German-Americans make up one of the largest ancestry groups in the U.S. and there are many German traditions that Americans have adopted throughout the years for Christmas. These traditions include the Christmas tree, several classic Christmas carols (think “Silent Night” and “O, Christmas Tree“), the Advent calendar, Christmas markets, gingerbread houses and yes, even our familiar version of that jolly round man in a red suit — Santa Claus! (German-American political cartoonist Thomas Nast created him in a series of drawings for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War era.)
Another German contribution to American holiday traditions is Pfeffernusse (Peppernuts) a traditional German cookie often made in Mennonite communities in the US and found in many Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks. They are similar to gingerbread cookies or molasses cookies but contain a higher quantity of spices and – white pepper.
Pfeffernusse is one of Germany’s most popular Christmas treats where these bite-sized cookies are eaten in celebration of the arrival of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) on December 5. In Germany the tradition is for St. Nicholas to visit children early in December.
Shoes are left in front of the door and good children find them filled with oranges and nuts – naughty children get shoes full of coal (how appropriate a tradition for those of us from the Coal Region!). On Christmas Eve, December 24th, the Christkind (a cherub angel representing the Christ child– the ultimate giver) gives the gifts.
The name Pfeffernusse means “pepper nuts.” The pepper part refers to the white pepper that is added giving these cookies a unique touch. The nuts part refers to their nut-like shape.
Every cook has their favorite recipe and each recipe yields a different cookie; some are soft, some crunchy. Although it is long tradition to add anise to the cookies in addition to a plethora of other spices, some recipes omit it. Some pfeffernusse are rolled in confectioner’s sugar, some topped with a thin icing.
However they are made, one thing is agreed upon; the cookies get better with age, so take that into consideration and allow enough time before Christmas for these treats to age a few days before indulging.
Here in the US, you can find Pfeffernuesse in many grocery stores throughout the holidays, either prepared by an in-store bakery or made by commercial bakeries. These little cookies are not complicated to make and often people who do not like store-bought pfeffernusse adore the home baked ones.
To make shaping/rolling the cookies easier, form portions of the dough into “ropes”, cut the ropes into pieces and form into balls. Cookies dough balls should be about 3/4 inch in diameter. Or you can use a cookie scoop like this mini scoop made to mimic a “teaspoon” as measured by most home bakers when recipes say “drop by teaspoon” onto baking sheet. I love this scoop and have had mine for years.
Pfeffernusse (Peppernuts)Course: DessertsCuisine: PA Dutch, Coal Region, GermanDifficulty: Intermediate
A bite-sized traditional German spice cookie with a touch of white pepper. Their flavor is best when not eaten for several days after baking to allow them to age and the flavors to blend.
1/2 cup unsulphured molasses
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup unsalted butter OR 1/4 cup butter and 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons anise extract
1 cup confectioners’ sugar for coating
- In saucepan, combine the molasses, honey, and butter (and shortening if using). Place over low heat, stirring until the solid fats have melted and the mixture is combined and creamy. Do not boil. Remove the pot from the heat, pour the mixture into a large bowl, set aside and cool to room temperature. Stir in the beaten eggs and the anise extract.
- Meanwhile, stir together the flour, white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, white pepper, and salt in a separate bowl. Using a wooden spoon, gradually stir the sifted dry ingredients into the molasses mixture until everything is thoroughly combined (the dough will be stiff). Chill the dough in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours. (Do not skip chilling)
- To Bake
- Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Grease several baking sheets or line with parchment paper. Roll the dough into bite-sized balls (about 3/4 inch in diameter). Place the balls on the prepared baking sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. Keep extra dough waiting to be baked cool.
- Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until the cookies have lost their shine and are slightly firm to the touch (but still soft). The cookies may show small cracks. Remove the cookies from the pans to a rack to cool. Once the cookies have cooled but are still slightly warm, roll each cookie in sifted confectioners’ sugar to coat well.
- When completely cooled, store in an airtight container with wax paper between the layers. Allow to “age” a couple days to a week before serving. If desired, roll cookies in confectioners’ sugar once again before serving.
- Some cooks use black pepper in these cookies, but many experienced pfefferneusse bakers insist on white pepper as called for here. If you use black pepper, the taste will be different than the intended results of this particular recipe.