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.