So many people still seem to believe that pasta is strictly Italian. Yes, they know that central Europeans and Asians eat all kinds of noodles. But noodles are noodles, they think, and pasta is pasta. It doesn't matter to them that the word "pasta" simply means a "paste," referring to the flour-and-water dough from which any kind of pasta or noodle is made.
So please consider things from my perspective for a moment. In southern Austria, I grew up eating spaetzle (pronounced "SHPETZ-lee"), little squiggles of boiled flour-and-egg dough. (Their squiggly shape, by the way, resulting from pressing the soft dough through the holes of a colander to form plump little pieces with pointy ends, supposedly inspired spaetzle's name, "little birds.")
My mother, Maria, prepared spaetzle from scratch at least once a week. Often, she served them as a side dish with goulash, other stews, or roasts. Even more frequently, we would have them as a lunch or dinner main course, with salad on the side.
When I first ate Italian food, then, my impression was that pasta was just like spaetzle! How interesting it was, I thought, that Italians enjoyed their own version of an Austrian favorite.
The simple truth is, the world's cuisines have much more in common than you might first think. At least, I hope that will be your impression after you try my recipe for one of my favorite recipes of my mother's: Spaetzle with Gruyere and Caramelized Onions.
If you've ever prepared your own fresh pasta from scratch, you'll be surprised by how very easy spaetzle are to make. You don't have to set up a pasta machine or roll out, knead, or cut the dough. In fact, you don't really need any sort of special appliance at all. Spaetzle are much better if you mix the dough by hand, stirring it until the ingredients are just combined rather than beating the mixture; this keeps the spaetzle soft and tender. And all you need to shape them is that old-fashioned metal colander perforated with holes, through which you push the dough into boiling water.
After a few minutes, your spaetzle will be ready to eat. You can simply toss them with some melted or browned butter and, if you like, a little grated cheese. We'd frequently eat buttered spaetzle for dinner along with homemade apple compote.
Or try the only slightly more elaborate presentation in this recipe, in which you bake the little boiled dumplings with butter and Gruyere--sort of like a simplified Austrian version of macaroni and cheese--before topping them with caramelized onions.
However you enjoy them, I'm sure that spaetzle will convince you that pasta can be authentically Austrian!
SPAETZLE WITH GRUYERE AND CARAMELIZED ONIONS
1 3/4 cups milk
4 large egg yolks
1 large egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
5 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 1-1/2 cups)
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg yolks, and egg. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour with the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. With a wooden spoon, stir the egg mixture into the flour mixture just until blended but still slightly lumpy. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the batter for at least 1 hour or as long as overnight.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Carefully hold a colander with large holes over the boiling water. Add about 1/2 cup of the batter to the colander and, with a rubber spatula or the back of a large spoon, press the batter through the holes to drop into the simmering water. Repeat until all of the batter has been used.
Cook for 2 minutes, then drain thoroughly. Immediately transfer the spaetzle to the ice water, stirring until all of the ice has melted. Drain the spaetzle and transfer them to a large bowl. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the oil, season lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Set aside. (You can prepare the recipe to this point up to a day ahead and refrigerate the spaetzle.)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Spread the spaetzle evenly in the dish and dot with the butter pieces. Sprinkle evenly with the cheese and bake until the spaetzle are hot and the cheese is just melted, about 20 minutes.
As soon as you put the spaetzle in the oven, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until softened slightly, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. As soon as the spaetzle are ready, scatter the onions over them and serve immediately.