This Spicy German Favorite May Be the World’s Best Christmas Cookie
When I was young, my mother would bake a vast assortment of cookies for Christmas — a dozen varieties at least. Pfeffernüsse (often spelled Pfeffernuesse) were always the first one she made, usually right after Thanksgiving.
Why so early? Well, the flavor of Pfeffernüsse deepens and sharpens with age. Although delicious when first baked, they are incomparably better after a couple of weeks. And still better a few weeks after that.
So if you plan to enjoy these cookies for Christmas, you’ll want to make them soon. And the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll discover how easy Pfeffernüsse are to make.
Recipe: Pfeffernüsse Cookies
Pfeffernüsse can be translated as “pepper nuts.” A few recipes actually include almonds or walnuts (though most don’t). Virtually all Pfeffernüsse recipes include cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg. Some recipes (but not mine) call for lemon zest, candied citrus, or spirits (usually brandy or rum). In my recipe, the predominant flavor is anise.
This recipe yields about 9 dozen cookies, depending on how big you make them — and how much dough you eat in the process. Pfeffernüsse will store well in airtight containers at room temperature. You can also freeze them (see Notes).
- 1 cup butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 large eggs (consider using pasteurized eggs; see Notes)
- ½ cup white corn syrup
- ½ cup molasses
- 4 - 5 tablespoons anise seed (or even more if you prefer; see Notes)
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ½ teaspoon cloves
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/3 cup warm water (from the tap, or microwaved for a few seconds)
- 6½ cups flour
|Pfeffernüsse ready to bake
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, and place rack in center of the oven.
- Cream butter and sugar in a mixing bowl that is large enough to hold all ingredients (a stand mixer like a Kitchen Aid is ideal for this, although you can also use a hand mixer — or even beat the ingredients by hand, if you are particularly energetic).
- Add the following ingredients one at a time, beating after each addition to incorporate: eggs, corn syrup, molasses, anise seed, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg.
- Dissolve baking soda in warm water, add to mixture, and beat again.
Add flour, and beat mixture until all ingredients are well incorporated. The dough should be somewhat stiff.
- Take a handful of dough and roll it into a long cylindrical sausage shape about one inch in diameter. Repeat until you’ve formed all the dough into cylinders.
- Optional step: Wrap the dough cylinders in wax paper or cling wrap and refrigerate them for half an hour or longer (even overnight) before continuing with the recipe. Chilling the dough makes it easier to handle, but you can skip this step if you’re in a hurry.
- Cut one-inch pieces of dough from the cylinders and roll the pieces into small balls. Place dough balls on baking sheets that have been lined with silicone baking mats or parchment paper (you can also use greased cookie sheets). It’s probably easiest to roll enough dough balls to fill one baking sheet, then start baking while you roll more.
- Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. The cookies are done when baked through and starting to brown on top.
- Roll cookies in powdered sugar while still warm. (You can do this when the cookies are cold, but the powdered sugar sticks a bit better when the cookies are fresh from the oven.)
- Store cookies in an airtight container.
|Roll baked Pfeffernüsse in powdered sugar
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs for cookie dough. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? I don’t know about you, but I find it’s impossible to make cookies without tasting the raw dough!
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they have a red “P” stamped on them.
- Spice quantities in this recipe are somewhat elastic. You can alter measurements to suit your taste. Adding a bit more anise seed and cinnamon can work well.
- Pfeffernüsse will keep up to 8 weeks when stored in airtight containers — although you’ll undoubtedly eat them long before then!
- Pfeffernüsse are quite soft when first baked, but quickly become harder. Then as they age (and absorb moisture), they soften somewhat. This effect may be less pronounced when you freeze the cookies, although I can’t say this definitively since I rarely freeze them (storing Pfeffernüsse at room temperature works well).
- When Pfeffernüsse are in their “hard” stage, they make a particularly good dunking cookie. They go great with hot tea or milk. And the dunking helps soften them.
- Some people (though not me) even dunk Pfeffernüsse in wine! If you’re going that route, I suggest not rolling them in powdered sugar – just leave them plain. Having bits of powdered sugar floating in wine just doesn’t seem appealing to me.
- I got this recipe from my mother, who got it from her mother, who got it from . . . well, let’s just say it goes back to the 19th century at least. It originated in Germany (where my mother’s ancestors came from).
Complex & Delicious
Pfeffernüsse have a complex, spicy anise flavor that adults love. Most kids do too, although younger children tend to prefer cookies with a simpler, more sugar-forward taste. Preferably something with chocolate – like the World’s Best Chocolate Drop Cookie, another recipe my mother always baked at Christmas.
When I was growing up with hungry siblings, Pfeffernüsse were usually the last holiday cookie standing. Too many other varieties competed for our favor. But that was probably a good thing. By the time we got around to eating them in quantity, their flavor was aged to perfection.
Now that I’m older, Pfeffernüsse are my favorite. In fact, I consider them to be the best Christmas cookie ever.
Maybe I’ve just aged to perfection.
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