Anyone who knows me will agree that I am an outspoken carnivore. And also in this blog meat plays a major part. But there is one vegetarian dish that I would not want to swap for anything in this world and that for me puts many meat dishes to shame: Käsespätzle. For me this is the ultimate comfort food.
American readers may notice a superficial similarity to Mac & Cheese. But despite sharing the same basic concept – noodles with cheese – the two dishes are not really comparable. It is also one of of those archetypal dishes that refuse any modernization or “twist”. Any messing around with it will give an inferior result.
Käsespätzle are almost impsible to beat in terms of simplicity. Eggs, flour, cheese and onions are all it takes to prepare this divine creation. But there are a number of things you can make wrong. This is why this recipe is quite verbose.
The origins of this dish lie in the South German Allgäu region at the northen border of the Alps where it used to be a simple peasant’s dish. Meat was a luxury in the past, so people tried make the best of the few things they had access to. Especially in summertime at the Almhütten up in the mountains the repertoire of ingredients was very limited.
There are similar dishes all over the Alps like for example the Swiss Älplermagronen which also include potatoes. Nowadays Käsespätzle have become popular all over South Germany and can be found on many menus there.
Keeping in mind the history of the dish it should be clear what cheese is the best to pick. 100% authentic Käsespätzle need to be made with Allgäu Bergkäse (“mountain cheese”). Of course this is not widely abailable an it is perfectly possible to make Käsespätzle with other cheeses to good success. But for selecting the cheese to use you should stick to hard cheeses from the Alps (to which Allgäu Bergkäse belongs as well) because these are fairly similar in their basic character. Emmental, Appenzell, Comté, Gruyère or even Beaufort are all good choices. Also the many different kinds of Austrian mountain cheeses work very well, naturally.
You should stay clear of Gouda, Edam, Cheddar or other hard cheeses that are not from alpine regions. Käsespätzle certainly won’t become inedible with them, but they will taste distinctively different, and it’s just not the real thing.
It should go without saying, but any kind of processed cheese (Velveeta etc.) is absolutely prohibited for Käsespätzle!
Apart from the fact that using store-bought packaged spätzle is just as much a blasphemy as processed cheese, the type of spätzle to be used is essentiall a matter of personal preference. For those of you without deeper spätzle knowledge, there are three main methods how spätzle can be prepared:
- Hand scraping, arguably this is the most traditional method, but you need a lot of experience to get a satisfying result in a reasonable amount of time.
- Using a spätzle press that looks loke an oversized garlic press and works the samy way. This is my preferred method, and I don’t want to miss my original 1950s Spätzlesschwob.
- Using a special kind of grater through which the dough is pressed. This is the method most used in gastronomy but personally I find the resulting spätzle too chunky.
There are a lot of different spätzle recipes out there. Many use few eggs and much water. I do it the other way around.
Ingredients (for 2 to 3 portions):
- 4 large eggs
- 250 to 300 g flour (high protein)
- 200 g grated cheese (preferably freshly grated by yourself)
- 1 yellow onion, at least medium sized, cut into 5 to 7 mm dice
- 20 g butter
- Spätzle making tools according to your method of choice. For the press it is advisable to have a kitchen knife at hand to scrape off remnants of the dough after making a batch.
- A skimmer
- An oven proof bowl or dish, high or shallow is a matter of taste
- Preparations: 15 minutes
- Cooking: ca. 30 minutes
Open the eggs into a bowl, add a splash of water (about 5 cl) and a pinch of salt and mix shortly to get a homogenous mass. Using a large wooden or plastic spoon mix in the flour bit by bit. The dough should be smooth before the next batch of flour is added. The exact amount of flour depends on th size of the eggs. I never measure the flour but rather pour it carefully directly from the package.
The spätzle dough must not be made with a food processor. I should not be stirred or kneaded but rather beaten with the spoon. The dough has the right texture when it has become very viscous and hard to beat any further. There may even be bubbles beginning to form from the air that has been incorporated. If using a press with method 2 the dough may be prepared slightly less viscous. It is best to approach the perfect texture slowly by adding only small amounts of flour at a time. This has the side effect that the dough gets a proper workout. Yes, your arms may hurt a bit. They should. If the dough becomes too firm anyway, a little water may be added. Then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 120 degrees. Melt the butter in a skillet on medium heat, add the diced onions and brown them on low heat, stirring frequently, until the edges become dark brown. Don’t rush this step, allow 15 to 20 minutes. If you are using a cast iron skillet, you need to consider that the onions will still become a bit darker once the heat has been turned off.
In the mean time bring water to a boil in a large pot at highest heat. The pot should be filled well but not quite to the rim. When the water is boiling add salt like for making pasta. With a bit of experience everything can be timed such that the onions are ready when the water is boiling.
Every bit of concentration is needed now to make the spätzle. All equipment needed must be within reach and made wet so the dough can move smoothly. The dish should be in reach as well.
The spätzle are now scraped, pressed or grated into the bubbling water according to your method of choice. In my press the amount of dough in is recipe is sufficient for two batches with a 3/4 filling. The spätzle should cook about a minute in bubbling water, keep in mind that the water will cool down a bit first. If the pot appears to overboil soon, just push down the spätzle into the water with the skimmer. Never turn down the heat. If you are unexperienced you may use less water in the pot but this also means the water will cool down more. The cooking time is not too critical. After all the spätzle are soft anyway, and it takes a while until they become completely mushy.
When the batch is cooked remove the spätzle from the pot with the skimmer and out them into the dish. Take care to remove all spätzle from the pot before starting on the second batch. Spread half of the cheese on top of the spätzle and put the dish into the oven. Now you can make the second batch.
The second layer of spätzle is placed on top of the cheese which should now have at least partly melted. Then put the rest of the cheese on top and finish by spreading the onions with the all the butter over the cheese and put the dish into the oven again for about 5 minutes to melt any cheese completely. Make sure the oven is not too hot. Under no circumstances the cheese should form a crust, it should remain soft and brightly coloured. It is advisable to use the waiting time to rinse or soak any tools and surfaces that have come into contact with the dough. Once it has dried it is very difficult to clean.
Now the Käsespätzle are ready to be served. To go with them there really ony is a simply salad and maybe some freshly baked bread. Depending on your personal taste you can drink a weissbier, lager or märzen or a simple wine, red is the best match but a white will do as well.