We’re going with spaetzle. The simple combination of flour and eggs, when dropped into a flavorful chicken soup, creates delicate, soul-satisfying bites. There are traditions of drop dumplings or egg noodles in nearly every culture, and particularly strong in the European cultures which came to make up so much of the immigrant population which settled the Great Lakes basin. So whether they are known as spätzle (German), or Spaetzli (Swedish), or Knodel (Hungarian) or Gnocchi (Italian). For the purposes of our work here, we are using the spelling “spaetzle” to indicate the entire category. By intentionally avoiding the specific ethnic spellings, we want to focus on the broader category of ethnically-inspired drop dumplings.
We have featured spaetzle in the past, but a recent dish got us to thinking – what innovations are possible here? Given that innovations in foods are nearly limitless, and taking liberties with any source of inspiration runs the risk of going so far the original inspiration is no longer visible, we elected to explore simple “first-order” variations. What if we simply change one ingredient to a relatively related replacement? For example, instead of wheat flour, let’s use rye flour. Instead of finishing by frying in butter, let’s finish by baking with cheese.
We built a matrix of these changes and attempted to populate it first with the historic/ethnic variations, we then began to layer in variations by making quick associations with other alternatives. Then we simply multiply the variations to consider how many we have with just the first-order substitutions. We quickly reached about 200,000 options. That ought to keep us busy for a while.
|All Purpose Flour||Chicken Egg||Water||Herbs||Chicken Broth||Butter|
|Whole Wheat Flour||Duck Egg||Milk||Spices||Duck Broth||Herbs|
|Hard Red Wheat Flour||Quail Egg||Wheat Beer||Cheese||Beef Broth||Cheese|
|Rye Flour||Other Eggs||Dark Beer||Squash Purees||Other Meat Broths||Long Stewed or Braised Meats|
|Buckwheat Flour||Potato Starch||Broth||Greens Pureed||Beer||Gravy – Standard and Sweet/Sour|
|Ancient (Spelt, Einhorn, Emmer) Flours||Flax Egg (Vegan Spaetzle?)||Juices||Alliums (onion, garlic, shallots)||Vegetable Broth||Mushroom Ragout|
Starting at the very beginning, we did a simple side-by-side to explore the different approaches of using a light beer. For this experiment we went with a Spare Time from Good City Brewing in Milwaukee, WI. It’s a hazy India Pale Ale, with nice hop notes of citrus and herb, used two different ways in our simplest spaetzle:
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- Pinch salt
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup water
- Pot of broth
- Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then combine. Whisk vigorously until well combined, batter should be similar to pancake batter, adjust water or flour as needed. Allow to stand 30 minutes.
- Bring broth to a boil. Use spaetzle maker or any kitchen device with 1/4 to 1/2 holes to drop noodles into the broth. (See Mushroom Ragout recipe above for a technique using a cutting board).
- When they float, they’re done. Remove with a slotted spoon.
So that is the stage here, with one batch made standard in vegetable broth and the second batch made with 1/2 cup beer in place of water, cooked in the same broth.
Then we made a simple onion/beer broth. This is our standard holding liquid for bratwurst when grilling – in a medium saucepan, sauté onions in a bit of butter until just starting to caramelize, add a bit of dried oregano or thyme if you’d like, then add beer and bring to a boil. Here are the same two batches of spaetzle, made in the beer broth.
Some of us preferred the full experience of the beer spaetzle finished in beer broth, others preferred the more subtle flavors of the beer spaetzle in veggie broth. All preferred the beer spaetzle over standard. But we weren’t finished yet. Now if you have ever read one of my endless explorations of flavors, you probably already expected that. We have to finish them. Our initial tasting was simply direct from the broth and allowed to cool slightly.
Then, in a medium non-stick frying pan, we melted butter over medium high heat and fried the plain spaetzle until just beginning to brown on the edges. They will absorb about 1 Tbsp butter per cup of spaetzle. You don’t want them to stick. Then we grated in 1/4 cup of MontAmore Cheddar from Sartori. Find a nicely aged, white cheddar if you can’t find MontAmore near you.
These were a deeply satisfying version of macaroni and cheese, with the additional pan-frying adding to both the texture and the flavor of the plain spaetzle. These are the spaetzle memories of little German kids running around the snowy fields in the middle of a Wisconsin winter. A simple, hearty, warming bite.
Next, we took the onions from the beer broth and caramelized those in butter, with a splash of house malt vinegar to add a slight tang. Then more butter and in go the beer/beer spaetzle until they begin to brown on the edges. The flavors are rich with onion and balanced with the hint of beer coming through. A perfect side dish for mushroom stew or our sauerbraten. But tonight we’re having it as a main dish, and the memory of the cheesy, gooey deliciousness of our simple spaetzle lingers.
Oh yeah. Death by Blue Cheese. After all the tasting and trials, I wasn’t really all that hungry, but I finished every last morsel on this plate. It was irresistible. Blue cheese is my Siren song anyway, but here, on a bed of IPA spiked dumplings with caramelized onions, I was helpless against it’s charms. And a wonderful exploration of how spaetzle is the perfect canvas for flavor.
There are links to a number of recipes as examples above in the variation box which you could try. You could also consider Hank Shaw’s Duck Breast, with Turnips on Rye Spaetzle, or perhaps the Rye Sourdough Spaetzle from Good Hearted Woman. Feel free to share variations you have tried in the comments below.
More importantly, the idea behind this effort was to explore how an historic/ethnic dish can be reconsidered in the modern context. We still limited ourselves in this exercise to foods and approaches that we consider to be very much in the tradition of Great Lakes Cuisine, but the globalized context of food allow us to consider new ways to put these dishes together.