As I watch the snow tumbling down from the clouds to blanket my little corner of the Northeast, it just occurred to me what a perfect wintertime cookie a pfeffernussen cookie is. The confectioners’-sugar-covered mounds remind me of snow-capped Appalachian hills. In both, sweet and fluffy white tries to hide the dull brown: in the cookies the spiced dough is the workhorse, and in winter the brown land beats with vibrant life undamped by cold snow flurries.
Okay, so I’m not that great with analogies, but in my head it’s all there. What I’m trying to say is, these cookies are a great companion to a mug of chamomile tea or a glass of Riesling or champagne (or Crémant, Alsace’s sparkling white wine, if you’re lucky enough to get your mittened hands on any). They’re chock-full of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ground black pepper – yes, you heard me right – and allspice, plus molasses and brown sugar to sweeten the whole deal. There’s just something about their warming spiciness – nostalgia, perhaps – that makes them a good counterpoint to all the Christmas chocolates and fruity Christmas cookies and breads being passed about. Thank the Germans – or zee Germans, as I like to pronounce it, hearing it sound like the men talking in the old 1940s-era WWII movies – for these traditional cookies.
These really are traditional Christmas cookies, too. In fact, my mom told me last week that her mother and grandmother used to make these, but that she hadn’t eaten any since she was young. However, she did remember loving her Alsatian grandma’s version with longing, so when I told her I was planning on making these for my girlfriends’ annual Girls’ Cookie Exchange (the traditional December version of our monthly Girls’ Cooking Nights) she demanded – literally, she begged – I save her some to bring home for Christmas. Since I was already baking 6 dozen for the cookie exchange, what was one more dozen? Of course I would do that! These happen to be really easy cookies to make, too; well, they’re not as easy as chocolate-chip cookies since you do have roll these into balls and cover them in powdered sugar after baking, but they’re certainly not as laborious as frosting and decorating cutout sugar cookies.
The only thing I have left to say about these is that they were a hit! The second I walked through the door of the host’s house she exclaimed with surprising excitement, “Did you make pfeffernusse?! Oh, my God, I love pfeffernusse!” Well, pfeffernussen, pfeffernussen; potato, potatoe. But I was glad at least someone else knew about them! She and her roommates are apparently wild fans of these cookies and sadly had to endure an entire bag of store-bought ones already this season. It’s a good thing I saved them with a homemade version!
This particular recipe is from Martha Stewart, and I happily report its success. I made smaller balls than she suggested and adjusted the baking time accordingly. I took them out of the oven when a gentle poke yielded a little but the outside was slightly firm. I hope you either bake up a batch this year or print out the recipe for next year’s Christmas!
Pfeffernussen cookies (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Don’t be alarmed by the use of black pepper. You can’t really pick that out in the finished cookie, but it definitely adds to the “zing” in these cookies. As always, try to use the freshest spices you can for the best flavors. This recipe makes about 4 dozen.
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 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 salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat sheet or parchment paper. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a Ziploc bag.
- In a medium bowl, combine flour, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, salt, and baking soda.
- Place the butter in large mixing bowl and cream with handheld beaters until soft and lightened in color. Alternatively, you can use a stand electric mixer. Add the brown sugar and molasses to the bowl and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. Add flour mixture in two additions; beat until just combined.
- Chill the dough for a few minutes; 10 or 15 will do. Roll dough into 3/4-inch balls. Arrange the balls about 1 1/2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.
- Bake until cookies are golden and firm to the touch with slight cracking, about 11 minutes. Cool the cookies on the sheet for 1-2 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool slightly, no more than 10 minutes.
- While another batch bakes in the oven, coat the first batch in confectioners’ sugar. Place 6-8 cookies in the bag; shake until well coated. Use a slotted spoon or a fork to remove the cookies, shaking off excess sugar. Let cool completely on the wire rack. Store in an airtight container.