I am an odd combination of American stories. On my mother’s side of the family, we’ve been here for ages. The Borams and the Recenbergers (you heard me) settled Indiana very early. It’s very possible one of us came over on the Mayflower. Then on the other side, my great-grandfather came over from Germany with a young wife and a maid/nurse whom, in my mind, was a staunch, six-foot woman named Helga. Probably not the case, right? So on one hand, I’m a fourth generation American and on the other hand, I’m an old American frontier family descendant. And I’m dating a Cherokee man with a feather tattoo. I’ve got all the bases covered. I’m like three people mashed together. But I do love the German side. I love my Germanic last name and my blonde hair. I take pride in having Heidi Klum on my team and after seeing Inglourious Basterds, I was most excited about how Diane Krüger was making Krügers and Kruegers more awesome. I mean, can we forget about Freddy yet?
In that spirit, I embrace German culture including the precious Christmas cookies called pfeffernüsse. Pfeffer means pepper and refers to the ground pepper mixed in and nüsse means nut. Some recipes call for ground nuts, but mostly the nüsse refers to the shape of the cookie.
In search of a recipe, I found this by Martha in her book Cookies. There may be more authentic recipes available, but I don’t know German and Martha knows cookies (hi everyone, she’s Martha) so I felt I was in good hands. To say the very least, these cookies are a good thing. I halved and modified the recipe (no salt? what?) to look like this:
1/2 c +1/8 c cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 +1/8 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/8 cup unsulfured molasses
1/2 large egg (I whisked it and poured in half)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
But her original one is as follows:
1 1/4 c cups confectioners’ sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/4cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
1 large egg (I whisked it and poured in half)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour, salt, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, beat brown sugar, molasses, and butter together until creamy. Add the vanilla and the egg. Now if you’re wondering what unsulfered means, it means that the molasses was made from more mature cane sugar which doesn’t require sulfer dioxide as an additive to preserve it (like the younger sugar cane). It’s best to buy cane sugar molasses instead of beet sugar molasses…since that’s not really molasses at all. Brer Rabbit brand is what I use and it’s widely available. (Knowledge!)
Mix the flour mixture and the brown sugar and egg mixture. I just use a spoon but you might try a pastry blender or whisk. Make sure it’s well incorporated. Then roll the dough into 1 1/4 inch balls. I got 15 cookies out of my 1/2 batch. You could make them larger or smaller or you could also be über-German and über-traditional and roll them into logs and cut them into bits. Place the rolled dough onto baking sheets topped with parchment paper.
Bake the the cookies for 15 minutes at 350. When they’re done they’ll be cracked on top and slightly browned on the bottom. Place on cooling racks and let them cool for about 10 minutes. Now take the powdered sugar and dump it into a brown paper bag or a high-sided bowl. Taking 3-5 cookies at a time, coat in the powdered sugar. The traditional coating is the confectioner’s sugar, but I’ve had them dipped in chocolate too at the Kristkindlemarkt in Chicago. To do this, you would melt some baking chocolate (not chocolate chips–they’ll have the wrong consistency) and dip the cookies in it. But then you’d have to let the chocolate cool, right? And that would be more time between making the cookies and eating them. For me, this is not acceptable.
Because are they ever good. They are similar to gingerbread but far more tender and light. They also store well in airtight containers for a month which means they are perfect for Christmas-gifting. I’m completely guilty of making Christmas gifts instead of buying them (I’m in college, remember?) so I’m always on the hunt for homemade Christmas gift ideas–especially ones so yummy. And I really don’t know why I hadn’t made them before. It took three bowls, yes, but there was no double boiler action or a long cooking process. These are quick, yummy, and really only require pantry items.
I now it’s not Christmas (I mean, it hasn’t fallen during March in years) but I’m a fan of rearranging traditions. Don’t be surprised to find a cranberry salad recipe up in the middle of June. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the traditions, I just find that limiting them to one day or season of the year is, well, limiting. One tradition I do plan on is making these for Santa (aka me!) when I have kids someday. Santa Claus is German after all.