If we get pasta from Italy, from Germany we get nudeln, or noodles. From Swabia we get little egg-dough squiggles, poached like dumplings and called “spaetzle,” or “little sparrows.” The dough is as easy to make as any pasta dough, but the squiggles take a bit of practice and a lot of patience. In Germany there are spaetzle machines, just as there are pasta machines in Italy (and now the world), that work on the principle of a potato ricer. One traditional home method is to rub the dough with a large wooden spoon through the holes of a colander over a pot of simmering water so that the dough will drop directly into the pot. I have no luck with this and use, instead, the method of a German-trained friend, Glenna Putt, who spoons a blob of dough onto a plate, then scrapes off bits of the dough with the tip of a table knife and slips each bit quickly into the pot. The bits should be no longer than an inch and no thicker than an eighth of an inch.
Spaetzle doughs differ widely in how soft or stiff they are, according to the taste of the cook. The point either way is to handle the dough as little as possible to keep from toughening it. My spaetzle friend favors a liquid dough because “the softer the dough the lighter the spaetzle.” With a slightly stiffer dough, you can snip off bits with scissors instead of the knife-scrape method. Glenna suggests putting the noodles as they are cooked into a warm bowl with melted butter in order to keep the spaetzle from sticking together.
Some people have a thing for cold pasta and I have a thing for cold, or leftover, spaetzle. But they are also good reheated gently in cream and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, or fried in a skillet with a little butter to turn them brown and crisp. Traditionally, they are used hot and fresh from the poaching pot as an accompaniment for roast meat or fowl or sauced stew.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil while making the noodle dough. Beat the eggs with the milk. Mix the flour with the salt and nutmeg. Beat egg-milk into the flour to make a very wet dough.
Spoon a large blob of dough onto a small plate. Hold the plate with one hand over the pot of simmering water. Scrape off pieces of the dough by pressing the tip of a table knife against the rim of the plate so that the dough drops into the water. Work as quickly as possible. When the dumplings rise to the surface, skim them with a slotted spoon into a warm bowl of melted butter. Toss the spaetzle lightly with a fork in the butter before serving.
© 1986 Betty Fussell. All rights reserved.