Spätzle may be from southern Germany, but they also make these tiny dumplings in nearby Alsace, Switzerland and Austria. And in some parts of Italy, too, specifically the northeastern region known as Südtirol in German and Trentino-Alto Adige in Italian. The region was part of Austria until the First World War, and many of its inhabitants still speak German and maintain their Austrian traditions, including when it comes to food. I was in its capital Bolzano years back and, truth be told, I had some of the best “Austrian” food I’d ever tasted there.
The basic recipe for Spätzle—also known in Italian as gnocchetti tirolesi or little Tyrolean dumplings—calls for flour, egg and milk or water. The uncooked consistency of Spätzle dough is actually somewhere between a thick batter and a proper dough. You place it in a special instrument devised for the purpose called, appropriately enough, a Spätzle maker. The device has a basket you rock back and forth over a perforated base placed over a pot of boiling water. As you do so, little strands of the uncooked Spätzle dough drop into pot. Almost instantaneously, they float to surface and your Spätzle are ready for serving.
Today’s recipe is a variation of the classic recipe made with zucca or pumpkin. As I’ve written about before, although identical in looks, zucca is actually quite different from pumpkin in taste and texture. If you don’t have access to Italian zucca you’re better off using another winter squash rather than actual pumpkin. These days I’ve become very fond of Kobocha squash but there are other options. (See the Notes below for details.)
In Italy Spätzle are considered a kind of pasta, served generally as a primo piatto rather than a side dish. They can be dressed in various ways. The simplest way is to dress your Spätzle as you might a delicate stuffed pasta, with melted butter scented with garlic and sage, and topped with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. And if you ask, that’s the best way to appreciate the delicate flavor and texture of these tiny dumplings.
- 500g (1 lb) winter squash (see Notes)
- 100ml (3-1/2 fl oz) milk
- 3 eggs
- 300g (10-1/2 oz) flour (or to taste)
- A good scrape of nutmeg
- A good pinch of salt
Peel and cut the squash into chunks or wedges. Steam them until they are perfectly tender.
In a food processor, purée the squash with milk and eggs. Add about 250g (8 oz) of flour and process until smooth. Then process in more flour by heaping spoonfuls until you reach your desired consistency, somewhere between a very thick batter and a proper dough. (More on this in the Notes below.)
Place your Spätzle maker on a pot containing simmering well-salted water. Scrape the Spätzle dough into the basket and rock it back and forth. Small strands will fall into the simmering water as you do so. As soon as they float to the top—which will be almost instantaneous—they’re done.
Fish out the Spätzle out of the pot with a skimmer, making sure they’re well drained of their cooking water, and serve right away, dressed with sage scented butter and sprinkled with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano as pictured here, or as you prefer (see Notes for details).
The texture of Spätzle dough can vary quite a bit from recipe to recipe, depending on the ratio of the dry (flour) to wet (egg, milk/water) ingredients. The higher the ratio, the firmer your dough will be. If using a Spätzle maker, it needs to be quite soft, but the consistency can range between something quite batter-like (which is my personal preference, since it turns out more delicate and elongated Spätzle) or something more like a proper if very pliable dough, in which case your Spätzle will be more like little pellets than the delicate strands pictured above.
To make Spätzle, you really should get yourself a Spätzle maker. It makes the job incredibly easy. They are widely available in specialized cookware shops or online. And they’re really quite inexpensive as well. But there are alternatives. If you make your Spätzle mixture on the thick side, more like a proper dough, then you can use the rough holes of a box grater or even, in old fashioned style, cut the dough into tiny bits using a knife. (I understand this was the original technique, in fact.) Or, using a loose mixture closer to a batter, you can use any number of perforated gadgets including a potato ricer, steamer or colander.
As I’ve written about before, although Italian zucca is botanically speaking basically the same thing, its taste and texture is entirely different from the rather bland and fibrous pumpkin we can find here in the US. For this dish then, I’d go for another winter squash. Many recipes recommend butternut squash, but I prefer Kobacha, a hard to find but delicious winter squash originally from Japan. I’ve had good results with buttercup squash, as well as, believe it or not, baby yams.
Spätzle comes in all sorts of varieties. Classic Spätzle, as mentioned at the top, is made simply with egg, flour and milk or water. You can also make Spätzle with puréed spinach in much the same way as the winter squash ones. There are recipes where you add finely minced aromatic herbs like parsley, chives, sage, thyme or marjoram to the Spätzle dough. And you can also make Spätzle with grano saraceno or buckwheat, which lends them a lovely rustic flavor.
How to dress Spätzle di zucca
There are quite a few ways you can dress your Spätzle in the Italian manner. Here are a few ideas:
Burro e salvia
Melt a good bit of butter—I’d go for a whole stick (100g)—in a small saucepan with a few sage leaves and a slightly crushed clove of garlic. Let the butter just barely simmer at the lowest flame you can manage for a couple of minutes so the sage and garlic infuse into the butter. Then remove the flavorings and pour the butter over your well drained cooked Spaetzle. If you like, after removing the garlic and sage, you can raise the heat and let the butter turn a golden brown or noisette. This lends a lovely nutty flavor to the butter. Take care not to actually burn the butter, of course.
Gorgonzola (e noci)
Take a good knob of gorgonzola, perhaps 100g (3-1/2 oz,) and let it melt in a skillet or braiser with some milk. Let the cheese melt into the milk to form a kind of light cream. Transfer the cooked Spätzle to the skillet and toss once or twice until well coated. Serve right away. If you like, throw in some crumbled walnuts for tossing along with the Spaetzle.
Speck, a delicious cured pork very popular in the Südtirol and other parts of northeastern Italy with a distinct smokey flavor, is a classic pairing with Spätzle. Sauté the Speck, cut into small cubes or strips, in lots of butter, adding a sage leaf or two if you like. Toss with the cooked Spaetzle before serving.
Pancetta e panna
Sauté cubed pancetta in a knob of butter, then add heavy cream and let it reduce. Add cooked Spaetzle and toss briefly, until the Spaetzle are well coated, and serve right away. Here you can use Speck instead of the pancetta.
Not particularly Italian but a classic way to enjoy Spätzle in Austria, where I first got to know Spätzle. In a gratin dish, alternate layers of cooked Spätzle with copious amounts of grated Emmenthal or another meltable Alpine cheese. Top with caramelized onions and bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven until bubbly and hot.
Spätzle alla zucca
- 500g 1 lb 500g (1 lb) winter squash
- 100ml 3-1/2 fl oz milk
- 3 3 eggs
- 300g 10-1/2 oz 300g (10-1/2 oz) flour (or to taste)
- A good scrape of nutmeg
- A good pinch of salt
- Peel and cut the squash into chunks or wedges. Steam them until they are perfectly tender.
- In a food processor, purée the squash with milk and eggs. Add about 250g (8 oz) of flour and process until smooth. Then process in more flour by heaping spoonfuls until you reach your desired consistency, somewhere between a very thick batter and a proper dough.
- Place your Spätzle maker on a pot containing simmering well-salted water. Scrape the Spätzle dough into the basket and rock it back and forth. Small strands will fall into the simmering water as you do so. As soon as they float to the top, they're done.
- Fish out the Spätzle out of the pot with a skimmer, making sure they're well drained of their cooking water, and serve right away, dressed with sage scented butter and sprinkled with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, or as you prefer.
PS: Would a passatutto or food mill work?
It would work, but expect the Spätzle to come out a bit shorter than with a special purpose tool.
I had these the first time in Orvieto from a cook who hailed from the Tirol — but her’s were the classic flour version. She served them with homemade pesto. Yummy!
Sounds nice, Sebastian!
There is abundance of Basil and the flat green climbing beans in the garden down here at the moment so I made a variant of Pasta Genovese, cooked the beans and potato and then added plain spatzle to the water, cooked, drained and added lots of Pesto. Very good. Pumpkin spatzle would have been equally good.
Sounds like a delicious meal, John!
I’ve stayed in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy and love the food there as it is an interesting mix of Italian and Austrian. Your Spätzle sounds delicious.
Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s a very interesting part of Italy and I love their food, too. In many ways, the best of both worlds.
I’ve eaten spaetzle in Austria and in Italy’s Dolomites, but they always tasted too gummy to me. Yours, however, look so inviting. I don’t have a spaetzle maker, but you’re tempting me to go get one and make your recipe. I too, find that pumpkin here is so different from the zucca you find in Italy. I’ve found that zucca here infrequently, and when I can’t, I use a combo of butternut squash and sweet potato (for a ravioli filling).
Thanks, Linda! One thing I like about spaetzle made with zucca or spinach is that they tend to be softer and less gummy than the classic kind with flour and egg only. And that combination sounds like a winner. I’ve tried both as a substitute for zucca but never together. I’ll have to try it some time.
Hi Frank, I can’t tell you how excited I was to see this recipe! I tried making spatzle with my colander in the past but it was very messy and I did not have good results so I gave up trying to make them. Of course, I did not consider how easy it is to order an inexpensive spatzle make until now. Mine arrived the following day and I made spatzle for dinner this week. They were absolutely delicious, I love the addition of squash. I will, however, add all of the flour next time for a chewier consistency. But thanks to you I will be making spatzle on a regular basis!
Fabulous, Nadia!. Yes, I can imagine making Spatzle in a colander could be very messy indeed. 😉 And with the equipment being so very inexpensive it’s really worth it. Hope you enjoy these… !
Oh, this looks like the epitome of fall comfort food, Frank! I actually made Spätzle with squash last fall, and it turned out decent. I do need to invest in a spätzle maker, though. I used a box grater, and it was a bit of a mess. Thanks for the inspiration – your posts always inspire me! Oh, and adding gorgonzola sounds fantastic!!
Thanks so much, David. You’re too kind! And yes, a Spätzle maker is well worth the modest investment in my opinion. You don’t absolutely need it, but it makes the job a real breeze.
Hey, I love that spatzle maker! I’ve never had spatzle in a restaurant, but I’ve tried making it at home nonetheless. Mine was thick, and had to be forced through some holes. They way you do it sounds so much more reasonable! I also love the idea of making them out of squash.
Thanks, Jeff! A soft dough is definitely easier to push through those holes!
Can’t wait to try this with the Gorgonzola and noce. A beautiful dish, Frank! (Obviously, cheesy rich dishes were on both our minds this week…)
Great minds think alike… 😉
Frank — we made the spätzle tonight with pumpkin I had frozen for last year, and served it with Gorgonzola e noci. It was wonderful — can’t wait to cook some pumpkin or butternut to make this again.
That’s awesome, David. So glad to hear you liked it!
I make nokedli (Hungarian Spätzle) when I make chicken paprikas, I had no idea it was a dish in Italy too. And to make it as a separate course sounds absolutely lovely. I also like frying them in a little butter to crisp up the edges a bit.
Interesting! I didn’t know they made Spatzle in Hungary but of course it makes perfect sense.
I love Spätzle but haven’t made them in years. I have a Spätzle maker and will try your version when I get home.
Hope you like them, Gerlinde! Actually I’m pretty sure you will! 🙂
Reminds me…I’ve been looking at my spatzle maker lately…love the idea of using winter squash! I often make gnocchi using them…so good…and I can hardly wait to give this a whirl! Thanks and ciao, Frank!
The gnocchi are wonderful, too, Phyllis. And in fact I was actually debating whether to blog on the gnocchi or the Spätzle this week. I guess that fewer people might know about these so opted for them. Anyway, they are well worth a try. I can practically guarantee you’ll enjoy them!
*laugh* One does not need special equipment to make this dish – just grab your colander out of the cupboard, pour the mixture in and start cutting at the bottom ! Have made such with liver(s) etc but never with pumpkin . . . must try !
Those little neat gnocchi are absolutely gorgeous, and I love the use of squash and nutmeg. And all these dressing ideas sound terrific too (butter-sage and gorgonzola would be my favourite for sure.)
That nutmeg is a nice touch, Ben… Thanks!
Would roasting the squash also work? I can get butternut squash very easily and usually use it roasted and then pureed in soup, so I’m familiar with it.
Sure, you can also roast the squash. I should have mentioned that in the Notes, actually. I would wrap it in foil, however, to avoid them drying out (which happened to me once) or browning too much.
Here in the south west part of Germany, there you find Spätzle with liver. Instead of the squash puree, you add raw beef liver puree (foodprocessor) to the dough. Topping for these liver spätzle is a good amount of sauteed ognions. Serve with a green salad.
Sounds very nice, Johannes! I do like liver, especially when there’s lots of sautéed onions involved! I lived in Vienna for a few years back in the day and they had a lovely soup with liver dumplings that I really enjoyed.
Spätzle is wonderful stuff — love its flavor, its texture, just everything about it. Never had — or made! — a winter squash version, though. Like the idea — seems somehow healthier, more virtuous. And I need all the virtue I can get. 🙂 Really good recipe — thanks.
You and me both, John! I guess you could say these are healthy as they’re mostly veg. I’d like to think so, anyway. In Italy you see these versions (zucca or spinach) of Spätzle more often that the “regular” style, I suspect because of its role as a first course rather than a side dish. Anyway, we can all use some virtue!
These are absolutely gorgeous, Frank!! You’ve made me want to buy a spaetzle maker now! I love them, but have never made them myself. Thanks for the lovely recipe!
Thanks, Christina! They’re so easy to make at home, and the kind you can buy doesn’t compare.
Love love love spatzele. I grew up with them because my mother lived in the corner of france near Germany. I think her father was Alsatian as well. She made traditional ones, but I have loved putting this and that in the dough. So much fun.
So true! Every time I do make them, I think to myself that I should do so more often. Besides being fun and delicious, they’re incredibly easy.
I love that Spätzle maker and I bet it tastes delicious. I’m going to a Catalan food festival this afternoon with an Italian girl – she tells me there are a couple of Italian restaurants taking part. They probably won’t have Spätzle but I often find that I read about something new and it miraculously presents itself! We will see…
Well, let’s see what fate has in store… Sounds like fun anyway!
Spätzle..,here a link to the blue Hubbard. (Found in many farmers markets)
I was introduced to sparsely many moons ago in Bavaria. Loved it and have opted for the dried boxed version ever since. But this post has inspired me. Did not know it’s culinary history. I will try this using blue Hubbard squash. If you have not tried, you must. They are easy to grow and as a squash, keep a long time. (One lasted a year in our pantry.) They are big, the shell is hard— the skin is scored and then you use a hammer to crack them open—and they are delicious. Off to to buy the maker. Thank you for your posts. Very informative for my mind and tummy.
Thanks for the tip! I’ll need to look out for these. Quite impressive looking to boot! Really lives up to its botanical name of Cucurbita Maxima …