Dinner at Riefschneider's . . . with the Works!

“Why don’t you call up your folks and tell them that you’ll be having dinner with me? We can go south a little way and then angle off into the hinterlands and maybe take some roads we’ve never been on before. Then we’ll come back and stuff ourselves at Reifschneider’s, that wonderful German restaurant where you, Emerson and I ate once. Sauerbraten and red cabbage and the works! Sound good?  Anthony nodded enthusiastically. “Sounds great!”

-John Bellairs, “The Mansion in the Mist”

Heidelberger Fass restaurant in Chicago was one of many German restaurants specializing in dishes such as Sauerbraten. It is sadly now closed.

Heidelberger Fass restaurant in Chicago was one of many German restaurants specializing in dishes such as Sauerbraten. It is sadly now closed.

It has been impossible for me to discover whether there was a real German restaurant “on the Wisconsin side of the river” which was the inspiration for “Riefschneider’s”—the apparently wonderful place of repast favored by Miss Eels and her brother, Emerson—who made Anthony Monday a big fan too after their first visit there together. 

I love German restaurants. I grew up in one of Chicago’s biggest German neighborhoods, where there were literally dozens of German restaurants within a few miles, including Heidelberger Fass, where I had my first job at twelve. I was the bus girl, and my job was to set the tables and bring water, bread and a relish tray for customers when they were seated. More on the relish tray in a minute!

The Wisconsin supper club is a force to be reckoned with, espcially the GERMAN Wisconsin supper club. Though so many of these “old school” places have vanished from other states, Wisconsin remains a spot where they continue to be revered. From hefty cocktails and “Shirley Temples” for the kids to salad bars and relish trays and perfectly cooked entrees-many of them with German flair such as schnitzels, sausages and sauerbraten—we continue to appreciate the vintage comfort, coziness and quality of these places. Certainly, in the 1950s the shores of the Mississippi in Wisconsin would have been fairly choked with German supper clubs. Riefschneider’s must have really stood out. Especially their sauerbraten.

Sauerbraten is a beef round roast that has been marinated in wine, vinegar and spices for days until it soaks up all the flavor. Then you roast it for a long time—or you can stick it in a crock pot if you have one of those new-fangled things. Or cook it on the stovetop like a pot roast.  So essentially it takes a long time to make, but it is worth it.  Riefschneider’s and  most other German restaurants serve it with red cabbage—which also is a lot of work to make but also worth it. I know a bit about red cabbage because as a German, we always knew it was a special occasion because we had red cabbage at dinner. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. I made it whenever I make Sunday dinner because it should be made a little more often, but definitely not every day because it is special.

Now, about this whole dinner:

Miss Eels mentions in “The Mansion in the Mist” that their dinner would come with “the works.”  The “works” almost certainly would include rye and pumpernickel breads with fresh butter, a relish tray of little appetizer-y things like cheese spread, ice cold radishes, raw carrot and celery sticks and sliced, pickled beets, plus maybe some creamed cucumber and onion salad, some three bean salad, or some creamed herring.   After the relish tray and bread, you’d have soup and –with the main dish of sauerbraten and red cabbage—either potatoes or dumplings or noodles.   Then probably apple strudel—cooked apples wrapped in pastry and covered with whipped cream.

Here are my thoughts about this dinner. You are going to be spending four days making the main course, so you might as well make “the works” too, since you’ll have a lot of time on your hands waiting to eat. So….

You should definitely get some of the rye and pumpernickel bread to serve and also make a  relish tray. You can buy cucumber salad, three bean salad and creamed herring in jars or cans or at the deli counter at a lot of grocery stores.    This is how they did it in the olden days at places like Heidelberger Fass, where I worked for two days when I was twelve, but the waitresses never gave me any of their tips so I quit. 

Here’s a picture of my relish tray.  I made homemade cucumber & onion salad and pickled beets and a cheese ball as the main attractions of mine,  but you can buy cucumber salad at the deli and a can of pickled beets.  You could also serve three bean salad, which you can get at the deli or buy in a can, cole slaw, or a fishy thing like creamed herring or even tuna salad.  Another good thing for a relish tray is a cheese spread. Very Wisconsin supper clubby.  I made a little cheese ball (easy recipe below too) but you can get one of the tubs of cheese spreads in the cheese section of the store, like Kaukauna or you could even use that flavored cream cheese like you put on bagels like chive or herb. But you don’t want this to be a cheese tray, so don’t put pieces of cheese everywhere on your tray. 


Stick a small fork or knife in each dish so people can serve themselves. It’s nice to put the salads and spreads in glass bowls or even cocktail glasses as they look very sparkly and fancy this way. You don’t need a lot of the salads.  Just a couple of spoonfuls for each person to put on a cracker or bread. 

Then fill in the spaces around the bowls with raw and/or pickled vegetables. I put carrot and celery sticks and radishes. A lot of people also put pickled things like pickles, pickled asparagus, eggs, and  also artichokes, olives, etc.  You could also make some deviled eggs if you like those. Whatever you like.  I also put a dish of walnuts just because I had some lying around. Then lots of crackers and you have the bread and butter too to put everything on.

After the relish tray, you would probably be served liver dumpling soup at Riefschneider’s. I know this probably sounds unappetizing, especially if you hate liver like 99 percent of the population, but it’s very good.  I have never attempted to make it at home, but I’m going to try just for you, because it’s part of “the works.” It’s basically beef broth with a giant liver ball in it. Like matzo ball soup but the matzo ball is made of liver.  Trust me; it’s good. 


Now, for the main course side dishes: our heroes and heroines had potatoes with their sauerbraten at Riefschneider’s. These would have been mashed potatoes or peeled, boiled white potatoes. Both of these are great with sauerbraten. You could also make spaetzle, little dumplings that are made by putting dough through a potato ricer and then boiling and frying them, something I can never get right. I’m going to go out on a limb here and make napkin dumplings, which is dumpling “dough” formed into logs and boiled in aluminum foil then sliced and served.  I think when you try these and sop up all the sauerbraten gravy and red cabbage juice with them, you will be on board.   I think maybe Herr Reisfschneider might even like them.

After this gut buster of a meal, you’ll want to die but you still have to eat the Apple Strudel. Man up and do it. This is, after all, the Works. The strudel is a very simplified version which will take about five minutes to make and zero cooking skills.  So, here we go!






Dry a 3-4 pound beef round bottom roast with paper towels and season with a lot of salt and pepper (make sure it has a lot of fat on it so your sauerbraten is nice and moist). Then brown it in some vegetable oil in a hot pan. Turn it with tongs so all sides get brown. Don’t use olive or any flavored oil for this dish.

Heat in a large saucepan:

1 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water

10 juniper berries or 5 rosemary sprigs

10 whole cloves

3 bay leaves

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 large onion, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped



Cook this all together, simmering on low medium heat. After the vegetables are soft, remove the marinade from the heat and cool slightly.

Transfer the meat to a non-metal casserole dish or even a Ziploc bag big enough to fit the roast.

Pour the marinade over the meat, cover with a lid or plastic wrap (not foil) or seal the bag and refrigerate for three days.  Each day, haul out the big meat vessel and turn the meat so the marinade soaks in each side.

On the fourth day, transfer the roast to a large pot or dutch oven and cover with the marinade. Cover with a lid and simmer for 3  to 4 hours until the meat is very tender. 

Just before serving, remove the meat to a cutting board and let it rest for ten minutes.

Meanwhile, strain the cooking liquid to remove all the vegetable residue.  Return the pot with the liquid to the stove and add ten gingersnaps (yes, gingersnaps) to the liquid, stirring until dissolved. 

Slice the meat against the grain.  Arrange on a platter with dumplings, spaetzle, noodles or potatoes and drizzle with the gingersnap gravy. Serve with red cabbage and green vegetable of your choice.



If you live near a store that sells Aunt Nellie’s Red Cabbage in a jar, you do not have to do this part. Aunt Nellie’s is the perfect sweet and sour German red cabbage (even though it is made with high fructose corn syrup). It is frankly difficult to get the perfect balance of sweet and sour in this dish. We grew up eating Aunt Nellie’s because she nailed it. You can see a list of stores here or even buy it on Amazon, but if you prefer to make your own, here is a good recipe:

Chop or grate:

1 head red cabbage

1 yellow onion

2 peeled Granny Smith apples (or use 1 cup applesauce)

 Simmer the onions in a little vegetable oil until the onions and apples are soft, about two minutes.

Add the cabbage and apples and saute for about three to five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add about a cup of water and stir deeply to deglaze the pan.

Add 8 whole cloves and 1 bay leaf

Add a tablespoon of vinegar and ¼ cup sugar.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and simmer for at least thirty minutes. You will want to season this to your taste, whether you like more sweet or sour flavor in your cabbage. You also want to add more salt and pepper to your taste.



6 tablespoons butter

1 minced yellow onion

1 loaf of white bread, sliced

2 tablespoons dried or fresh chives

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon dried or fresh parsley

1 egg

2 cups whole milk

Salt and black pepper


Leave the bread out for a day so it dries out (or you can put it in a 250-degree oven for about 20 minutes, but don’t let it brown. You just want it dry). Remove the crusts and dice the bread.

Cook the onion in the butter over medium heat until the onions are translucent.  

Mix the egg milk, chives, nutmeg and parsley with the egg in a large bowl and beat well. Stir in the milk.

Stir in the the bread cubes and mix very well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Let this mixture sit for a few minutes until all the liquid is absorbed.

Lay out a long rectangular piece of plastic wrap and lay the bread filling out like a log down the center.

Then, wrap up the log, sealing the ends well.  After, wrap the whole thing up in a long piece of foil, sealing the ends well.

Cook the log in simmering water for 40 minutes. Then remove the log, unwrap and slice into dumplings.




Combine one 16-ounce container of whipped cream cheese, 16 ounces of shredded cheese of your choice and 1 envelope of ranch salad dressing mix or dip mix of your choice. Mix really, really well so all of the power is combined.  Refrigerate for an hour then form into balls with your hands. Roll in crushed nuts or fresh minced herbs like parsley .



A word to the wise: Quite honestly, I would not recommend that you make this unless you have a meat grinder, because I used an immersion blender to chop the meat and my kitchen looked like a crime scene afterwards. If you have a butcher shop nearby, I’m sure the butcher will grind some liver for you if you are nice. I didn’t think of that soon enough.  Anyway, here it goes:

Chop one pound of raw calves’ liver very finely.  Add 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper plus 4 springs marjoram, chopped.

This is probably as pretty as you’ll ever see liver. This was BEFORE I stuck the immersion blender in it.

This is probably as pretty as you’ll ever see liver. This was BEFORE I stuck the immersion blender in it.

Saute one finely chopped onion in ½ cup butter until the onions are translucent.

Combine 1/2 cup room temperature milk with 4 torn slices of dried out white bread with the crusts removed. Let this mixture sit for ten minutes, and then squeeze out all the remaining liquid. Combine with 2 eggs until well mixed. Mix in the onion mixture with your hands and add the liver, still using your hands until all is well combined.  Check seasoning and add salt and pepper if desired.

Heat good beef stock to simmering.

Form one meatball and place into simmering stock. If the ball separates, add a small amount of dry breadcrumbs to the mixture until the balls stay together when cooked.

Simmer the meatballs for about 40 minutes until cooked through. To serve, place one meatball in a soup bowl and carefully pour broth around it.



Thaw one sheet of puff pastry and roll out slightly to the size of a cookie sheet.

Spoon one can of apple filling down the center horizontally, leaving about 1 inch on each end.

Roll up the sides to meet and flip over the strudel.  Pinch together the ends and seal by pressing the tines of a fork down on the extra pastry on each end.

Brush the strudel with a little melted butter and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, watching carefully so it doesn’t burn. It should be golden brown.


Let the strudel sit for about ten minutes before cutting carefully.  Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

You’ll want to serve this feast with strong cocktails, Shirley Temples or Coca-Cola, or beer if you want to go the full German route. Set out the feast and savor your hard work while you plan your next supernatural adventure with your eccentric companions. Guten apetiti!


I have not vanished . . . I've got something big cooking!

Just a note to let everyone know that I was, in fact, celebrating the Easter festival over the weekend; but I have not forgotten about our hungry friends in Bellairs land. In fact, I am—this very moment—cooking up something that has already been requested by several: Riefschneider’s Sauerbraten and Red Cabbage with the Works!

As you may know, Sauerbraten takes four days to make. I just started it, so Friday is D Day . . . short for Death by German food Day! Because I am not only making delicious, tender Sauerbraten with sweet and sour, beautiful red cabbage but I’m also going to whip up “the Works,” as Miss Eels demands. I’ll be putting together a traditional German relish tray with scrumptious crudities, salads and cheese spread, the must-have Liver Dumpling Soup (a staple of any German restaurant worth its schnitzel), pillowy dumplings with nutmeg and parsley, drippy, soppy gravy, and—of course—Apple Strudel. Not for the faint of heart, this gut buster is only for ravenous librarians and husky - sized children.

Look for the whole spread right here this weekend when I unveil the majesty of Riefschneider’s Sauerbraten & Red Cabbage with the Works!


The Chocolate Chip Cookie Experience

There’s nothing like a world war, losing both your parents in a car accident and going to live in a strange town with a stranger relative to make you really, really hungry.

 When all of that happens to Lewis Barnavelt in “The House with a Clock in its Walls, “ his hearty appetite finds a welcome home with Uncle Johnathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, whose very special chocolate chip cookies are served the night of Lewis’ arrival in New Zebedee—and on many occasions thereafter, through thick and thin, good and evil, hairiness and hairierness.

 As the three munch the famous morsels and play poker, Uncle Jonathan tells Lewis about the wizards who once lived in the house, and of the mysterious clock walled up inside the structure: a clock that is ticking down the minutes to the End of the World.  To fight the wizards’ power, the three will need sustenance, and Mrs. Zimmerman’s cookies are just the ticket.

 But what made Mrs. Zimmerman’s cookies so darned gobble-able? Well….. there are a few things. They are all, as you can imagine, kind of weird.

First of all, they—like Mrs. Zimmerman—have a bite.

The bite comes from a mixture of strange things to find in cookies: black pepper, cinnamon and cayenne pepper plus a couple spoonfuls of strong coffee.  They are not exactly spicy and won’t burn your lips off,  but they do wake you up a little when you’re playing poker in the wee hours.

The cookies also have chopped up prunes in them. Mrs. Zimmerman put them in as a joke once because Uncle Jonathan calls her Pruny, but they liked them so much she added them to the recipe.

These are actually also double chocolate chip cookies: a fudgy cookie sprinkled with chocolate chips. For Lewis, who likes chocolate chip cookies even more than Welch’s fudge bars, this makes Mrs. Zimmerman’s extra, extra special.  Watch the oven, because mine is terrible and you could burn them. Start with 10 minutes and 350 degrees and see how it goes. Makes things exciting!


Mrs. Zimmerman’s Chocolate Chip Cookies


2 tablespoons strong black brewed coffee

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken up

½ cup salted butter

2 cups flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon EACH ground cinnamon, fresh ground black pepper and chili powder

1/4 cup honey

2 eggs, beaten slightly until combined

1 cup chocolate chips

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans (you can leave these out if you don’t like nuts)

½ cup finely chopped prunes

The Recipe


Melt the bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler or in a saucepan over a slightly large pan of boiling water. Keep an eye on it!

Let the mixture cool,  and mix in the butter a little at a time, stirring until smooth. Add the honey, cinnamon, black pepper and chili powder and mix well.

Combine the flour and baking powder until well combined.

Stir the chocolate mixture into the flour mixture and combine well.

Add the beaten eggs and stir until completely mixed.

Fold in the chocolate chips, pecans (if using) and prunes.

Drop by tablespoons onto a lightly greased baking pan.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes depending on your oven’s weirdness and how ooey gooey you like them.

Serve with ice cold milk and Balkan Sobranie cigarettes.


30 years in the baking--er... making.

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago, our local library was the Frederick Hild branch, a dark and beautiful building between Northcenter and Lincoln Square which had been erected during a frenzy of library building in the 1920s and ‘30s. The centerpiece of the library was the old stacks rising three stories up from the circulation desk inside the ominous iron and glass doors, up a short flight of stairs from the street. Hild Library looked like a library ought to look, and it smelled like a library ought to smell.

The Old Hild Library in Chicago is now the Old Town School of Folk Music.

The Old Hild Library in Chicago is now the Old Town School of Folk Music.

In those days I frequented that library after school many afternoons. The librarians always knew what I was coming for: books about ghosts; books about witches. Books about the paranormal and the unexplained. They put books aside for me, watched for the return of checked-out books I was waiting to get my hands on, and otherwise kept my habit well appeased.. Not an easy task, as it seemed my appetite for books was insatiable..

I remember very clearly asking one day, faced with so many selections, “How many can I check out at once?” And the librarian smiled: “As many as you can carry,” he said. And he held the door for me twenty minutes later, as I lumbered out, cradling a pile of almost two dozen books stacked from my palms to my chin, which I carried the six blocks home like a delicate and delicious birthday cake, ravenous.


That day, like most others, there was a book in my stack written by the incomparable author of “Gothic” young adult novels, John Bellairs. The Marshall, Michigan native enraptured me and a generation of soon-to-be “Goths”: lovers of all things dark and dreary, and preferably dead. For us, John Bellairs was the unquestioned leader of our musty, mysterious cult of kids—a cult bound together by a love of rain and storms, cemeteries, history and mystery and—most importantly—the cozy things that provided the necessary balm against them when it started to get dark outside: loved ones, pajamas, a warm bed, night lights…and food.

John Bellairs (www.bellairsia.com)

John Bellairs (www.bellairsia.com)

A big part of Bellairs’ world was — and is — that reliable coziness of comforting dishes. All of the characters sought it out after—or in the midst of—the terrors and tribulations of their epic battles of good against evil. From chocolate chip cookies and ooey gooey layer cakes to the perfect diner hamburger at the end of a long road trip, Bellairs introduced what were certainly some of his most comforting favorites from his own childhood into the often monstrous episodes his characters endured.

We gobbled them up . . . at least literarily.

From my armloads of ghost stories I went on to become a somewhat prolific chronicler of the unknown, starting out as a paranormal investigator as an undergraduate in the 1980s and going on to document the strange experiences of thousands in my Chicago Haunts book series and many other volumes. I absolutely credit John Bellairs with a huge chunk of my vocational call, for my writing, and with my love of all things cozy.

I first had the idea to create a collection of John Bellairs - inspired cookery almost thirty years ago, when my mother and I became immersed in literary cookbooks, inspired by the likes of similar books written by fans of Sherlock Holmes, the stories of Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter and so many others. I don’t think anyone can doubt that the stories of John Bellairs are custom made for such company.

The project got a great start, and I created a good twenty recipes, accompanied by text references, for what was to be a cookbook: “The House with a Cook in its Kitchen.” Alas, a robbery saw the loss of my computer and its hard drive. The disk I had saved the precious manuscript on was also lost.

The devastation was severe. I had put so much love into this effort, and as I was just starting out in the workforce and finishing graduate school, it all got pushed to the side. . . . for a very long time.

The other day, I was watching television with my elder daughter, now 19, when my eye caught a listing for the recent film release, “The House with a Clock in its Walls.” I had given the Bellairs books to her many years ago, but though—like millions—she loves Harry Potter, she somehow did not take to my beloved tomes of old. I decided to give it another try.

We watched the movie. She loved it.

It is my deep hope that future generations discover and delight in the stories and characters of John Bellairs, and the coziness that our world so badly needs today.

I hope you enjoy these writings and the recipes to come. Each week I will cook and write inspired by a scene from one of Bellairs’ books. I welcome —no, URGE— you to suggest scenes, dishes and menus. It would be my pleasure to concoct something at your request. These recipes and reminiscences are offered with the utmost respect and devotion to one of the most imaginative and comforting writers I’ve ever known. I hope that you enjoy them.

We will devour Bellairs’ stories together quite literally and not just literarily.

Be sure to subscribe below, and please share with any Bellairs fans you know!

With funerary fondness,

Ursula Bielski