Monday, October 20, 2014

German Spaetzle

Fall is a wonderful time for shifting food styles.  Every year, several families in my neighborhood do a big "block party" to celebrate Oktoberfest, and it doesn't really feel like fall until I get those flavors and leave the summer foods behind.  The actual Germans in the group are responsible for the potato salad, handmade pretzels, spiral-cut radishes, and a dozen other important details.  Every year, though, I get to contribute one important dish to the effort: Spaetzle (or Spätzle).  It's a small dumpling-like pasta, traditional in Germany and surrounding countries.

One party-load. Beer and stein optional, but recommended.

Like many rustic dishes, the basics are simple, but the details are important. The traditional recipe consists of only coarse flour, eggs, and salt, and involves a special method for scraping long, thin, ribbons of the dough off of a cutting board into boiling water.  Modern cooks typically use a spaeztle machine instead - one of the only uni-taskers I own.  I also think a food mill with a large-bore sieve (3/8" holes?) would work, and some people have even used a basic colander with large holes.  

A modern spaeztle machine

A note on technique:  Most spaeztle recipes you find in books or online are derived from the traditional method and ingredients, but some adjustments are needed for the average home cook.
The proscribed process is to mix the ingredients like you're making a pasta - form a well in the center and gradually add egg mixture.  I don't like this approach as I think it encourages over-working the dough and makes the dumplings too chewy.  Traditionally, the flour used would be coarse, like Semolina, but we're using AP flour, so gluten formation will be more rapid.  The other important consideration if you're using a spaeztle machine, food mill, or colander, is that we need the resulting dough to "flow" and squish though the holes.  It should be wet and sticky, somewhere between a sponge and a batter.  
Therefore, instead of the pasta method, I do this more in the muffin method - prep the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then add all the wet to the dry and mix minimally, adjusting the liquid to get the proper consistency.  If you start with the base recipe as below and your flour is as dry as ours is here in the Southwest, you will almost certainly need to add at least another 1/4C to 1/2C of water to get the proper sponge wetness.  If the sponge is too tight, it won't flow through the hopper and you'll be frustrated.  If you've somehow gotten it too loose (big eggs?), add a bit more flour and soldier on.

Basic Spaetzle

(Feed ~six as a primary starch, I usually make a double batch for a big Oktoberfest party)

2-1/2 Cups Flour
1/2 Cup Milk
1/2 Cup Water
2 Eggs**
1/4 tsp salt

** If doubling these proportions, use 5 eggs to double the remaining ingredients. You may still need to add liquid to adjust the consistency, but a bit less. You'll want a BIG pot of water for cooking a double batch, if you can manage it. I use my biggest stock pot and by the end of the batch the water is getting pretty starchy. If you can't manage one huge pot, maybe better to work one regular batch at a time and bring a second pot of water to boil for the second batch.

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. 
  2. Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. 
  3. Beat eggs lightly, add milk and water. 
  4. Pour wet ingredients into dry, and mix quickly but thoroughly, being careful to avoid over-working. 
  5. Check consistency and add water in 1/4C increments until you have a loose sponge that clings to a wooden spoon but flows somewhat. 
  6. Begin making dumplings. Place whatever tool you'll be using directly over the pot of boiling water.  Fill the hopper of your spaeztle machine and "Grate" the dough mixture through the holes.  If using a colander, use the back of a spoon to press the mixture through.
  7.  I usually work in small batches (1-2 "hoppers" of the spaetzle maker at a time), so that as the dumplings cook I can pull them out with a wire spider or slotted spoon after ~2 minutes of cooking.  Transfer to an earthenware bowl or casserole to keep warm while you continue to boil the rest of the dumplings. If you are making the below "sauce" directly in your casserole, you can begin adding pats of butter now and stirring briefly so that the dumplings don't stick to each other. 
  8. Repeat until you've used up the sponge/batter/dough. 
  9. Reserve some of the cooking water if making sauce.

"Hopper" of my spaeztle maker, approx. 2 cups

"Sauce" for Spaetzle 
(recipe is approximate for an above batch - double if you're doubling the spaetzle)

1/3 stick butter (or more, if you're feeling frisky)
~1 Cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 Cup tarragon, chopped fine
1 tsp of lemon juice
~1/4tsp of Nutmeg, grated fresh
salt & pepper to taste

  1. After you've cooked the whole amount of spaeztle, or in between hopper-loads, add the butter (cut into pats so it melts better) and stir to start it melting 
  2. Add the herbs, probably 1/4 cup parsley and 2T of tarragon at a time, and stir. I usually judge the proper amount of herbage by the overall "color" of the mix and a taste test. You want a fair amount of both to impart flavor, but you're not making a salad. 
  3. Add the lemon juice, nutmeg, and generous salt and pepper to taste. 
  4. Add up to 1C of the cooking water and toss if it's too tight with just the butter. You can do all of this directly in the casserole dish, if it's big enough.

Ask around your local biergarten for more recipes

Alternative Preparations: Basic spaeztle are very versatile, and can be used like gnocchi, pasta, etc. with any of your favorite sauces.  Other classic German preparations are to fry the spaeztle in butter then season lightly, or to make into a cheese casserole with sauteed onions (Kaesespaeztle)

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