The dual nature of spaetzle
Think of the noodley dumpling as another starch in your lineup
Starch madness: Change up your starch approach. Think of spaetzle as just one more weapon in your culinary arsenal. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Why you need to learn this
Starch. Most meals include some form of starch. Sadly, we limit our choices to precious few. Potatoes, rice, pasta and bread probably account for 99 percent of these side dishes. Think of spaetzle, then, (pronounced "shpet' zul" or "shpet' zlee") as just one more weapon in your starchy arsenal. If you know what I mean.
The steps you take
Before we get to the mixing of the spaetzle, let's skip ahead to the cooking of the spaetzle. If you've never made it before, it's a lot of fun (and a little messy; don't wear your ball gown): A fairly thick batter (like for dumplings) is passed over a surface with holes. Here's a small list of things that fit that description: colanders, slotted spoons, perforated hotel pans. Or, if you're a certified gadget nut, a spaetzle-maker, available online and at specialty kitchen retailers.
Using another utensil, like a spoon or a bench scraper or a bowl scraper, the batter is forced through the holes into a pot of simmering liquid, forming noodley strands.
Spaetzle doesn't have many ingredients; the two most important are flour and egg. Most recipes suggest one to two eggs per cup of flour. There's some extra liquid, too, typically water or milk, just enough to thin the batter to the consistency you want. (Note: Large shelled eggs weigh about 13/4 ounces, so two will be about 31/2 ounces, the functional equivalent of 31/2 ounces of water. After you make spaetzle a couple of times, you can decide the final, total weight of water and egg to arrive at the consistency you like.)
Speaking of consistency: As with most things culinary, there's no right or wrong; there's just what you're trying to achieve. If it comes out like you intended, it's right; if not, try again.
Generally speaking, you want the batter to be just thick enough to rest on top of the perforated surface. If it's too thin, it will leak through the holes and, well, remember that mess I was talking about earlier?
A thicker batter also gives a firmer texture.
Further, wheat flour contains gluten, strands of protein that get longer and stronger as the batter is mixed. Thus, the more you mix, the firmer your final product. Mixing just enough to combine the ingredients, however, will give you a more delicate, tender product. It's up to you.
The only other necessary ingredient is salt, because a little seasoning never hurt anybody. Beyond that, here are some things you can add to give your spaetzle more flavor. We'll start with two cups of flour, but the amounts of flavorings I'm giving are just suggestions — add more or less as you see fit:
Minced fresh herbs: up to a couple tablespoons of your favorite or a mix of several.
Spices: Nutmeg is common, though just a pinch — you probably don't want it to end up tasting like pumpkin pie; black pepper is nice, too, and you can add up to a tablespoon or so.
Mustard: a tablespoon or two of your favorite: Dijon, Creole, whatever.
Sour cream, creme fraiche or yogurt: Substitute any of these for some or all the milk for added richness.
For today's batch, though, we'll keep it simple: eggs, milk, flour and salt. The amounts here will make about a pound and a half of spaetzle, enough for four to six servings.
1. Whisk together 4 eggs with half a cup of milk or water.
2. Add a teaspoon of table salt to 2 cups flour, then slowly stir in the liquid along with any flavoring ingredients. The batter should be fairly thick and sticky.
3. In batches, scoop batter into a colander and use a spoon to push it through into a pot of salted, simmering water or broth. Cook 2 to 4 minutes, until the spaetzle are floating on top of the water.
4. With a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked spaetzle to a bowl. Repeat until all the batter is used up. You can do this a day in advance; plunge the cooked spaetzle in an ice bath, then toss with a little oil and store in a covered container. When you're ready for dinner, melt some butter in a skillet and toss the spaetzle to warm them up, even get them a little brown if you like. Serve with any hearty meat dish and you'll be thinking, "This is just like light, only better."