By Jessica – November 4th, 2007
I suspect that German cuisine is not very well understood by most people who haven’t spent much time in Mitteleuropa. The stereotype of the beer-swilling, sausage-eating Bavarian is just that: a stereotype which doesn’t begin to address the reality of everyday eating in Germany as a whole.
There are vast regional food differences in Germany. According to my German friend Schorsch, a native southerner who has lived in the north for years (and who pines for the good bread and hearty, flavorful fare of the south), northern German cuisine shares more similarities with Scandinavia than with southern Germany—just compare the fish and boiled potatoes of the north to the hearty porks and pastas of the south.
Yes, it’s true: even Germany has an “indigenous” pasta—several different kinds, in fact. Known as Spätzle (which is roughly pronounced “shpayt-slee”, not “spat-sull” as Anglophone TV chefs would have you believe), it’s a type of egg pasta that is actually more like long, skinny dumplings than tagliatelle, say, or the wide, flat Eastern European egg noodles that are so easy to come by in the States but are oddly impossible to find in Brighton.
Spätzle is from the German state of Swabia. Its variations include Schupfnudeln or Bubespitzle, which are like the gnocchi of Germany, made with potatoes and often served with sauerkraut and bacon (very popular at Christmas markets and wine festivals), and Knöpfle, a variation from Baden which is made in the form of tiny knobbly dumplings rather than long noodles.
Spätzle batter consists of flour, eggs, salt and water or milk. Traditionally, Spätzle are geschabt, or scraped from a board, noodle by painstaking noodle. A Spätzle press, which is much like a potato ricer, or a Spätzlehobel, which is kind of like a big cheese grater, makes the job much easier. In a pinch, you could press the batter through a colander to get the same effect. I have both a Spätzle grater and a press, but I only use the press these days because it produces the best results with the least chance of me tipping a pot of boiling water onto myself. So to make the recipe below, I recommend getting a Spätzle press (you can find them online) or using a potato ricer.*
For no particular reason (other than it was the first Spätzle recipe I ever tried and it works perfectly), the recipe I use to make Spätzle comes from a German vegetarian cookbook I bought years ago in Freiburg. The original recipe calls for a mixture of plain flour and spelt flour, which is quite lovely, but I generally just use the plain flour alone. A neat trick I picked up from my friend Schorsch last Christmas is to add a pinch of nutmeg to the batter for a subtle touch of extra flavor.
Recipe for four people (it won’t look like much batter, but believe me, it expands when it hits the water!):
- 250 g plain (all-purpose) flour
- 3 eggs
- 80 ml milk
- Pinch of salt
- Pinch of nutmeg
Mix all of the ingredients to form a thick, sticky batter. Let the batter sit for about 15 minutes while you bring a big pot of salted water to the boil. When the water is simmering nicely, take your Spätzle press and spoon your batter into it. This might be a rather awkward procedure since the batter will be quite viscous, but don’t fret: with a sturdy rubber spatula and a bit of patience, you’ll be able to get the batter in without making a tremendous mess. Don’t fill the press/ricer more than about three-quarters of the way or else batter will squeeze out the top when you close it.
When your press is ready to go, position it over the boiling water and…press! The Spätzle will glide into the water and sink to the bottom of the pot. When they rise to the top (it will only take a minute or so), scoop them out with a slotted spoon and drain them in a colander; then you can cook the next batch in the same way. You can mix the finished Spätzle with some butter and keep them warm in a covered dish in a low oven until you’re ready to serve them.
Spätzle are a fantastic side dish for stews or anything with lots of gravy, German or otherwise. I love them with Belgian carbonnade, Hungarian goulash and French boeuf bourguignon. They’re also gorgeous with pork in mustard or mushroom sauce. A ragout of wild mushrooms with white wine and cream would make an ideal vegetarian topping for Spätzle, or you could use Spätzle in place of noodles or rice in a soup. And then, of course, there is the classic Käsespätzle, which is like macaroni and cheese German-style: layer the cooked Spätzle with grated cheese (Emmental, for example) and golden-brown sauteed onions, heat it in the oven until the cheese has melted, and serve it with a green salad and a big mug of good beer.
*If you do use a Spätzle press or potato ricer to make Spätzle, make sure you soak the thing in cold water immediately after you use it, because when Spätzle batter dries, it kind of turns to concrete (and I’ve found that soaking in hot water kind of cooks the batter onto the press, while cold water just dissolves the batter). I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time painstakingly clearing out all the clogged-up holes in my Spätzle press with a toothpick, and believe me, it’s not fun.
For a full pictorial overview of making Spätzle, check out Jeremy’s Making Spätzle set on Flickr!