December 23rd is National Pfeffernüsse Day, celebrating a traditional German Christmas cookie: rounded, spicy and coated in powdered sugar.

Pronounced FEH-fehr-NEE-suh, the word means “pepper nuts.” The “nuts” refer to the nut-like hardness of the cookie; there are no nuts in the recipe.

Rather, these cookies are laden with gingerbread spices (anise, cloves, nutmeg), and pepper, plus citron*,candied lemon peel and/or candied orange peel. The black pepper adds to the spiciness without adding heat. The result is sweet pepperiness.

  • Spices will vary by baker. We’ve seen some recipes that substitute paprika for the pepper; some add vanilla to the mix.
  • Some use creative garnishes, like crushed pink peppercorns.
  • Some get out the cookie cutters and make star or Christmas tree shapes.
  • The flavor deepens as the cookies sit, so some bakers prepare them at the onset of the holiday season, enjoying them throughout the month of December [source].
  •  
    The recipe below doesn’t use candied citrus peel, but here’s one that does. Another variation: pfeffernusse topped with royal icing and cubes of candied citrus peel.

    Pfeffernüsse are similar to lebkuchen, flat spice cookies that some people think are gingerbread, but they’re different†.

    Instead of powdered sugar, they can be iced or dipped in chocolate. In photo #4, the baker did both!

    To soften the bite, the traditional versions without powdered sugar are often dunked in a sweet wine, similar to the Italian practice of dunking biscotti in vin santo.
     
     
    RECIPE: PFEFFERNÜSSE SPICE COOKIES

    This recipe is from Pillsbury. Grinding whole spices provides more exciting flavor than using pre-ground spices. Here’s more about it.

    You’ll love the aroma that wafts through the house as the cookies bake.

    Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon anise seed
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  •  
    Preparation

    1. COMBINE in large bowl the butter and brown sugar; beat until light and fluffy. Stir in the molasses and water. Lightly spoon the flour into a measuring cup and level off. Add the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, anise seed, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and pepper; blend well. Stir in the nuts. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 2 hours for easier handling.

    2. PREHEAT the oven to 350°F. Shape the dough into 1-inch balls; place 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

    3. BAKE for 9 to 12 minutes or until the bottoms are golden brown. Immediately remove from the cookie sheets and roll in powdered sugar.
     
     
    PFEFFERNÜSSE HISTORY

    The exact origin of the pfeffernüsse is uncertain: The cookies have long been a holiday treat in Belgium, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.

     

    Pfeffernusse Cookies
    [1] Classic pfeffernusse. Some cookies are flatter, some rounder, depending on the consistency of the dough. Here’s the recipe from Mildly Meandering.

    Pfeffernusse Cookies
    [2] If you don’t want a lot of powdered sugar, sift it over the cookies instead of rolling them in the sugar. Here’s the recipe from McCormick.

    Pfeffernusse Cookies
    [3] Instead of powdered sugar, use royal icing. This version tops it with candied citrus peel. Here’s the recipe from Chatelaine.

    Pfeffernusse Cookies
    [4] Why choose: Use both royal icing and chocolate! Here’s the recipe from Alnatura.

     
    The cookie has been part of European yuletide celebrations since the 1850s.

    A Dutch belief links pepernoten (pfeffernüsse) to the feast of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas), celebrated on December or 5th or 6th in The Netherlands and December 6th in Germany and Belgium. On this holiday, children receive gifts from St. Nicholas, who is partially the inspiration for the Santa Claus tradition.

    In Germany, pfeffernüsse has become a traditional Christmas cookie [source].

    In the 19th century, bakers incorporated potash or potassium carbonate (the primary component of potash), into the dough, along with ammonium carbonate. These acted as leavening agents to achieve the right consistency.

    The recipes became more sophisticated over time. The conventional ingredients—flour, sugar, brown sugar, cloves, and cinnamon—have been expanded over the years to include some of the following: anise, black pepper, candied fruit, cardamom, honey, molasses, nutmeg, nuts, rum, and powdered sugar for dusting [source].

    ________________

    *Citron is a large, fragrant citrus fruit with a very thick rind. There is little fruit inside, and its main contribution is candied peel. It is one of the four original citrus fruits—along with mandarin, papeda and pomelo—from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization. Here’s a photo.

    †Lebkuchen and gingerbread are both spice cookies, but lebkuchen has more layers of flavor and is softer/chewier.
    Lebkuchen spices include aniseed, cardamom, cloves, coriander, ginger, nutmeg and black pepper or paprika. Candied citrus peel—lemon and orange—are added. These spices are also used in pfeffernüsse.

    Vis-a-vis gingerbread, lebkuchen cookies use almond and hazelnut flours instead of wheat flour, and brown sugar instead of molasses. A classic lebkuchen cookie is gluten-free. Here’s a recipe and more about lebkuchen spices, Lebkuchengewürz in German.

    The name of the cookie is uncertain. Kuchen is the German word for cake, but the “leb” portion might be any (or none) of the following: the Germanic words Laib (loaf), Lebbe (very sweet), or an old term for crystallized honey, Leb-Honig, that cannot be used for much beside baking. There’s also Leibspeise, favorite food.

      


    THE NIBBLE Blog – Adventures In The World Of Fine Food

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