Central European Comfort Food
Spätzle is a dumpling made from flour, eggs, and a liquid (such as milk, or sometimes water). The name is Swabian (High) German, and translates as ”little sparrow” (someone must have thought the shape looked sparrow like). You can find virtually the same dumpling throughout Central Europe, although it may be called by a different name. For example, in Hungary it’s Galuska. In Switzerland, Chnöpfli or Knöpfle.
These plump little dumplings combine perfectly with hearty stews. Or you can serve them as a starch to accompany meat or seafood. They’re easy to make, and you can prepare them ahead of time (just reheat with a quick simmer or sauté right before serving). So they’re perfect for company, since they require no complicated last-minute preparation.
And the flavor of spätzle is satisfying and comforting. Just like the adulation you’ll get for making these little gems.
Recipe: Homemade Spätzle
To make spätzle, you mix flour with eggs and milk (or water) until you have something that resembles very thin biscuit dough or very thick pancake batter (you can vary the consistency by adding more or less liquid). You form this batter into dumplings, which you then boil briefly (a couple of minutes).
The only tricky part is shaping the dumplings. There are several ways to do it. The no-equipment method involves scraping the batter onto a damp cutting board. Then, using a spoon or knife, you form ½-inch long pieces of dough that are approximately the thickness of a chopstick, and “flick” them into a pot of boiling water.
The ideal way is to use a spätzle maker. These have a container to hold the dough, a bottom with holes of ½ inch or a bit less, and a mechanism to force the dough through the holes, forming the dumplings. I have the rotary kind (pictured below; it looks much like a food mill). There’s also a type of spätzle maker that looks like a big cheese grater, with a hopper that holds the dough (see picture at Amazon. You can also use a colander that has large holes (use the back of a spoon or a spatula to force dough through it). If you find yourself making spätzle often, you’ll definitely want to get a spätzle maker (they’re not expensive — the one pictured at Amazon is about $10).
The biggest variable among spätzle recipes is the quantity of egg specified, which can vary from 1 to 2 eggs per cup of flour. My recipe (which uses a bit more than 1 egg per cup) is adapted from one that Dorie Greenspan published in the March 2006 issue of Bon Appétit.
You can mix the batter for this recipe in about 5 minutes. But for best results, you should let it rest for at least an hour, or even overnight. (This allows the gluten in the flour to relax, creating a more tender dumpling.) Cooking the dumplings takes only about 2 minutes, though you’ll probably end up doing it in 2 batches. So from start to finish, figure at least an hour and a quarter, including resting time.
This recipe makes 6 to 8 servings as a side dish (but be aware that people tend to eat more of this than you expect). Leftovers keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of days.
- 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt (plus additional salt to season the dumpling cooking water)
- 3 large eggs (consider using pasteurized; see Notes)
- ¾ cup whole milk (you can substitute skim, or even water; see Notes for discussion, and why you may want to vary the amount of liquid)
- butter for serving (not necessary, but good)
- ~1 tablespoon minced parlsey for garnish (optional; you can also mix parsley or another herb into the batter – see Notes)
This procedure assumes that you’ll be serving the spätzle immediately after cooking. See Notes if you want to cook these dumplings several hours ahead, and then reheat right before serving.
- Place flour in a medium bowl, add 1 teaspoon salt, and whisk to combine.
- Break eggs into a small bowl, and whisk briefly. Add milk and whisk to combine.
- Pour milk and beaten eggs into the flour and salt mixture, and with a wooden spoon stir until you form a batter (it will be soft).
- Ideally, you should let the batter rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour (cover the bowl with shrink wrap). But if you’re in a hurry, you can form and cook the dumplings right away.
- When ready to cook the spätzle, place a big pot of water on the stove and bring it to a boil. When boiling, add about a tablespoon of salt to season the water.
- If using a spätzle maker, scrape the batter into the hopper or bowl (you’ll probably need to do this in two batches). Turn the crank (if it’s a rotary spätzle maker) or slide the bin back and forth (if it’s the cheese grater kind), and the dumplings will form automatically. If you don’t have a spätzle maker, you can use a large-holed colander, using a spoon or spatula to force the batter through the holes.
- Drop the spätzle into the boiling water and simmer until done — about 2 minutes (they’ll be cooked through and still tender).
- Remove cooked spätzle from pot with a fine mesh strainer or perforated spoon. Place them in a bowl, add a couple of pats of butter, and toss. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 until you’ve used all the batter.
- Add a bit more butter if you wish, sprinkle with optional parsley, and serve.
- If you want to prepare the spätzle ahead of time and serve later, follow the Procedure through Step 7. When the spätzle are finished cooking, place them in a large bowl filled with ice water to cool them quickly. Then drain the dumplings, air dry them on a kitchen towel for half an hour or so, and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve. (If you’ll be serving the spätzle within 3 hours, you can leave them out at room temperature on the towel.)
- When ready to serve: Bring a pot of water to a boil, add spätzle, and simmer until warmed through (a minute or less), and proceed with Step 8. Or if you prefer, melt about 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet, add spätzle, and gently sauté until nicely browned. Then serve (with an optional sprinkling of parsley).
- Whole milk makes the best spätzle, although you can substitute skim or even water. The spätzle won’t taste as rich, however.
- The first time you make this recipe, I suggest using the amount of liquid specified (¾ cup). If the consistency of the batter isn’t to your liking, next time either add a bit more liquid (if the batter was too stiff) or a bit less (if it was too runny).
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs for the batter. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? Especially if you decide to taste the raw batter (I often do).
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- You can add green herbs to spätzle if you like (Greenspan’s recipe calls for them, although most traditional recipes don’t). Just chop a tablespoon or two of parsley or another fresh herb, and mix in with the milk and egg in Step 2.
Spätzle can work well as a starch to accompany meat or fish. If you’re serving spätzle this way, they’re great au naturel with just a few pats of butter to flavor them. You can also brown them in butter (see second Note); their surface will get a bit crispy (reminiscent of Chinese pot stickers). Don’t be surprised if people ignore the expensive protein on their plates and instead concentrate on the dumplings — they’re sort of habit forming.
Spätzle are at their best when accompanied by gravy of some sort, especially one with a central European flavor. I most often associate spätzle with the cuisines of Hungary or Austria. In Hungary, a meal featuring spätzle might start with a nice Hungarian Cucumber Salad. This would be followed by a spicy pörkölt (pronounced pur-kult), a hearty paprika-based meat stew with a flavorful gravy. Spätzle makes an ideal complement to this dish because it helps soak up the gravy.
Many people in the US might know pörkölt as goulash. In reality, however, goulash (from the Hungarian gulyás) is a separate dish altogether. It tends to be soup-like, and often includes potatoes. And if it contains noodles (it often does), they’re cooked in the gulyás itself, not served alongside (as spätzle is with pörkölt). The two dishes do have similar flavors, though.
Because pörkölt is virtually designed to be eaten with spätzle, we should probably make some, don’t you think? And we will – later this week.
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