Hello and Welcome back to something of a surprising twist: A Kitchen Catastrophe written even FURTHER ahead of schedule, because I STILL can’t write the day of! Yes, dear readers, today marks my departure from the Bavarian Bosom of Leavenworth, as Oktoberfest has ended. I’ll return come December, but for now it’s time to return to the rain clouds, chickens, and family of the West Side. But before I go, let’s serve up a pseudo-Bavarian bit to eat in spätzle!
Is This What Productivity Feels like? How Disgusting.
Now, last week, I pre-wrote the post on Friday and Saturday in order to avoid influencing the post too much with my presumed Hang-over. As things panned out, despite drinking deeply, I followed at least some of my own tips, and ended up hang-over free.
I did somehow acquire a hat, however.
This week, I’ll be either packing to leave, or currently leaving when I would normally post, so I’ve started writing on Thursday. And I COOKED the meal in question on Wednesday. Slash Thursday. (We’ll get to it.) The timeline for this dish is pretty truncated, because I actually miscalculated how many meals I’d have to cook here in Leavenworth before I left, and thought “Well, if I come home Monday, I can just cook there!” A perfectly fine idea if my posts went up at 10 PM instead of 2.
So Monday, I realized I needed a recipe, FAST, and in an awkwardly timed window: a bit of birthday cash was being delayed because Columbus Day was fucking me over, and I had cut my funds a little short in anticipation of that money. So I needed something culturally relevant to my current situations, something inexpensive, and quick and easy enough that I’d want to make it after working all day.
Luckily, amid the many braised, stewed, and slow-cooked meals of Munich, I knew of one that was all those things and more! So let’s really dive into the history, origin, and specifics of spätzle.
The Wonders of Wikis
I’m not going to lie to you guys: a large proportion of the stuff I tell you is the kind of thing you can find with 10-15 minutes of Googling. I view my job to be something like that of Alton Brown or Mrs Frizzle: I take the dry data of sources and make it palatable. (Ooh, an unintended food pun. Nice.)
As such, often the first thing I end up encountering when I start my research is the wikipedia page for a specific food item. Sometimes I find there IS no Wikipedia page, and I tend to smile a bit, since it implies we’re really in unknown territory. Today’s entry HAS a Wikipedia page, but it’s possibly the least committed one I’ve ever seen. Every section has a “is debated” or “not precisely known” or “is believed”.
So what DO we know? Well, we know German. Spatz meants “Sparrow” in German. Spätzle means “little Sparrow, in the same way an –ito or –ini in Spanish or Italian would mean “Little”. Why are they called Little Sparrows? Dunno. The CONSENSUS is that either they were originally made by hand, cupping the dough in your hands and pinching it between your fingers, in a move that somewhat looked like you were holding a bird, OR they were formed by spoons and the rounded shapes looked like little sparrow bodies.
"'You calling me fat? A little "dumpling"?
The HISTORY of the noodle is similarly shrouded in mystery. The earliest provable records are from around 1725, which is impressive, because, as I implied a few weeks ago, that’s pretty recent in terms of provability. 1725 is barely 40 years before all that very well-recorded French Potato business I discuss in my Home-fries post. However, some attest that tools in medieval paintings of German knights are for making spätzle, meaning it could have bummed around for centuries before any cared enough to write it down.
Well, at least WHERE it’s from is pretty certain, right? It’s a German dish, it’s served all over this Bavarian-themed town, so obviously it’s from Bavaria! Well…Not exactly.
See, it’s important to remember how, over centuries, how FLUID the European borders were. To this day, there are towns that are not just half one country, half another, but a crazy jigsaw of patches. Why? Well, here’s the thing, before somewhere around the mid 1600’s, the idea of sovereign nations was a little wonky. Yes, royals laid claims to wide swathes of land that they gave to their nobility, but the land itself, barring royal intervention, was then the noble’s to do with what they pleased. This included, at several points in history, straight up selling it, gambling it, or trading it away. There is a town called Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog between Belgium and the Netherlands that is riddled with interchanging borders, because various buildings and lots showed up in specific business deals and inheritances, and so the land those stood on would change nations as the deals were signed.
No rational mind made this map. Look at H3. Why is there a goddamn triangle here?
So, technically, spätzle is a Swabian food, with Swabia…being a very complicated thing to describe. A ‘stem duchy’ of the Holy Roman Empire, Swabia was a medieval duchy, and later an Imperial Circle in the Empire. What does that mean? I…honestly don’t have time. We’re dealing with over 800 years of German history in a couple paragraphs. Think of it like a State, and things will be fine.
The association with Bavaria comes from the fact that Bavaria was an adjacent Imperial Circle, and the two had overlapping territory in each other (again, messy, fluid maps.). So, when Germany’s current borders became established, the two states of Bavaria and…oh god…Baden-Württemberg (Have we reached maximum naming? God I hope so) ended up holding territory of both the CIRCLE of Bavaria and of Swabia.
If that all sounds really confusing, I can relate it a little closer to American historical politics: Calling spätzle ‘Bavarian food’ is like calling gumbo “Southern food”. It’s imprecise, and to people who really care, is arguably incorrect, but is close enough that you can see how someone would make the mistake, and you wouldn’t expect a foreigner to understand the distinctions.
And it’s a good thing this dish has such a complicated history, because it is easy as PISS to make.
You’re Doing Grate
Here’s the basics to making spätzle; you make dough, you sprinkle it into boiling water, and you scoop it out when it’s done. Boom. You’re done. Now, as you might guess, this isn’t exactly how it’s going to show up on your plate: often, spatzle is finished in a sauce, or includes special ingredients. A fairly common theme of the sauces used is the central ingredient: butter. Browned butter with cinnamon for dessert, browned butter with cheese for a side to schnitzel, browned butter and breadcrumbs and cheese for a mac ‘n cheese style dish. Where Italy coats its pasta in olive oil or tomatoes, Germany tended to serve its dumplings with dairy.
Now, folk wisdom in Germany states that your recipe should have one egg per serving in the dough, which honestly works for me as a simple scale. My recipe came from Allrecipes.com, and was incredibly simple: flour, eggs, milk, salt and some other seasonings. The recipe called for Nutmeg and White Pepper, but I didn’t have either of those, so I used Allspice and Black Pepper. Simply whisk all that together to form a dough as the first step.
Normally I'd point out that this isn't a useful picture, but in this case, the liquidity of the dough is a useful piece of data. So, hey, good job, Past Jon.
The second step is boil a gallon of water, and then, do what I think is the funnest part of the process. It’s also the most irritating, because dichotomies are kind of my thing, and I have a long history of choosing the more difficult path for entertainment. Remember when I said the dough used to be made by hands or spoons? Well, that’s not so common anymore. Supposedly, the truly authentic way is with a special type of cutting board and knife, but I learned you’ve probably already got a perfectly fine tool in your kitchen: A cheese grater!
Though I bet you've never seen it quite as...goopy.
Yes, simply ladle the dough onto the non-cutting side of a large-holed cheese grater, and press it through. I just smeared the spoon I was using around. The dough will snap into dumplings when gravity forces it to, raining drops of doughy goodness into the boiling water. My process was to push through about 2-3 spoonfuls, and then set down the grater to scoop up the dumpling floating at the top. Some recipes call for cooking them only a minute, others up to eight, so I tried to hover around four or so. I was told by another chef that if they were floating on the top, they were ready, so I didn’t worry too much about it.
There were bigger things to be worried about, like how pale they all look. What're these, Albino Sparrows?
At this point, I realized I had absolutely nothing to serve the spätzle with, so I did something…less than wise. I briefly sautéed them in bacon fat, and then I…Look, I’m not proud of this, alright? I walked away. I made a plate of spätzle, and did NOTHING with it. I left it sitting on a kitchen counter all night. Why? Because I had to do something. Who remembers what? I was throwing something together at the last minute, and honestly, the bacon fat just wasn’t working for me. The next morning, knowing as I did that all the members of the household are men in their mid-to-late twenties with robust gut bacterium, I just poured it all into a Ziploc bag and tossed it in the fridge, despite it having sat out LONG past FDA regulations.
And then, on the way home from work that evening, I bought parmesan, butter, and kielbasa. Specifically, Beer Kielbasa, because I wasn’t paying attention to the packaging.
Seriously, had I simply glanced at it, it would have been pretty hard to miss.
Also, it's always fun to see Beer Meat as a product.
So I sautéed the kielbasa in butter with half a sliced onion, and sautéed the spätzle in butter, sprinkling in some parmesan, and I served it all up! And you know what? It was pretty damn good. A filling, warming meal to fight off the cold of the German mountains, or even the Washington winds. I’d personally recommend trying something like I did, where, when the kielbasa was done, I deglazed the onions with a little balsamic vinegar, as the richness of the spätzle and sausage does need some kind of balance. If I were trying for true Bavarian cuisine, I’d cut it with sauerkraut, but, hey, what’s the point of cooking in the New World if you can’t use some new tricks?
It's all so shiny!
THURSDAY: LOOK, MAN, IT’S ALMOST 1 AM, I HAVE NOT YET STARTED TO PACK, AND I GOTTA SPEND TOO MUCH MONEY ON MY WAY OUT OF TOWN. I’LL FIGURE IT OUT. MAYBE A CIDER TASTING OR SOMETHING TO DO WITH CHARCOAL. I DON’T KNOW, IT’S ON MY MIND FROM ANOTHER THING.
1 c all-purpose flour
¼ c milk
½ tsp salt
½ tsp nutmeg or allspice
Pinch white or black pepper
1 gallon water
1. Place water in a large pot and bring to a boil. While heating, mix all other ingredients into a dough. The dough should be slightly fluid, slowly dripping off of a spoon, so add milk or flour until you think it’s ready.
2. When dough is mixed and water is boiling, press the dough through a cheese grater over the pot. Cook roughly 4 minutes, before scooping dumplings that have risen to the surface.
Serve as is, or finish in a pan over medium heat with 2 tbsps of melted butter and seasonings of your preference.