Monday, January 20, 2014

UnRecipe: The Tao of Spaetzle

Spaetzle. What a ridiculously fun word to say out loud: schPAT-zel. And it kind of looks like how it sounds, those marvelous little asymmetrical nuggets of handmade pasta goodness, all messily piled on a plate, usually coated in a butter sauce. They're delicious and perfect with a wintery dish like stew or a big hunk o' meat. Spaetzle is the realm of European grandmas who would make it from scratch for Sunday dinners and countless YouTube videos that show how effortless the process seems, at least until you make it for the first time. Spaetzle isn't difficult, but it requires a bit of finesse, and I'm the first one to say I don't have it, but on my list of to-do's in life, it's my goal to get some of that finesse and truly learn the Tao of Spaetzle.

Spaetzle attempt, Numero Uno - not bad, but could always be better - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Maybe it's the perfect proximity from our trip to Germany, as well as the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year. The desire to make handmade noodles and/or dumplings seem the strongest right around this time of the year, at least for me -- it's cold, there are days that leave us completely socked-in with fog, the need for hearty fare is great. The first time I had this homemade pasta/dumpling was in a little German restaurant in Canada, of all places, at a little hot springs resort. The Mister grew up with food like this, since his mother's side is German, and he was lucky enough to have relatives who kept with the cuisine of the Old Country, so this food is very familiar and personal to him. I had a delicious plate of spaetzle, along with a lovely, crisp pork schnitzel at a German restaurant at our local Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, and it was a common starch served up when we were finally in the Mister's Motherland, journeying over the Rhine. The homemade noodle had clearly Khan-wormed its way into my head-noodle and learning to make it at home had become A Thing I Must Do.

Homemade spaetzle that only kinda-sorta-worked - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The most deceptively easy thing I've found about making your own spaetzle is getting the batter/dough consistency just right, because that's the key. The videos and instructional recipes all say you can just push the batter through a large-holed metal colander over boiling water, and it's easy-peasy-dunzo. Not so much, Internet. I need to try a few more recipes, or make adjustments as I go, because I wound up with some really thick batter -- great for whipping small droplets into the boiling water with a spatula and small cutting board, which I know is closer to the traditional method, but terrible if you tried pushing it through a colander. I think I lost half the dough to being stuck on the inside of the colander and spending too much time scraping, pushing, cursing it through the little holes. I felt like the culinary equivalent of Happy Gilmore, screaming at spaetzle dough to "GO TO YOUR HOME/HOLE!"

Having a large fryer-net-scoop implement is definitely helpful for fishing out the cooked noodles -- that's one kitchen tool that's infinitely helpful for making dishes from around the world. If you can get the spaetzle batter to a loose pancake batter consistency, the colander method is dandy, but once it gets too thick and glutinous like mine did, you end up doing a crazy splatter/flick action with the dough to get small, bullet-like droplets into the boiling water. They cook quickly, so making it in small batches worked well. I let them sit in a different colander (one that wasn't ensludged in batter) until all the batches were cooked, and lightly tossed them with olive oil so they wouldn't stick. They were then tossed with browned butter, herbs and wilted spinach, right before serving up.

Keeping it simple with spaetzle and roasted sausage with veggies - Photos by Wasabi Prime
This remains an UnRecipe until I figure out/find a somewhat foolproof spaetzle batter/dough. But I think it's a dish that improves with more attempts; it's less about the ingredients and more about getting to know the behavior of the batter and becoming familiar with it. Again, the Finesse of Spaetzle. But it's absolutely worth making at home, you can't beat the wonderful, tender texture of each little bite, and it goes perfectly with root vegetables and sausages roasted in the oven. Do yourself a favor when making spaetzle -- despite its side-dish status, let it be the diva of the meal, since it takes the most amount of time to prepare. Having the oven roast up the main course was the saving grace after wrestling with too-thick spaetzle dough stuck in the colander.

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