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Vintage Cookbooks: Pfeffernüsse rich in spice, tradition

Thursday, December 02, 1999

By Alice Demetrius Stock

Some of the most lovable and tastiest of Christmas traditions have been contributed by the Germans: the Christmas tree, Kris Kringle, memorable music from "Silent Night" and "O Tannenbaum" to Handel's "Messiah," and many seasonal sweet treats such as spritz, gingerbread boys, springerlie, and pfeffernüsse.

For my first round of Christmas baking this year, I decided on pfeffernüsse (or pepper nuts) since they keep up to 8 weeks and, like most spice cookies, are said to improve with mellowing. As I searched my cookbooks and explored the Internet for recipes, I was surprised to find so much variation in method and ingredients, attesting to the popularity of pfeffernüsse and its subsequent dispersal throughout the world from its ancient Germanic origins.

Sometimes pfeffernüsse are made to melt in the mouth; sometimes they're made small, round and as hard as -- well -- nut shells.

Sometimes pfeffernüsse are simply chopped from a long rope of dough. Sometimes they're rolled into balls "the size of hazelnuts" and sometimes the dough is rolled and cut with a 1-inch cutter. Sometimes they're placed an inch apart on cookie sheets so they don't touch when spreading; sometimes they're placed close together so they'll need to be broken apart. Sometimes they're dried out overnight or frozen before baking and don't spread at all in the pan.

You might expect a cookie called "pepper nut" to include pepper in the list of ingredients and, indeed, many recipes do, from "a dash" to "1 1/2 teaspoons pepper." But by the 18th century, most spice-laden recipes that originally called for pepper kept the tradition in the title but not in the finished product. For example, a recipe for gingerbread in "Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery" contains ginger, but not pepper.

Besides pepper, the earliest pfeffernüsse recipes use cinnamon, allspice and clove (called spice nails in the Middle Ages) as the main flavoring. Clove is often used in Old World Christmas recipes because of its double symbolism. It represents not only the aromatic gifts the Magi brought the Christ Child, but also the nails of the crucifixion.

Later recipes sometimes eliminate spices in favor of anise (oil or powdered). while others use both spices and the anise. Since the 1940s, many other ingredients such as eggs, lemon juice or rind, nuts, raisins or candied fruit have been added to the traditional recipe, turning a simple bisquit into a gilded, miniature fruitcake.

Another clue to the ancient origins of pfeffernüsse is that some of the recipes still list hartshorn (ammonium carbonate or bakers' ammonia, originally scrapings from deer horn) as leavening instead of baking powder or baking soda.

Sometimes pfeffernüsse are baked with a drop of brandy on each cookie. Sometimes they're dusted with plain or vanilla-flavored sugar or iced with royal icing (1 cup powdered sugar, 2 egg whites, 1 teaspoon lemon juice).


All spices must be fresh. This dropped cookie is the easiest recipe I found.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground pepper, optional
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup honey
1 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine dry ingredients and spices and set aside.

In a deep, heavy 5- to 6-quart saucepan, bring the honey, corn syrup and sugar to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Simmer on low heat, uncovered, 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter and stir until melted.

Beat in the flour mixture, a cup at a time. When batter is smooth, drop by teaspoons onto buttered baking sheets, about an inch apart.

Bake in the middle of oven, one pan at a time, 8 to 12 minutes, or until firm to touch and light brown.

Transfer cookies to a cake rack to cool. Makes about 30 cookies.

Adapted from "The Cooking of Germany" by Nika Standen Hazelton, 1969.

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