Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Swabia with Love

Hamburg, Germany

Hey everybody, it’s Frank! (Hi Frank!) Frank has graciously offered to teach us how to make the one dish that made me believe that there is more to German cuisine than bratwurst and sauerkraut – käsespätzle!

Frank is a Stuttgarter – he’s from the city of Stuttgart, official capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg and unofficial capital of the region of Swabia. His family is from deep in the heart of Schwoabendländle – as one might affectionately call Swabia – famous for its contribution to the automotive industry (Porsche and Mercedes are located here) and its contribution to German cuisine – spätzle and knöpfle.

Käsespäztle is basically German macaroni and cheese. A homemade dough simply constructed of flour, eggs, water and salt is briefly boiled and then heaped into a form with alternating layers of grated cheese and roasted onions. This is the classic version but spätzle affectionados tinker with the teig adding speck, different kinds of cheeses, herbs, vegetables etc. There are also sweet spätzle dishes served with fruit compotes and cream.

The origin of the word späztle is not really known but hotly disputed. Swabian hausfraus used to knead the dough by hand or use spoons to shape small gnocchi-like orbs known as knöpfle or fashion long strands into spätzle. Some believe the small balls of dough in the hand were reminiscent of a sparrow or spatz and when you add the Swabian diminuative –le to the end of the word, you get spätzle or little sparrow. Others contend that späztle comes from the Italian word spezzato wherein pezzo means piece and spezzare is to cut into pieces.

Whatever the literal origin, the culinary origin is believed to have roots in necessity born of poverty – documents dating back to the 18th century describe the Swabians as poor people who had little tillable land. Spätzle, made with simple, readily available and inexpensive ingredients, was relatively cheap, especially when feeding a large family, versitile and filling.

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered spätzle but I know it completely changed the way I looked at German cuisine. The combination of chewy noodles held together by melted cheese and sweet roasted onions – it was comfort food that was sophisticated in its simplicity; it was macaroni and cheese for adults; it was a big warm hug. I was in love.

So, now back to Frank who has been waiting patiently to show you all the secrets of the Swabian hausfrau.

Swabian Frank’s Käsespätzle

First, Frank says, you use this very simple formula to figure out how much of what you need:

Recipe for 5 people:

100 g of flour per person = 500 g flour

1 egg per person = 5 eggs

50 ml of water per person = 250 g water

salt to taste

Combine flour and eggs in a mixing bowl with the eggs in the middle like a lake. Slowly beat the eggs into the flour with a hand mixer. While continuing to mix, slowly add the water. Add salt to taste – a few pinches. And that is it – your dough. It should not be hard but should not be runny either. There should be some fluid elasticity to it.

Bring lightly salted water with a little bit of butter in it to a boil. Ladle the dough into your spätzle press (the press is like an overgrown garlic press – I believe you can get them in the US if you look around. If not, you can do it the old fashioned way by spreading the dough out on a cutting board and cutting thin strips off into the water. This is more time consuming but technically more authentic.)

They only need a few minutes – they float to the top relatively quickly. About three minutes after they float up, take them out and transfer them to a strainer. The spätzle can then be transfered to a baking dish and then layered with grated cheese – a mild gouda or emmentaler or any cheese you would like to experiment with and finally topped with another layer of cheese and roasted onions – these can be roasted or sautéd while the spätzle is boiling or after. Season well with pepper and freshly grated nutmeg. Stick the whole thing in the oven for about 20 minutes and essen ist fertig!

Gutten Appetit!!

P.S. Danke schön Frank - your Käsespäztle would make any Swabian hausfrau proud!

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