European pasta in its various forms is usually associated with Italy. But in the south of Germany1 there is a local speciality called 'Spätzle'. In keeping with traditional German cuisine, this kind of pasta is more substantial (more 'filling') than the Italian version. Be careful, however, when referring to them as 'noodles'! There is a school of thought among Germans which is definitely against categorising their beloved national dish as a 'noodle' - this is considered a devaluation of their true worth.
What Exactly are 'Spätzle'?
As with many simple but tasty dishes, the Spätzle were eaten by poor country people in earlier centuries. They are, for this reason, also known as 'Bettelleits Nudla' - beggars' noodles.
The difference between Spätzle and the Italian pasta types lies in the ingredients, the way they are prepared and cooked and the resulting shape. The raw pasta dough contains eggs and is therefore runnier and stickier than the Italian pasta, which is traditionally made with flour and water which can be rolled out and then be left to dry2.
The resulting shape when cooked is a rough-edged, curly, worm-like noodle, 1.5 - 3cm in length, and 4 - 5mm wide. The colour is usually a creamy white, tending towards a more yellow colour if the proportion of eggs is increased. The rough surface improves the absorbency of the noodles, which is why they are always served with plenty of gravy or sauce.
Where does the name come from?
There is no definitive explanation as to the real origin of the word 'Spätzle'. 'Spätzle' is a typical Swabian word, using the '-le- diminutive. It is pronounced: Shpet-ssler.
A Spatz is a sparrow, so the literal translation is 'little sparrow'. Little boys' penises are often endearingly called 'Spätzle' - it is not clear whether the name for the noodle comes from this or vice versa! Another very plausible theory is that the word is a corruption of the Italian word 'spezzare' (pronounced 'spetsah-ray') - meaning 'to cut into pieces'.
Others attribute the origin of the name to the fact that the housewife (or cook) will hold some of the mixture in her hand as if it were a small bird, before cutting off tiny pieces to cook as Spätzle. But the name may also come from the fact that, somewhere back in history, this delicacy was made by picking out pieces of the dough with two small spoons and cooking these little round shapes (rather like gnocchi) which really did look like little birds.
Wherever the name comes from, these noodles are most famously made in Swabia, but are also to be found in the surrounding regions - for example in Switzerland, which borders on Swabia. The Swiss diminutive form is usually '-li', so here they are known as 'Spätzli'.
In Allgäu, which is part of Bavaria and borders on Swabia, the equivalent is 'Knöpfle' - 'little buttons - or, possibly, dating back from an Old High German word 'chnodo', meaning 'knot'. The basic mixture is the same, but the noodles are more like little balls, about the size of chick peas, rather than the long Spätzle.
What Do You Eat Them With and How Are They Served?
The most typical regional dish of Swabia using Spätzle is Spätzle mit Linsen (Spätzle with lentils). The lentils are prepared in a thick sauce and served with the noodles, making a very satisfying vegetarian meal. It is also quite usual to serve this combination with Frankfurter sausages.
They can also be served with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs which have been fried golden in a little butter. This topping is often found on German traditional dishes.
They are often eaten as part of a meat-and-two-veg style meal - the Spätzle replace the potatoes. They are particularly popular for big family meals at Christmas and on other winter holidays or Sunday lunch, forming an apt accompaniment for game, poultry, roast or braised meat. Such meals would then be rounded off with red cabbage, sauerkraut or other winter vegetables.
Another simple way to serve them is simply to smother them in a meaty gravy, or tomato sauce4, or to layer them with grated cheese and bake them for a while in the oven (for approximately 10 minutes or until the cheese on the top is bubbling, but not blackened).
Other variations on the Spätzle include finely chopped liver or herbs, or both, which are added at the mixing stage. These, too, are almost a complete meal in themselves, and do not require any more accompaniment than a tasty sauce.
How Long Have They Existed?
Spätzle have been documented back possibly as far as the 11th Century. As they are made of simple ingredients, always available - wheat5 flour and eggs - they must have formed a very important part of the local peasants' diet until the introduction of the potato.
The first written reference to the Spätzle is said to have been in 1725, but paintings exist, dating further back into the Middle Ages depicting the accoutrements for making Spätzle.
Make Your Own Spätzle
The following amounts will make a large dish - enough to feed a family of four, or, as an accompaniment for meat, will probably serve six:
- 375g Whole grain flour or 500g plain flour
- 4-5 eggs
- 1/4 litre of salty water
For more, or less, diners, a rule-of-thumb method for calculating the ingredients is: 100g flour and 1 egg per person; salt to taste and water sufficient to achieve the consistency required.
Various flavourings can be added if desired: herbs, nutmeg, chopped liver, tomato paste or finely minced spinach. Throwing in a handful of semolina grains is a very German idea - it gives the noodles a more grainy texture.
Have the mixture ready at least half an hour before you start to cook6.
Just mix all the ingredients to make a homogenous thick paste. Have some tepid salty water ready and thin the paste down if necessary with some spoonfuls of this. You can replace one or two of the eggs with some of the water if preferred. The resulting mixture should be more soft than runny, but should still stick to a spoon for a few seconds if lifted out of the bowl.
There are several ways of shaping your Spätzle, and lots of gadgets have been invented to help you do this, as described below. But first, one or two steps apply to all methods. These are:
Boil up a large saucepan of water with plenty of salt (rule of thumb: 1 tablespoon per litre). The Spätzle will be cooked by dropping the mixture directly into the water in tiny pieces. While cooking, the water should NOT be boiling furiously - turn it down to a rolling simmer.
Before starting, if the mixture has hardened, thin it down again with some more salty water. With experience, you will soon learn what consistency is best for you, depending on the method you are going to use.
The Spätzle will have to be cooked in batches, as too many at once in the water will reduce the temperature too radically. Also, they will start sticking together. The cooking time is quite short (2-3 minutes), so you should also not spend any longer than this producing each batch of noodles. Make the noodles as described below, being careful not to clog up the water with them. Wait until the little knobs of paste float to the top - they do this when they are ready - then skim them from the top with a slotted spoon.
Keep a serving dish ready in the oven to warm the first batches while the later ones are cooking. Adding a knob of butter helps to prevent them sticking together while they are waiting.
As well as the saucepan, mixing bowl and dish for keeping the cooked noodles in, you will find a large sieve, strainer or slotted spoon indispensable for fishing the finished article out of the boiling water. Many of the following, however, are only available in the the southern regions of Germany - north of the main watershed you will search supermarkets and household supplies shops in vain for Spätzle-making equipment.
Knife and board
The most primitive method of making your Spätzle is with a knife and board. Use a blunt knife and a small chopping board that you can hold in your hand like a painter's palette. Spread about a small cupful of the mixture on to the board, hold it over the boiling water and push tiny strips of the mixture into the water. This is quite tedious, and will form quite uneven shapes, but it is satisfactory for fairly small amounts and in households where Spätzle will not be cooked very often.
A more sophisticated way of doing this is with a special spatula. This is shaped like a filled-in letter 'D' and is about the size of the palm of your hand. It spreads and cuts slightly more efficiently, and, being larger than a knife blade, means that you can work faster, keep your hands clean, and make larger batches each time.
The next simplest gadget is a type of sieve. The most practical shape is a sort of plate with holes in it, often made of stainless steel. The holes, which are about the size of peas, are distributed evenly across the 'plate', which should just fit into the top of your saucepan. Dollop a large cooking-spoon full of mixture on to this and, using the spatula mentioned above, holding it upright with the flat side down, draw it over the paste so that little strips of it are pushed through the holes into the water.
In the 1920s more mechanical gadgets were invented which include the 'Spätzle-Hobel' - literally translated, this means 'Spätzle-plane' ie the carpentry tool. Generally, this will be a flat piece of metal with pea-sized holes in it, about 8cm x 25cm, with a square container which holds the mixture and runs back and forth on tracks along the flat piece. With this, you have a good batch of Spätzle in the saucepan in seconds, and can have a dishful on the table quite quickly.
Further technical advances have brought us inventions (even for left-handers) which involve turning handles, pressing levers and contraptions which require pushing and pulling of various parts in order to squeeze out the sticky mixture into the hot water. These usually entail a disproportionate amount of washing up and will soon find their way to the back of the cupboard until no one can remember how to fit the numerous pieces together.
On the subject of washing up, it is best to remove as much of the paste as possible from whichever gadget you choose to use, as the eggy mixture soon becomes very sticky and difficult to remove, making an unpalatable mess of the washing up water and the kitchen sink. Leave everything in soak while you eat, or, if you have assistance in the kitchen, wash up before you start eating.
However, this should not spoil your appetite for what is, basically, a simple, quick, nourishing and unusual meal.
This simple variation on the Spätzle shape is made as above, but requires a stiffer dough (use less eggs/water or more flour). Pick off pieces about the size of a hazelnut, squash them between your thumb and forefinger, and drop them into the boiling water. Keeping your fingers wet or floured will prevent the mixture sticking to them. The noodles should come out shaped like large contact lenses. Cooking time is as for Spätzle given above.
Preparing in Advance
If you have some Spätzle left over, if you like to prepare double the amount and freeze half, or if you are preparing a meal in advance, they can be frozen and re-heated with no problem. Drain them well before freezing, and don't forget to observe the general guidelines for hygiene when freezing and thawing food.
Ready-made, Bought Spätzle
You can buy Spätzle in packets. These have been prepared as described above, and boiled or steamed for a short spurt, so that they keep their shape, and then dried, like Italian pasta. When the rest of your meal is about 20 minutes away from being ready to eat, it is time to prepare the ready-made Spätzle. This is a similar process as for cooking spaghetti. Boil up plenty of water in a large saucepan, add a generous amount of salt and drop the noodles in when the water is bubbling. They should have plenty of room to move about. Turn the heat down, and leave them to simmer for the amount of time given on the packet (usually somewhere between 8 and 12 minutes). Don't let them get too soggy! Drain well.