Unless you have an Eastern European heritage or a penchant for replicating the hearty cuisine of German beer halls, it may never have occurred to you to make spaetzle at home. I have both, and the small, squiggly egg dumplings are one of the first carb-heavy, comfort-food dishes I crave when the weather turns cold.
Making spaetzle is simpler than you may think. Mixing the ingredients is as easy as making pancake batter and uses pantry staples.
The only potentially tricky part is turning the batter into fluffy little dumplings. There are several approaches to this. Some people like to make a thick dough and grate it through the holes of a cheese grater. But if you keep the spaetzle mix as runny as cake batter, you’ll be able to push it through a spaetzle maker (or colander) into a pot of boiling water fairly quickly.
A word about the spaetzle maker: I happen to be the proud owner of not one but two such wonders. People like to give them to me as gifts. This said, sometimes when I make spaetzle, I’m too lazy to get the ladder and pull a spaetzle maker out from the back of the top cabinet. Really, a colander works nearly as well.
The big difference is that a spaetzle maker will sit on top of the pot, leaving your hands free to pour in the batter. If using a colander, you’ll need to hold it with one hand (use a pot holder), while pushing the batter through with the other. My tip is to use a small, lightweight colander and cook the spaetzle in batches – or grab a friend to help.
Another thing to keep in mind: The spaetzle mixture will thicken as it sits, turning from something resembling cake batter to more like bread dough. Keep some milk nearby and stir it in as needed.
You can eat the spaetzle as soon as they are boiled, topped with a little butter. In Germany, it’s also common to fry the spaetzle and serve them crisp-edged and golden. I like to bake them covered with cheese until everything is bubbling and crunchy on top.
In this version of the recipe, I’ve added leeks and cabbage, both for sweetness and to add a little vegetable matter. And to make it all even heartier, I stirred a bit of rye flour into the batter. It gives a nutty flavor and makes this spaetzle gratin even more substantial – something my Eastern European ancestors would have approved of, I’m sure.
DISCARD outer leaves of cabbage; quarter, core and slice the rest. Using a mortar and pestle or the flat of a knife, lightly crush caraway seeds. Melt butter in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly colored, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in caraway, garlic, chili and thyme; cook 1 minute. Add cabbage and cook, tossing frequently, until very tender and wilted, 7 to 10 minutes. Season with vinegar and 3/4 teaspoon salt or more to taste. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
BRING a large pot of salted water to a boil. In a large bowl, whisk together flours and 1 teaspoon salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and 1 cup milk. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in wet mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine. The consistency should be that of a sticky cake batter. As batter sits, it will absorb more liquid; add milk as needed to keep it loose.
WORK in batches, pressing spaetzle through a spaetzle maker or a colander into the boiling water. (If using a colander, either hold it with oven mitts so you don’t burn yourself over the steaming water or get a friend to help.) As spaetzle rise to the surface, scoop them out with a slotted spoon and transfer to skillet with the cabbage. Once all of spaetzle has been added, toss mixture well.
HEAT oven to 425 degrees. Scrape mixture into a 1 1/2-quart gratin dish. Scatter cheese over the top. Bake until golden and bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes. Grind a generous amount of pepper all over the top, then serve.Yield: 6 to 8 servings