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.
38 responses to “NORTH DAKOTA CHEESE BUTTONS (KÄSE KNÖPFEN OR KASE KNOEPFLA)”
I’m forwarding this to a chap in Fargo who runs a farm with his brother in the area. I used to work for him a while ago when he was working in my company in the UK. I think he’ll like it, especially old pics of the town…
Thank you for the recipe I’d forgotten about it. I still make other German dishes I was raised up with.
Glad you liked the recipe. The best thing about old timey foods is the memories of the people you remember who cooked them.
Thanks for your comment. The wires to his computer may be frozen in our current Arctic blast.
Oh boy…this is a dish my husband would love and he wouldn’t worry at all about consuming the cholesterol. 🙂
Thanks, Karen. Your husband’s attitude is the only one that will work with this dish. Hope you warm in all the snow up your way.
What town is pictured here? It looks just like Main Street in Ipswich, SD.
Small world. The picture is Ellendale ND, but some of my family settled in the Phillips/Ipswich area around the 1890s or so. I lost track of the German side of the family in Ipswich about 20 years ago.
I thought it was Ellendale, since my father’s family was from there. It has been years since I had cheese buttons….now I’m drooling.
Thanks, Jerry. I continue to be amazed at how many readers have ties to ND. I’m not sure but cheese buttons would probably not be on a Weight Watcher diet, but they sure are good.
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My Grandma Evelyn, born in Hague, North Dakota, made these for my father and his siblings. Her parents were Germans from Russia. My dad made them with us, lucky us!
My sister and I are getting ready to make them with my kids. I found your blog while searching for pictures of cheesebuttons for my daughter.
I knew they were a German dish, but had no idea of the specificity of Russian-Germans from North Dakota! Thank you for sharing.
We eat ours with plenty of salt and pepper and cheap grape jelly, no bread sauce or onions as I’ve seen some recipes.
Thanks so much for sharing your family story. I don’t remember grape jelly but it’s probably tasty! Ya betcha!!
My dad and his sister were talking about eating this growing up. My grandparents were also germans from Russia ( known as Prussia at the time/ the land also given to them by Catherine the great) who immigrated to north american. While my grandparents landed in Saskatchewacindun, much of my family ended up in North Dakota as well. I am thrilled to have came across this recipe with the history behind it. I can’t wait to share this on the family fb page and make this recipe for my dad and my aunt!
Thanks for your kind comment. I remember this dish only on festive occasions, but I remember it very well. I have been surprised that this post has been by far the most popular on my blog. I guess there are a lot of North Dakotans out there with fond memories. And Saskatchewan has many of the same traditions and history. I hope that the recipe works well for you and that your dad and aunt enjoy your efforts.
Made pierogis for the kids today for dinner and I was explaining to them the delights that are cheese buttons and peppered milk soup. My great grandma used to make them every time we came to visit her in Karlsruhe ND. Definitely not something anyone outside of the Northern plains would understand.
Yes, I know. When I tell my in-laws about cheese buttons they look at me like I’m crazy. Then I make a batch and they become converted Nortdakotans
My grandma would make this every Christmas Eve.
Great memories, I bet.
My parents used cottage cheese for the filling. But we all loved it. On the second day, Dad used to fry the “buttons: in butter until crispy outside. Again, you can’t worry about cholesterol. Thanks for the history. My Dad was from Hosmer, SD, and sometimes talked about his family settling in Russia and then coming here. I’ll share this with people in our apartment on an ethnic potluck day.
Thanks for your nice comment and warm family recollection. I have been amazed at how many present and former North/South Dakotans have described fond family remembrances related to a plate (or two) of cheese buttons. .
Mom and dad both grew up in German families on farms on the Eastern plains of North Dakota. Mom from Wing, dad from Tuttle. Your recipe brought back memories of my childhood and a broad smile to my face. When people did physical work like our ancestors the diet was a little more forgiving I guess. Your recipe is as close as I’ve seen to my mom’s. She would use purchased dry curd cottage cheese (a mod con i guess) but the dough and process, spot on. Looking forward to making my own cheese as dry curd is getting hard to find in the Northwest these days so I appreciate that portion of the recipe. Thanks again for making my day!
Thanks for your kind comment and, even more, your great family remembrance. Over the years, my post on ND cheese buttons has been the perennial favorite, and it has brought forth so many family stories about growing up in eastern North Dakota. I hope you enjoy making and eating your own cheese buttons.
Yum…..ate them at grandma’s once a week. Plan to prepare them tomorrow night for two German couples along with knoephla soup and peach Kuchin.
Wow! I’d like to join you for dinner.
My husband’s family were Germans who had been in Russia for several generations and to escape the red and white War they immigrated to Oklahoma. His aunt introduced me to cheese buttons and taught me how to cook them. This is the first time I have ever heard of or seen the recipe outside of the family.
Thanks for your comment and for your family connection. I think many of the immigrants settled in the Dakotas and the Prairie Provinces of Canada because they were expert wheat farmers and the land and weather were similar to what they were used to. Of course, wheat is a big crop in Oklahoma, too. Cheese buttons are always filled with love because they take extra effort to make, but they are so good.
My Oma and Opa (grandmother/father) was German Russian out by Dodge or Dickinson, ND area. I grew up eating these kind of recipes, mostly the meatless ones around Lent, when we visited. You can make a kind that is baked in half and half or cream and cinnamon too. My aunt cheats and makes them with large shell macaroni. She never wrote it down, so I had to call her to find out how to make it.
The ones baked in cream with cinnamon sound sinful. Thanks for sharing your story about North Dakota and cheese buttons. This recipe has certainly struck a chord. I have received so many comments from folks like you with family stories similar to mine and with ties to North Dakota.
These remind me of pierogies.
You’re right! I think home cooks in many places dressed up whatever they had with a bit of dough.
My family, Redfield, SD roots, has made these for holidays and family gatherings for as long as I can remember. We simmer cubed beef roast in onion soup for the entire day and add it over the top of the buttons and bread. It adds the protein and some additional flavor to the recipe.
Thanks for the proper spelling, I have misspelled it for years.
Thanks for your nice comment and tasty suggestion. I, too, have ties to Redfield – an aunt lived her whole life there – so I especially appreciate your comment.
My husband’s Grandmother taught me to make these many years ago, but we add diced ham to each one, and also to the fried bread crumbs.
Sounds like a great addition
Thanks for this recipe and history! I have fond memories of eating them with our Herreid, SD great aunt and family. It’s been 10 years since I’ve made them and it’s about time to get cooking!
Hope you enjoy them. This is by far my most popular recipe. There’re must be a lot of folks with North Dakota roots ! Get cookin’
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