I’m very proud of my German heritage and the wonderful traditions that I grew up with as a result of it. I’ve always loved listening to my mom tell stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother–both German immigrants. My mom recently wrote down some of her memories of my Oma (my great-grandmother). She said,
When I was growing up, my German Oma used to visit for a week or more at a time. Oma spoke almost no English, and I never learned German. However, she was a terrific cook and took over the cooking when she came. Oma, who had trained under a chef in Switzerland after World War I, could make an amazing meal out of almost nothing. I have wonderful memories of her Pfannekuchen (thick, spongy, pan-sized pancakes spread with jam or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and rolled up like a crepe). She could make potatoes in a hundred different ways. (In fact, she took care of us a few times while Mom took a trip to Germany in the summer, and I remember eating some type of potato dish virtually every day and using almost none of the food money Mom left behind.) She made an incredible soup called Maultaschen (seasoned ground meat wrapped in homemade noodles and boiled in a savory broth) that took hours to prepare. Her Kuchen was delicious and her cookies signaled the coming of Christmas, but the dish I waited for and wanted most of all was Spaetzle und Linsen, or homemade noodles with lentil sauce. If there is a German comfort food, this is it. To my knowledge, Oma never ever used a recipe. She had everything in her head. Luckily, my two oldest sisters had the foresight to write down some of Oma’s recipes. They sat with her in the kitchen while she cooked, and they recorded all the necessary measurements and directions.
We went to visit my parents this past weekend and my mom proposed we have an Oktoberfest meal, complete with Spaetzle und Linsen. When I was growing up, my mom often made the lentil sauce and served it over spaetzle or egg noodles, a meal which was, and still is, one of my all-time favorites. I think she occasionally chose to forego making the spaetzle because although dough is easy to make, actually making the noodles is really a two-person job. Spaetzle is a type of pasta/dumpling popular in Germany.
They taste like a cross between pasta and dumplings–tender with a bit of chewiness. To make spaetzle, the dough is first put into the barrel of the spaetzle maker (though a colander can be used–method described below*),
and then you have to force the handles together which pushes the dough out of tiny little holes in the bottom of the barrel (this alone is a difficult job) into a pot of boiling water.
Then when the strings of dough start to dangle in the water, you have to use a knife to cut them from the bottom of the barrel and quickly stir them into boiling water so that they don’t stick together.
You repeat this process until the barrel is empty, then wait for the noodles to cook (when they float to the top they’re done).
When they are done you ladle them out into a bowl, let the water return to a boil, and start all over again.
We ate our spaetzle and lentils with some wurst and a fabulous kopsalat (using this recipe), a salad made with bacon and a hot vinegar dressing that slightly wilts the lettuce.
Although we don’t drink alcohol, we gave a nod to our roots,
with some IBC root beer.
It was fun to introduce Squirrel and Bug to spaetzle, and luckily they both loved it.
A.M. Homes wrote, in an article in the April 2007 issue of O Magazine, “Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren . . . it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identify from.” I believe that a family’s story is also told through “food traditions.” Even if it’s mom’s tuna casserole that someone used to feed to the dog underneath the dinner table, there’s still a story, a thread that weaves a family’s history together. Spaetzle and lentils is a family tradition that has bound my family’s story to that of my great-grandmother’s.
Now as my own children grow older, I will make spaetzle and lentils for them and make sure that I tell them about the amazing woman who used to make it for their grandma. Here is the recipe that one of my mother’s sisters wrote down over 25 years ago while watching Oma cook, and some additional tips from one of her other sisters.
Oma’s Spaetzle und Linsen (Spaetzle and Lentils)
Makes 4 generous servings
1 pound dried brown lentils (about 2 cups)
2 quarts of water
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
pepper to taste
1. Rinse and sort the lentils. (Get rid of the bad ones!) If they are old, soak them overnight.
2. Put the lentils and water in a large pot and bring the water to a boil. Simmer the unril tender–35 minutes or more, depending on the age of the lentils. Add the bouillon cubes. Don’t let the lentils burn or stick. Add more water if necessary. They will eventually form a sauce and thicken (the excess water will boil off).
3. As the lentils finish cooking, saute the onion in the butter until it is tender. Then add the flour and and cook and stir until the mixture just begins to brown. Add the cold water to the onion mixture, and cook and stir until smooth. Add the onion mixture to the lentils and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 5 minutes and then serve over spaetzle.
Good variations: (1) Add bacon ends or pieces to cooking lentils (make sure to reduce the amount of salt and omit the butter, as the bacon will provide both extra salt and fat). (2) Add ham or sliced German wurst to the cooked lentils.
** The completed lentil sauce freezes very well, or you can just freeze the cooked lentils and complete the sauce when you’re ready. This is a good make-ahead dish and in fact tastes better the second day. Leftovers can be added to soups and stews.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon salt
1. Add all of the ingredients to a mixing bowl and beat thoroughly, adding more water or flour to get a sticky, elastic dough. This has to be done by hand with a wooden spoon unless you have a dough hook on your mixer.
2. In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add a little oil or butter to the water to help cut down on foam and to prevent the spaetzle from sticking together. Squeeze the dough in batches through a spaetzle maker into the boiling water. You can cook two batches at a time. Be sure to stir the noodles as soon as you have added them to the water so they don’t stick together. Return the water to a boil and simmer for about 2 minutes, or until the spaetzle floats to the top of the water. Using a slotted spoon, spoon the spaetzle onto a platter. Continue until all the dough is used up. (You can reuse the cooking water until it is too foamy.) Serve with lentils.
**NOTES: It’s very tiring to beat the dough, especially if you get it too stiff. Don’t chill the dough, or you’ll never be able to get it through the spaetzle maker. Spaetzle can be made in quantity, frozen, and reheated in the microwave. Leftovers are great in chicken soup or fried in butter (the latter is the authentic German leftover treatment).
Be sure to soak the spaetzle maker in the sink as soon as you are done with it–it’s a beast to clean otherwise. To make the job easier, try spraying the inside with cooking spray before you start.
Oma always adjusted this recipe to allow “one egg per person.”
* To make spaetzle using a colander: Place a colander over your pot of boiling water, pour about1/4 of the batter into the colander, and press through the holes with a plastic spatula into the water.
* Spaetzle and lentils makes for wonderful leftovers! A great way to reheat your spaetzle without drying it out is to beat several eggs (about 1 egg per cup of spaetzle), then toss the egg with noodles. Melt a bit of butter in a skillet,
then add the spaetzle and fry until all of the egg has cooked, and then serve!