My mother is a great cook. When I was younger I don’t think I realized how well we ate—the woman made everything from lasagna to chicken pot pie to brisket—and we even got pizza thrown in there every now and again (read: most Friday nights). I finally caught on to her skill and tried to learn from her by studying her methods and recipes, but turns out that wasn’t as simple as it seems because everything is “ungefähr”.
Ungefähr (unga-fare) is German for “approximately”. Which is to say, my mother cooks without strict guidelines and often without measures. A classic tactic of the last generation making it hard for us to learn their tricks.
Enter my mother’s mother’s spaetzle (it’s pronounced a variety of ways…but I think you’re catching on to my German heritage). This is a dish that in all my years had never been made for me, but had been discussed at length. It is a simple mix of egg, flour, and water to create a quick dumpling dough. In my knowledge of spaetzle they are often extruded and take on a thin elongated shape; but not my mother’s mother’s. Atypical to a T.
I watched her bring together the dough just based on her memory of what it should look and feel like. Then I watched her take heaping scoops and drop them in boiling salted water, creating dough puffs that floated to the surface when cooked. Their texture was something at the intersection of matzoh balls and gnocchi; light but chewy and terribly addictive.
We ate them 2 ways. My mother had made a bone broth from beef rib bones that was in itself life altering, but together with the dumpling nuggets we’d made it was on another level. I used some reserved dough to create the spaetzle I had been envisioning, still irregularly shaped but smaller and once boiled I sautéed them with butter and sage until they were a bit crisp on the edges. It’s amazing how the simplest things can sometimes leave the largest impressions.
I am slightly irritated it took this long for my mother to share this non-recipe recipe. But now that I know how it looks and feels and tastes, I am sure I could find a way to throw it together—ungefähr.
*Shout out to Dad—also a cook in his own right: highly proficient in all things breakfast.
makes 4-6 servings of spaetzle
1 cup (ish) all purpose flour
1/2 cup water (+1/2 cup extra set aside just in case)
1 large egg
1/2 tsp salt
- Lightly beat the egg at the bottom of a large bowl. Add flour, salt, and half a cup of water and mix together until combined. You want the dough to feel elastic and a bit sticky, so if need be add more water to get a consistency that can be scooped easily (remember, this is a haphazard recipe so trust your gut).
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add a good amount of salt to the water (about a tablespoon). Using a teaspoon, dollop a spoonfuls of dough into the water. If going for bigger dumplings, fill the spoon with dough. If aiming for the skinnier bite-size nuggets, take a small amount on the edge of spoon and coax it off into the water. You can do this in batches.
- Once the dough puffs and rises to the water’s surface, use a slotted spoon to transfer them either directly into waiting bone broth preferably littered with bits of cooked carrots and onions for some depth (mom’s way) or into a pan that contains melted, salty butter with a couple of sage leaves floating around (my way). If you’re going for the buttery version, sauté the spaetzle in the butter until the edges have a touch of crispy brownness.
- Either version would be heightened with a dusting of grated parmesan cheese and a little sea salt.