July 20, 2014
Käsespätzle: Germany's Macaroni & Cheese
This is German comfort food, as evidenced by its remarkably frequent appearance on menus here. It sometimes has different names - for example, one of my favourite places for German classics calls their version of this "Brauerspätzle" (Brewer's Spätzle), but when you read the description, it's the same dish. You can even buy it frozen in bags in the freezer section of supermarkets, although I can't imagine the quality is that impressive.
There's a lot of room for personalization here. Käsespätzle can be served vegetarian or with tiny ham cubes, the latter being the most common one I've seen (Germany loves its pork, after all). It can be short, stubby spätzle, or longer, more uniformly thin ones. It can have crispy onions on top, or finely diced sautéed onions throughout. You can use Emmenthal, Gouda, Bergkäse, Edam, or a blend of whatever grated/grate-able cheeses you have hanging about in your fridge. I used a pre-shredded combination of Gouda and Tilsit, which was advertised as "cheese for gratin".
This took me about 70 minutes, start to finish, and makes a bit of a mess (but one that is mercifully easy to clean up).
Pro Tip: Have a sink or basin of cold water standing by for you to put the batter-goopy tools in as soon as you've finished the stove-top phase.
400 grams all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 - 1 cup water (or more, as needed)
150 - 200 grams grated tasty cheese
125 grams tiny ham cubes (Schinken Würfel, bacon, or similar)
3 tablespoons cream
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
Combine flour and kosher salt in a medium-large mixing bowl or food processor. Beat the eggs and 1/2 cup of water together, and stir into the flour mixture. Add additional water until you get a thin batter, that falls in ribbons from the spoon or whisk. Beat/whisk/blend until smooth. If you can't get it completely smooth, pour it through a sieve and push any lumps through, otherwise you risk clumps of uncooked flour in your finished noodles. Let stand 15 minutes to allow the flour to fully hydrate.
Next thinly slice an onion, and set it to fry over low heat in the olive oil (with maybe a pinch of salt), until deeply coloured and crispy. This will take a while, and is low maintenance. It can finish crisping up while you're cooking the spätzle.
Preheat your oven to 400 F while you cook the spätzle.
While the batter is resting, get your onions and ham cubes (if using) cooking and set up your spätzle cooking rig. If you have a spätzle Hobel or spätzle Brett and know how to use it, carry on however you see fit. If not, here's my method:
Half-fill a tall saucepan with water. Ideally, the width of the saucepan will allow you to rest a four-sided grated over the top in a way that you won't need to hold onto it (although I do usually use one hand to keep it steady while I'm working). The batter is going to be pushed from inside the grater through the "large holed" side straight into the boiling salted water. You're going to want to lightly oil the grater (just the one side), inside and out, to help the batter fall more smoothly through the holes.
Place the grater over the gently boiling, salted water, with the largest round(ish)-holed side facing down. Use a large spoon to add a scoop of batter inside the grater. The batter will start to drip through the holes.
Using a flat-ended wooden spoon (you can use a spatula, but is easier to use a rigid tool), gently but firmly scrape the dough back and forth along the inside the grater, repeatedly, until all of the dough is pushed through.
Remove the grater from the top of the pot, and start using a spider-tool or other skimmer to remove the floating spätzle to a near-by waiting bowl. I like to use a large mesh colander over a plate, but a large bowl also works fine.
Return the grater to the pot and repeat the dough scooping and scraping, spoonful by spoonful, removing the cooked spätzle regularly with your skimmer, until all of the batter is gone. Remove the grater and any other batter-crusted tools immediately to a basin of cold water, and allow them to soak while you complete the next steps.
Loosen the spätzle with a fork, to de-clump it. In a 10 or 11-inch skillet (cast iron is terrific), rub a little butter or vegetable oil over the bottom, and then add a layer of spätzle. Top with a handful or two of grated cheese, and some of the ham cubes. Repeat until all of the spätzle are in the pan, ending with a layer of cheese or cheese-and-ham. I got about three layers of noodles, but your mileage may vary. Scatter the fried onions evenly over the top of the last cheese layer, and gently pour a couple of tablespoons of cream over all.
Place uncovered in the preheated oven for 15 - 20 minutes. Serve with a nice big salad (or at least some sliced fresh vegetables).
Spätzle also reheats quite well the next day, either in the microwave, or in a foil-covered dish in a moderate oven.