My Dear Husband’s wonderful grandmother baked peppernuts, or Pfeffernusse, every year for Christmas. They were spiced little bite-sized cookies which she cut into squares, and they were distinctively hers. I have her recipe, but not her guidance, and though we’ve been without her for some years now, it’s still too hard to think of baking them without her. I know they wouldn’t be the same anyway. So, when I saw this recipe for Pfeffernusse in Saveur magazine a few years ago, I thought I would try it. I baked the cookies thinking of her and missing her terribly. They don’t compare to Grandma Ione’s peppernuts, but they are delicious in their own right and have become a new tradition.
Pfeffernusse are traditional in Germany, and the Scandinavian countries have their own versions, too. In Minnesota, then, they’re right at home. Pfeffernusse are a cousin to Lebkuchen and another spicy, cake-like Christmas staple. They have a papery thin icing laced with rum, and they are flavored with pepper, molasses, and honey in addition to the customary warm gingerbread spices. They are delicious with a cup of strong coffee or with a glass of mulled wine.
Music for baking German Pfeffernusse:
Minnneapolis native and mandolin and fiddle player Peter Ostroushko’s Heartland Holiday is charming.
Using fresh candied peel will make a world of difference in your baking. If fresh is prohibitively expensive and you don’t want to make your own, toss the peel that comes in the little plastic tubs in a generous amount of sugar and a splash of fresh juice to bring it to life and sweeten it a bit. The original recipe calls for candied lemon peel, which is yummy; I prefer and substitute candied orange peel when I bake these cookies.
You may use a dedicated coffee grinder to grind the spices. Freshly grinding them really does make a difference, though the cookies will be delicious, too, with pre-ground spices. I substitute red peppercorns for black as they’re pretty and have a slightly softer flavor profile.
Temper your eggs when you add them to the hot honey and molasses mixture. To do this, add a few tablespoons of the hot liquid at a time to the eggs while you whisk them vigorously until they are warmed. Then add the tempered eggs to the hot liquid and whisk to combine. If you add the eggs directly to the hot liquid without tempering them you risk winding up with molasses and honey scrambled eggs.
I use spiced rum in place of the water in this recipe and add 2 tablespoons of orange liqueur for an icing that announces itself and echoes the flavors of the cookie. You may use any liquid to make the icing, including water.
If you, like me, are looking for ways to use up a whopping bag of whole wheat pastry flour, see Molly Wizenberg’s love poem to whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, and recipe, on her delightful blog, Orangette.
The leftover icing would be delicious drizzled over an orange flower water pound cake. (Recipe this week.)
This recipe is part of the Cookie Baking and Candy Making Plan for Christmas 2010 (here).
Pfeffernusse with Rum and Orange Liqueur Glaze
Adapted (just a wee bit) from Maria Speck’s article in Saveur magazine no. 98
Yield: 3 dozen cookies
½ c. honey
1/3 c. unsulfured molasses*
2 T. butter
2 eggs at room temperature
2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
½ c. candied orange peel, finely chopped
1/3 c. almonds, finely ground
¾ t. freshly ground cinnamon
¾ t. freshly ground black pepper
¾ t. freshly ground cloves
¾ t. freshly ground cardamom
½ t. baking powder
2 T. vegetable oil
1 c. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 T. orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
5 T. spiced rum
*Unsulfured molasses is made from mature sugar cane as opposed to green cane and, therefore, is not treated with sulfur dioxide.
- Put honey, molasses, and butter into a small pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until hot, two to three minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Add eggs and whisk to combine. Put flour, orange peel, almonds, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, cardamom, and baking powder into a large bowl and stir to combine. Add honey mixture and beat with a wooden spoon until well combined, to form a dough. Cover surface of dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for eight hours or overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Lightly oil your palms with some of the oil. Form dough into 36 balls, each about 1” wide (the dough will be very sticky, so keep your hands lightly oiled while working.) Divide dough balls between baking sheets, keeping them spaced 1” apart. Bake until slightly cracked on top and just firm to the touch, about 15 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool slightly.
- Meanwhile, whisk together confectioners’ sugar, rum, and orange liqueur to make a smooth glaze. While cookies are still warm, dunk each cookie to coat them with a layer of glaze. Set cookies aside to let cool completely. Eat right away or store in an airtight container, layered between sheets of waxed paper, for up to one week or freeze them, like I do, for Christmas.