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.
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.
You’ll love the aroma that wafts through the house as the cookies bake.
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.
The exact origin of the pfeffernüsse is uncertain: The cookies have long been a holiday treat in Belgium, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands.
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.
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.