A Swabian noodle that’s quicker and easier to make than pasta – this is quintessential winter food, and a recipe you’ll make for life
Everyone loves a nice noodle, and these stubby egg twists from Swabia, on Germany’s south-western border, deserve to be better known here, if only our knowledge of the country’s cuisine didn’t start and end with the Black Forest gateau. Variations on the theme are eaten in neighbouring Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, eastern France and even the mountainous Italian province of South Tyrol, but only Swabian spätzle have been recognised by the EU with a Protected Geographical Indication for their quality.
Stuttgart-born Steffi of the Ginger & Bread blog writes that “spätzle are to the cuisine of my region what rice is to Indian food or chips to Britain: there is hardly a dish that cannot be served, enhanced or transformed with a generous helping of these delicate little noodles”. Drenched in gravy or tossed with greens, they’re deliciously versatile, and considerably quicker and easier to make than Italian pasta or hand-pulled lo mien. In short, this is one recipe guaranteed to improve your life.
A fine, soft flour, labelled as 405-type in the German classification, is often used for spätzle in their homeland, but most recipes just call for the nearest British equivalent, plain flour, with the exception of that in Christine McFadden’s book, Flour – after testing several recipes, she tells me, she found that finely milled Italian 00 flour yielded a more tender, elastic result. Her spätzle are indeed deliciously soft, so if you can find 00, give them a try, though you’ll still get decent results with ordinary plain flour.
I’m intrigued by the recipe in Anja Dunk’s Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings, which uses equal quantities of plain flour and finely ground semolina – a harder durum wheat flour that gives the noodles a springy, slightly coarse consistency I rather like – though some testers find them a bit chewy in comparison with the all-flour versions.
Helpfully, German-based food and travel writer Christie Dietz (whose blog, A Sausage Has Two, is mouthwatering proof that German cooking is more than just beer and bratwurst) tells me that her sister-in-law, who lives in “prime spätzle-making territory” uses a “coarse-grained flour called Dunst, an ‘intermediate product’ of wheat and flour.
The grain size is between flour and semolina, which means it makes a dough that’s stronger and absorbs more water. Its special features [according to the manufacturer’s website] are that it makes Spätzle robust and a nice yellow colour.” However, Dietz adds, “a mix of semolina and normal white wheat flour [German type 405] can also be used.”
That’s what I’m going to do, though in deference to those who prefer a softer spätzle, my recipe will contain just enough semolina to give them a slight bounciness, rather than Dunk’s more robustly textured versions, and a good pinch of McFadden and Saveur magazine’s nutmeg to add a subtle warmth.
Spätzle always contain eggs for both colour and flavour, but generally loosened with a less viscous liquid, be that oil, as in chef Alfons Schuhbeck’s The German Cookbook; milk, as in McFadden’s recipe; water, as Dietz recommends; or the sparkling water used by Steffi, who says it “makes the dough a little bit lighter”. Saveur’s version, based on that served at Munich’s staunchly traditional Spatenhaus an der Oper, uses eggs alone, whisked to a froth – “the secret to delicate, tender dumplings”.
Milk makes for the softest, squidgiest spätzle, while upping the egg content makes the dough more chewy. It’s a matter of preference, really, but on the basis that most of us prefer a less dense noodle, largely because we can eat more of them, I’m going to whisk the bejesus out of the eggs, and use sparkling water, too.
The most important point, according to multiple sources, is to get as much air into the batter as possible, so even if you use milk or tap water, you should, as Dietz puts it, “beat the dough with a wooden spoon till it bubbles” – a fact confirmed by Manfred Grossmann, Spatenhaus an der Oper’s chef, who tells Saveur that “the trick to tender spätzle is whisking the batter vigorously until it’s smooth and frothy with air bubbles”. This requires some serious elbow grease with such a thick batter, but on the plus side, it shouldn’t take long and, if you prefer, you could always use a food mixer to do the hard work.
As Steffi explained to Nigel Slater when he called on her spätzle expertise for his BBC television series Eating Together, “perhaps the most remarkable aspect” of the whole process is “the way in which spätzle are made, as the individual noodles are “scraped off a board, straight into boiling water” using a metal dough scraper. “I have seen people make spätzle using a knife, and any thin board with a handle,” she concedes. “All you need is some fine motoric skills, some upper-body strength and determination.” But, when Slater tells you “there’s a lot of technique to making spätzle”, you sense that it’s not quite as easy as she makes out.
Specialist spätzleschwob dough presses are cheap and easily available in Germany and online, but unless you develop a real passion for the stuff, which is not beyond the bounds of possibility, you get fairly similar, if rather stubbier results (strictly speaking, knöpfle, or little buttons) by pushing a slightly looser dough through a colander or coarse grater instead, and McFadden swears by her Chinese skimmer. (Some suggest potato ricers also work, but this experiment proves a complete disaster and I can’t in all conscience recommend it.)
However, as Deb Perelman of the Smitten Kitchen blog puts it, “I quickly found pressing a thick colander of batter over a boiling pot of water very unpleasant. And hot. And awkward.” And unless you hold it well away from the heat, the batter has a tendency to weld itself to the metal in the process. Oddly, I found the traditional method far easier, even if some of my spätzle are less “little sparrows”, as the name suggests, and more Christmas turkeys. Practice makes perfect.
Rinsing them under cold water to stop them cooking further, and indeed sticking together, is a good idea – if you want to make them in advance, but serve them plain, you can put them in a heatproof bowl with a sprinkle of water and and store in a low oven rather than sautéing them as in the recipe below.
As Steffi notes, spätzle, like chips, go with everything – “especially with meats that come with a bit of sauce, such as casserole dishes, but on children’s menus, you’ll often find them served with nothing but a spoonful of light gravy”; McFadden, meanwhile, recommends them as a side to her venison casserole.
I try them with a variety of dishes: tossed with smoked bacon and sauerkraut, as in The German Cookbook, baked with chard, sour cream and smoked cheese, as Dunk suggests, and baked with double cream, bacon and cheese in Nigel Slater’s take on the traditional Swabian kässpätzle. All are delicious – how could they not be? – but my favourite is the simple cheese and onion kässspätzle recipe Saveur adapts from that served by Grossman in Munich, gooey with molten emmental.
That said, you could substitute Bavarian smoked cheese if you prefer, or indeed gruyère or local cheeses like allgäuer bergkäse, vorarlberg limburger or weisslacker, if you can get hold of them. As long as the cheese melts easily, it’ll work here. I’ve left out the deep-fried onions they top them with at the restaurant, as it’s too much faff for such a simple, homely dish, but if you can be bothered, they make an excellent addition to the slow-cooked buttery dishes. Pair with a green salad, wash down with a crisp, cold beer, and stick the pasta maker in the shed.
Prep 10 min
Cook 30 min
Serves 4 (quantities can be easily halved)
2 tbsp butter
1 onion, peeled, halved and finely sliced into half-moons
4 large eggs
350g Italian 00 or plain flour
50g fine semolina
½ tsp fine salt
120-150ml sparkling water
150g emmental, gruyère or Bavarian smoked cheese, finely grated
Finely chopped chives, to top
Heat the butter in a frying pan over a low heat, add the onion, and soften until golden, but not brown. Turn off the heat.
Meanwhile, put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk until very frothy. Whisk in the flour, semolina, salt and a good grating of nutmeg, then add enough sparkling water to make a stiff batter, if using the board and knife method, or a looser batter more like molten cheese, if using a colander or spätzle press.
Beat the batter with a wooden spoon until you see large bubbles forming, then, when the water has come to a boil, wet a small wooden board and smear a rectangle of dough on to it, spreading it out so it’s thin, but not see-through.
Use a metal dough scraper or the blunt side of a chef’s knife to cut very thin strips from the end of the batter and quickly flick these into the pan.
Cook for about two minutes, until they’ve risen to the top, then scoop out with a slotted spoon and run under cold water to stop them cooking further. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Once you’ve used up all the batter, turn on the heat under the onion pan. Once warm, tip in the spätzle and the cheese, and toss and stir until the latter has melted and coated the former.
Divide between bowls, top with a sprinkle of chives and serve hot.
• Spätzle: how do you make yours, and what do you serve them with? Why aren’t they better known here, and which other German dishes deserve international recognition?