My family background is mostly German. Both sides of my family have German origins, but my paternal grandfather is the most recent to have moved to the US, having immigrated after WWII. I remember when I was younger he would spend hours on the phone speaking German to his brothers and sisters, most of whom all live spread throughout upstate New York. Christmas was always a time when they would send each other gifts that reminded them of home, and that time of year meant my grandparents house would be filled with all kinds of German treats.
Grandpa had an ever growing collection of beer steins that his cousins would send him from Germany. When my sisters and I turned 21 we started trying to find his favorite types of German liqueurs (he’s a fan of the sweet stuff) like Kirschwasser and Barenjager. My grandmother never really cared much for German food or cooking, so the German edibles around the house tended to be candies, cookies and cakes. One of his favorites was Stollen, a bready yeasted fruitcake filled with marzipan, candied fruit and nuts, and usually covered in powdered sugar or a thick white glaze. I never really developed a taste for Stollen, but another one of his favorites, Pfeffernusse, I absolutely love.
Pfeffernusse, AKA Peppernuts, is a strongly flavored European spice cookie. It’s kind of similar to a strong gingerbread in flavor, but with a bit less ginger, and with finely ground black pepper instead. Pfeffernusse traditionally has some ground or finely chopped nuts in it, along with citrus zest, molasses and brandy. Some say this is an acquired taste, but I just think it’s not what people expect when they pick them up. Either way, this is an amazing underrated cookie that you will love if you give it a chance. They have a very subtle sweetness with a pleasant old-world holiday spice flavor. They also have a really fun name. Just say it out loud. Pfeffernusse. Pfeffernusse. Pfeffernusse!
There are a lot of pfeffernusse recipes out there, but this one is as close to traditional as I could find. A lot of recipes I found didn’t have enough spice, many of them skipped the nuts and citrus, and most omitted the brandy. This recipe, from the Joy of Cooking, is just what I was hoping for. Store bought pfeffernusse can sometimes be a bit dry, but this recipe produces a moist, chewy and cakey cookie. It’s got a very respectable amount of spice, the molasses and brandy flavors really come through with the citrus close behind, and the soft almonds give it a bit of texture.
The list of ingredients in this recipe is substantial, with many different spices going into this cookie to give it it’s distinctive flavor. One spice you might not have in your cabinet is cardamom, but I implore you to try to find it. It has an exotic floral citrus flavor and is slightly reminiscent of cinnamon & ginger. It goes really well in spice cakes and similar desserts, especially desserts with apples. I love to add it to apple pie, and when I used to make apple butter I considered it my secret ingredient. As for the brandy in this recipe, it mostly bakes off in the oven, but imparts a great flavor and adds moisture, so I definitely wouldn’t skip it. If you don’t have brandy and don’t want to buy it to use a few tablespoons, you could sub it with another alcohol like rum or bourbon. Orange liqueur could be nice too but might make the cookies too sweet so you might want to reduce the sugar a tablespoon or two. I wouldn’t use Irish or Scotch whiskey because the flavor can be too strong or even smoky.
Most Pfeffernusse recipes I found called for them to be rolled warm through confectioners sugar. I’ve had them this way and they’re delicious, but I remember the cookies my grandfather eating when I was young having a stiff white shell of glaze, so that’s what I wanted. After a bit of searching I found what I was after. When you whip this glaze up it resembles marshmallow fluff, but thinner. You basically dip the whole cookie into it, let the excess drip off, and then dry the glaze in the oven while it’s cooling. Once the glaze has hardened you’re good to go. To dip these cookies I attempted to be dainty and polite, using a slotted spoon, but I quickly realized this was a job for clean hands. You’ll have it everywhere, and it’s sticky, but it’s so worth it. Once all your cookies are dipped you transfer them back to your baking sheet to dry. I used a small offset icing spatula, but a large butter knife should work well too.
If you’re looking for a new cookie recipe for the holidays, look no further. These cookies are said to be a favorite of Kris Kringle’s and they’re about to become one of yours. They might be a little unexpected, but most people with a grown up pallet will appreciate this European holiday treat. Anyone who enjoys spice cakes and gingerbread will surely fall in love with pfeffernusse. Traditionally they’re a small cookie, about an inch across when baked, but I made mine just slightly larger. I used a #60 cookie scoop, or about a tablespoon of dough for each cookie. I’d say a more traditional size would be about 2 teaspoons of dough, which would give you a few more finished cookies. They store and travel really well, so they’re perfect for taking home to family for Christmas, for sharing with friends at a cookie swap party, giving as gifts, or even mailing to the grandparents. They even improve with a few days age, so making ahead is a good idea, and they stay fresh for two weeks or more, so you might want to make extras!
2 cups plus 2 tablespoon all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated or ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks (whites reserved for glaze)
1/2 cup finely chopped sliced or slivered almonds
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
6 tablespoons molasses
6 tablespoons brandy (or rum or whiskey if you don’t have brandy)
3 egg whites
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices in a medium bowl. With an electric mixer beat butter and sugar until very fluffy. Add egg yolk and beat until well combined. Stir in almonds and citrus zests, and scrape bowl. In a small bowl mix the brandy and molasses. Alternate stirring in flour mixture and brandy mixture until combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, up to 2 days, to allow flavors to blend together.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Scoop about a tablespoon of dough, I used a #60 scoop, and roll into a ball in your hands. Line up cookies about an inch away from each other on your parchment. Refrigerate for 10 minutes or more, then bake, 1 sheet at a time, for 12-14 minutes or until lightly browned and no longer wet looking on top. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes before dipping in glaze.
To make your glaze, whip your egg whites to stiff peaks with an electric mixer. Slowly mix in confectioners sugar, and whip until completely combined with no lumps. With clean hands, dip your still warm cookies into the glaze and completely cover them. Let glaze drip back into the bowl and transfer cookies to a wire rack to allow any excess glaze to drip off. Once all your cookies are glazed transfer them back to your parchment lined pan and put them back in the still warm oven with the door open just a crack. Let the glaze dry in the oven for 5-10 minutes and transfer the pan to the counter. Let the glaze harden completely, for an hour or more, before serving or storing. If storing immediately, turn the cookies over and let the bottoms dry for an hour before stacking, and divide layers with parchment or wax paper to avoid sticking.