Adventures in Spätzle | The Geneva Convention: Adventures in Spätzle

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adventures in Spätzle

Twice upon a time, I studied abroad in Austria. Once in the lovely town of Graz in high school, and once as a junior in college, in Vienna. Most German speakers study in Germany -- it's bigger, an industrial powerhouse, somehow it feels more "official". But I love Austria. It's small; it's beautiful; it has it's own unique character. I would go back in a heartbeat.

I love the German language, and I really love Austria, but what I don't love so much is the food, black forest cherry cake (or as we prefer to call it, Schwarzwälderkirschtorte) notwithstanding. They make decent potato salads, and Schnitzel is pretty good, but only once in a while. I don't eat pork, so the sausages are out, and just the smell of Sauerkraut makes me nauseous. But I have found an affinity for one item in particular: Spätzle.

Spätzle (pronounced shpetz-leh) is like the German version of pasta. It is baked into a casserole with onions and cheese, or sauteed with similar toppings. Like normal pasta, Spätzle are (is? translation is hard!) very versatile. But by far the best Spätzle I ever had happened at a festival in Vienna shortly before I returned to the States, smothered in Alpine cheese and a uniquely Austrian take on pesto.
Such bliss, despite the poor photo quality.

Austria doesn't export much of its produce, which is a pity. It has become quite the wine country, but even better than the wine is Kürbiskernöl, or pumpkin seed oil. It comes from a different pumpkin variety -- unlike ours, the flesh isn't good to eat, but the seeds are delicious. Austria produces it almost exclusively, which is a pity, because it's rich, nutty, slightly salty flavor adds depth and healthy fat to everything from soup to bread to pesto. It's tough to track down on this side of the Atlantic, but oh so worth it, especially if you want to make this recipe the best it can be.
For the Spätzle: (adapted from this recipe)
1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup milk
2 eggs
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
Pinch freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon salt

Notes:
-Boil a large pot of salted water
-Mix together flour, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, if using, in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and set aside.
-Lightly beat the eggs, and pour them into the well, along with the milk.
-Stir together just until the dough is uniform and very sticky.
There are a number of improvised techniques to turn the Spätzle batter into actual Spätzle (Spätzle presses are difficult to come by in America!). My personal preference is to essentially pipe it like you might decorate a cake, by cutting off the corner of a large ziploc bag. The batter is sticky, so if you use this method, spray the inside of the bag with cooking spray before depositing it, and try not to apply too much pressure, or you run the risk of splitting the bag along the seams.
Just squeeze the batter into the boiling water and let it cook for a while. Spätzle are much more forgiving than pasta, so although they are cooked when they begin to float, they can stay in much longer than that with no detrimental effects. I tried to encourage mine to form more uniform sizes by running the dull edge of a knife over the bag opening when I had pushed about an inch of dough out, but it's hardly necessary, and requires more vigilance than I could put in, as the size of resulting Spätzle show!
When I finished piping, I gave them a couple extra minutes, then turned off the burner and took them out of the water with a slotted spoon. They rested for a while on a paper towel while I got the toppings ready.
For the Pesto:
⅓ cup basil
⅓ cup shredded or ground parmesan cheese
⅓ cup raw shelled pumpkin seeds (American ones are just fine here!)
2-3 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ cup Kürbiskernöl/pumpkin seed oil (if you can't track it down, I've read that walnut oil or toasted sesame seed oil are decent alternatives)
Notes:
-Dump all the ingredients except the oil into a food processor and pulse until well-chopped and combined. Then add the oil and pulse to combine.
Remaining Preparation:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 shallot or half a yellow onion
2-3 oz finely shredded Gruyere

Notes:
-Chop up the shallot/onion and saute it in a frying pan over medium heat with the olive oil until translucent and soft (do not use pumpkin seed oil for this, as it doesn't heat well).
-Add in the Spätzle and let them brown, stirring occasionally, until they are more colorful and a little crispy, 5 to 10 minutes.
-While they fry, shred the gruyere.
-Turn off the burner. Stir in the pesto immediately, then the gruyere so it has a chance to melt while the Spätzle is still warm.
-Enjoy immediately! This recipe serves four as a side and two, generously, as a main.
With all the foodies on instagram, it can be hard to post photos of a less-than-photogenic dish like Spätzle. I have yet to see a picture that displays their good side. However, I don't think we should shun ugly foods -- they are usually the most delicious! This dish is crispy, chewy, nutty, and rich, and takes me right back to some of the happiest times in my life. Try it yourself, with a crisp white wine and good friends. Pretend you are in the best city in the world. You won't be disappointed!

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