Like Beige Floating in Beige: A Käsespätzle Recipe from Scratch
After over three years of living in Germany and foolishly believing countless friends in their promises to show me how to make Käsespätzle from scratch, finally I receive an invitation. It is the invitation to beat all invitations. It comes from Lea, my friend and the girlfriend of the fabled Benoit (of canelé and tarte tatin notoriety).
French Benoit and German Lea have basically all bases covered when it comes to cooking. They are like the triple threat of the kitchen. French and German traditional cuisines come naturally, but at their table you might as easily be served a sensitively prepared Japanese rice dish or a surprising macrobiotic meal. Curious cooks are the best cooks, at least in my book.
The generous dinner invitation makes me realize there was some divine purpose to all those years of waiting, wistfully eating countless packages of store-bought Spätzle in plastic wrap. For Lea’s roots lie deep in the homeland of Spätzle. She plans to leave for her Swabian grandmother’s hundredth birthday only a few days later. This will be true Spätzle and Lea has the press to prove it.
To the outsider looking in on German food, Käsespätzle can hardly be considered a balanced meal. Basically consisting of noodles and onions fried with butter, then with cheese, and finished with more butter and cheese, it is akin to that dish on the children’s menu that you always wish you could order without receiving an incredulous raise of the eyebrow from the waiter. Käsespätzle is comfort food at its best, and the perfect antidote to the unfortunate Fall-like weather of late June in Berlin.
Spätzle dough is simple, yet, as with any dough made well, takes an experienced and nuanced hand to make perfectly. With lots of eggs, a bit of water and salt, plus ‘as much flour as the dough will swallow’, it can be thrown together relatively quickly. The key for good texture, though, is rapid, furious beating until a specific liquid, yet springy consistency is achieved. It is finished when you see small bubbles rise to the surface and burst. My novice wrists are weak. We take turns with this and finally nail it.
The actual formation and boiling of the Spätzle dough is likewise astoundingly snappy, but it pays to have the setup correct and an extra pair of helping hands (not to mention someone like Lea, who is experienced and knowledgeable). I doubt the Spätzle press is much good for anything else besides making Spätzle, but because it does what it does so miraculously, you probably don’t much care that you’ve spent 50 EUR on a tool that sits unused in your bottom cabinet 364 days of the year.
Even the Germans admit that Käsespätzle is not a health food (and that’s saying a lot). Sure, it’s not a dish for everyday consumption, but with a big leafy green salad and a bottle of light Beaujolais, Lea’s homemade Spätzle is by no means one fit for the children’s menu.
1 teaspoon salt
cold water, in the amount of 2 half egg shells
Sifted flour, as much as the dough will swallow, or approx. 500 grams
200-250 grams grated Emmenthaler or Greyerzer cheese
2 medium onions
butter, at least 125 grams
salt and pepper
chopped chives, if desired, as garnish
- Prepare the dough: Beat the eggs together. Fill two of the broken half shells of the eggs with cold water and pour into the egg mixture. Beat well and slowly add the sifted flour and salt. Beat rapidly with a spoon until a springy texture is achieved. You will see small bubbles begin to surface on the dough when it’s ready.
- Prepare the main cooking pot, medium-large, water boiling with a healthy pinch of salt. The second pot (or bowl) should also be filled with water, this time hot (not boiling) and lightly salted. Have a buttered roasting pan ready and the oven on very low heat.
- Now comes the fun: the pressing. The Spätzle press is designed to rest on the lip of the pot of boiling water. Leave it balanced there, ajar, and load it with a spoonful of dough. This first batch will be the ‘Probe Teig’ or trial dough, so don’t put too much inside because it might be for naught. Once the dough is inside the press’s cup, flip the top of the press back and gently push so that the dough falls through the circular openings in nudular form, falling gently into the boiling water. All the dough will be pressed out in one fluid stream, but breaks apart at will once it hits the water, creating the characteristic shaggy Spätzle shape. (Our Probe Teig turned out perfectly, so I’m sorry to say I cannot give advice on what to do when it turns out wrong, too thin, etc! But I imagine if it is too thin, you just need to beat in a bit more flour.)
- Boil until the noodles rise to the top, and then a couple minutes more. Fish them out of the water gently, in batches if necessary, with a small handled sieve and then place into the bowl of hot salted water. Let them rest there a few minutes while you work on the next batch, this time a big, healthy spoonful of dough. While that’s boiling, remove the noodles from the second hot water bath, draining well, and place in the prepared buttered roasting pan. Sprinkle with a couple small pieces of butter and place this in the oven to keep warm.
- Repeat this Spätzle relay race until all the dough is pressed, cooked and drained. Every time you add more noodles to the roasting pan, stir and add a bit more butter, so it does not stick or dry out in the oven.
- Prepare the onions. You will need two medium-sized onions, the first cut thinly in rings and the second finely diced. In a small frying pan, cook the rings over low heat in a knob of butter until they are caramelized. Save for later, as a rich garnish. In another frying pan, this one larger, add – yes, you guessed it! – butter, about a tablespoon. Sautee the second chopped onion. (Note: alternatively you can do all this onion business before or, if you’re a multi-tasker, concurrently with the Spätzle boiling.) While the onions are cooking, coarsely grate the cheese, either Emmenthaler, or, if you can find it Greyerzer. The amount is up to you, but, as is usually the case with melted cheese, the more the better. As a rule, about 50-70 grams per person should suffice.
- Once the chopped onion is soft and lightly browned, add the prepared Spätzle, cheese, salt and black pepper in stages, stirring well so nothing sticks too much. If it is sticking (or at whim) add another tablespoon or two of butter. When the cheese is uniformly melted and incorporated, the Spätzle is ready to serve.
- Turn Spätzle out onto a serving platter and top with caramelized onions and some chopped chives, if desired.