Comfort Food à la Wolfgang
Updated: Mar 20
Mac and Cheese, Grilled Cheese, meat loaf, chocolate chip cookies, biscuits and gravy - to North Americans, some of the staple “comfort foods.” The word itself appears to be relatively new: The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to a 1977 article in the Washington Post. And while a lot of comfort foods appear to be heavy meals, “ [the] comfort food’s power may lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind.”
Young Wolfgang and Papa Mozart traveled to Italy three times between 1769 and 1773. On their first trip, Wolfgang was working on one of his first operas serias Mitridate, re di Ponto which would be premiered in December of 1770. One of their stops took them to Rome where they heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus, a piece so heavily guarded that choristers were not allowed to take the music out of the rehearsal space (either in written or oral form). The music was composed for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel.
The reason why we have access to this ethereal choral masterpiece nowadays is because the 14 year-old Wolfgang heard a performance and later transcribed it from memory.
The two Mozarts had only just started their trip to Italy with their first stop in Milan, when in January 1770, the prodigious correspondent Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife: “On Thursday we had lunch with Madame von Asteburg, formerly Mariandl Troger, who treated us to liver dumplings and sauerkraut, which Wolfg. had particularly asked for, as well as other fine dishes, including a splendid capon and a pheasant.” Wolfgang’s request for liver dumplings and sauerkraut suggests that this was not a fine dining dish and would not have been served otherwise. Sauerkraut, a staple of any household winter reserve, is cabbage that is pickled over several weeks. And liver dumplings are exactly what you might imagine: lozenge-shaped dumplings made out of beef liver and simmered in stock. The meal is hearty and warm, perfect for a cold winter’s day, and it meets the caloric requirements for a comfort food. It is easy to imagine that the teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have missed home especially at the beginning of a trip and thought to relieve it through a favorite, comforting meal.
For those of you who are thinking that liver isn’t necessarily for them, there is an adaptation to this recipe that calls for ground beef. But let me tell you that ground liver gives this dish a unique smoothness that cannot be recreated with ground beef (think liver sausage). This dish can be served with salted, boiled potatoes and/or crusty bread. Of course, beer is a must.
First up: Sauerkraut
A heritage food that can be traced back to easily the Ancient Romans. Modern pickling includes vinegar, though Austro-German Sauerkraut recipes from the 18th century and before would have used preexisting lactic acid bacteria to ferment cabbage.
According to the home economics book Die Hausmutter in all ihren Geschäfften [sic] by Christian Friedrich Germershausen from 1782 , Sauerkraut is best finished with a lot of fat or a good piece of ham cut into smaller cubes.
Heritage Base Recipe:
2 lbs of green cabbage cut into strips
4.5 tbsp of salt
2 tbsp of white sugar
1.5 tsp of juniper berries
2 tsp of caraway seeds
largest pickling jars you can find (at least quart size)
1. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and mash the cabbage until the juices flow out and completely cover the mixture. Many old cookbooks recommend using your fist (or if you are making truly enormous amounts, stomping your clean feet in a vat like Lucille Ball will also do the trick).
2. Fill the cabbage mixture in the jars and seal them tightly. To really make sure that the sauerkraut will hold, I suggest sterilizing the jars by boiling them in water before use and taking them out with sterilized tongs. This process though is not something that the cookbooks outline.
3. Leave the cabbage to ferment at room temperature for about 3 weeks (an optimal temperature would be around 64-68ºF).
Liver dumplings (Leberknödel)
To speak to the widespread association of the liver dumpling with Austrian and German stereotypes, we need not look further than the TV series Frasier. Maris Crane’s fencing instructor, who is from Bavaria, fondly addresses his wife, who we never see, as his “kleiner Leberknödel,” his little liver dumpling. (Frasier, Season 2 Episode 21). By characterizing her as a small liver dumpling, the viewer immediately has a visual image of the wife in mind: Bavarian dirndl (traditional dress) and perhaps a little round and plump. And these Leberknödel, the food, are round and plump as well.
Think of this dish as any broth with dumplings (Matzoh ball soup, wonton soup... the list goes on). If you really cannot become friends with the idea of consuming liver in some shape or form, you can substitute the beef liver with ground beef, preferably 85/15 or 90/10.
(Image courtesy of the mighty Wikipedia)
1 lb of beef livers
2 quarts of beef broth
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 bunch of parsley, chopped (set some aside for garnish)
1.5 cups of finely diced bread
1 tsp marjoram
2 pinches of salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves finely chopped
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp of butter
Finely chop the liver or ground beef in a food processor until it it has a uniform smooth texture.
Soak the diced bread in water, squeeze out as much water as possible, and put aside.
Heat the butter in a sauté pan and gently sauté the garlic, parsley, and onion until glassy. Let it cool completely.
While it is cooling, bring the beef broth with the bay leaves to a boil in wide pot. (Germershausen in 1782 recommends also adding thyme and butter to the stock.) 
In a large bowl, mix together the bread, ground liver/beef, and onion mixture. Then add the marjoram, egg, and salt and pepper.
Wet your hands to form the dumplings so that each is about 2 inches in diameter. Apply some firm, uniform pressure without squeezing so that the dumplings hold their shape.
Reduce the heat on the beef broth to a very gentle simmer and gently dunk the dumplings in broth. I find it is easiest to place the dumplings on a slotted spoon Before submerging. If the broth is boiling too violently, the dumplings may disintegrate.
Cook covered in the pot 20-25 minutes.
Serve in shallow bowls and garnish with chopped parsley.
 Cari Romm, “Why Comfort Food Comforts,” The Atlantic, April 3 2015 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/why-comfort-food-comforts/389613/.  Cari Romm, “Why Comfort Food Comforts,” The Atlantic, April 3 2015 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/why-comfort-food-comforts/389613/.
 Leopold Mozart to his wife, 5 January 1771, from Mozart: A Life in Letters, edited by Cliff Eisen, translated by Stewart Spencer (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2006) 125.  Meta Zweife, Leben mit Goldrand: Altes Wissen lebendig gemacht (Zürich, Switzerland: Oral Füssli Verlag, 2018) Chapter 3.3.
 Christian Friedrich Germershausen, Die Hausmutter in all ihren Geschäfften, 3rd edition (Leipzig: Johann Friedrich Julius, 1782) 95.