I was 24 when I lost my job as a financial journalist to the Great Recession and sunk my meager savings into a year-long culinary school program in the hopes of becoming a food writer. Around that time when — to paraphrase the late Nora Ephron — everything in my cooking life was suddenly copy, I grew obsessed with tracking down my late German grandmother's recipes that endured since my grandparents immigrated from diminutive Heimbuchenthal, Bavaria, to Fairfield, Conn., during World War II.
My grandmother Louise Buturac — whom we called Oma — died in 1990 when I was only five, meaning I had to glean everything secondhand from my Mom and aunt. I learned delicious tidbits to be sure, such as how she supposedly smuggled mache lettuce seeds in her socks through customs. But her written recipes were scarce — and not just due to the standard granny practice of vague recipe documentation.
As Mom and Aunt Chris gently reminded me, once my grandparents came to the states, Oma lost some enthusiasm for making traditional German dishes night after night. After all, she'd procured her first microwave and made friends with an Italian immigrant at work who shared newfound gems like foolproof eggplant parmesan.
The handful of recipes my family did inherit included Oma's stuffed cabbage rolls simmered in tomato sauce, rouladen (thin beef strips wrapped around bacon and a pickle, which we'd refer to by an unsavory, colloquial-German nickname) and spaetzle, a chewy, egg-rich dumpling traditionally served alongside meat with gravy. Spaetzle are gratifying and relatively simple to make — comprising little more than milk, flour and eggs boiled in water. So my sister and I started requesting that Mom make them with us from time to time.
The three of us would crowd into the cluttered little kitchen of my childhood home and pop open a bottle of Chardonnay. We'd always start industriously, divvying up the wet and dry ingredient measurements, then combining and whisking the eggy batter while Mom's biggest pot of salted water came to a boil. A notorious perfectionist, Oma insisted on using a slotted spoon to funnel the batter into the boiling water, which yielded uniformly tiny dumplings that resembled scrambled egg curds. This of course came with the monotony of hovering over that simmering water for ages fishing out small batches at a time, but Oma bore it without complaint.
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However, the pride with which the three of us retrieved those first few perfect batches was quickly surpassed by exasperation at the quantity of batter left in the bowl. Meanwhile, steam from the pot fogged up the windows dramatically, making us sweat. (Or was that the flush from the wine?) In any case, about midway through our second or third glass, Mom would decisively shift tact and pour the remaining batter into a big measuring cup. She'd tip it over the simmering water, deftly cutting the batter every half second with a butter knife.
Soon enough, the proportion of shaggy, sausage-sized dumplings overtook the pretty little curds in the buttered bowl. No matter; we'd fry that disorderly assemblage in butter with breadcrumbs per tradition. Only with time has this intergenerational spaetzle become the one I know and cherish most: half impeccable Oma; half the slightly sauced shortcut employed by her impatient descendants — always wholly delicious.
In this slight riff on my Oma's spaetzle, I've added mixed soft herbs, which add interest and color without overpowering the eggy essence of these scruffy homemade noodles.
Recipe: Herbed Spaetzle
Serves 4 (as a side)
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3 large eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
- 3/4 cup whole milk
- 3 tablespoons fresh mixed herbs, minced (I used equal parts parsley, dill and chives), divided
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus more as needed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Whisk together the wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Pour them into the dry ingredients, and mix until well combined. Mix in about 2/3 of the herbs. Let the batter sit for 5-10 minutes.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once the water reaches a rolling boil, use a slotted spoon or measuring cup with a spout (depending on the desired size) to funnel the batter into the pot, about 1/2 cup at a time. If using the measuring cup method, use a butter knife or a swipe of your index finger to cut the batter every half second or so.
3. Cook the spaetzle for 2-3 minutes, or until they float to the top. Remove them using a slotted spoon or spider, and drop them into a colander to allow the excess water to drain for a few minutes. Then move the cooked spaetzle to a large buttered bowl. (You can do this part up to 3 hours ahead of time. Keep the spaetzle in the buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap.)
4. A few minutes before you're ready to eat, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter, olive oil and breadcrumbs, and cook for a few minutes. Dump in the spaetzle, and toss to coat in the breadcrumb mixture. Cook for about 5 minutes, until browned. You might want to add a bit more butter as you go to keep the spaetzle from drying out. Toss in the rest of the fresh herbs, and serve immediately.
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