avoid scorching on the bottom. When the milk has reached 150°F, stir in the vinegar, remove from the heat, and cover. Stir occasionally as the mixture cools, and the curds form, about 45 minutes.
- Line a large colander with fine-mesh cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel. Pour the curds and whey into the towel and allow them to drain. The curds should form a ball in the bottom of the cheesecloth. Twist the cloth gently between your hands and over the sink to squeeze out any remaining whey.
- Transfer the cheese to a bowl and combine with the eggs and salt. Add pepper to taste and set aside.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour + more for kneading and rolling
- 3 large eggs
- 5-9 tablespoons water + more to seal the edges of the buttons
- Pour the flour in a mound in the middle of a large, clean, flat work surface. Make a deep well in the center of the mound
- Break the three eggs into the well, and using a table fork, beat the eggs gently. Stir in 3 tablespoons of water and then begin to draw the flour in from the edge of the well, stirring and mixing as you go. Continue to draw in the flour, adding 1 more tablespoon of water. Avoid adding too much water, or the dough will get sticky. When the flour is completely incorporated, form the dough into a ball and knead for a 5 to 10 minutes until it is glistening and forms a smooth ball. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let rest for 20 minutes.
- When you are ready to roll out the dough, flour the work surface lightly. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. Roll out one piece with a rolling pin, covering the remaining pieces in plastic while you work. Roll each piece into a round about 16 inches in diameter. Dust the dough lightly with flour if it is too sticky.
- Cut the dough into 2 inch squares. Place a scant teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the center of each square. Moisten the edges of the squares with water and fold over into triangles and/or rectangles (Your choice!). Gently squeeze the edges between your fingers until they are well sealed.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. In batches, add the cheese buttons to the boiling water. They will sink to the bottom but eventually float. Let the buttons continue to cook for a few minutes after they have floated. Transfer to a bowl with a slotted spoon and keep warm in the oven until all of the buttons have been cooked.
- Cut any extra noodle dough into thin strips, boil for 4 -5 minutes, drain, and add to the buttons.
Fried Bread Sauce
- ½ to 1 cup (1 or 2 sticks) unsalted butter
- about 5 ½-inch slices of home-made or good quality white bread, crusts removed and cubed
- Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet over medium heat
- Stir in the bread cubes and sauté until the bread cubes are lightly browned and crisp.
- Pour over the boiled cheese buttons and noodles, stirring gently to mix.
- Serve immediately.