Pfeffernüsse

German Christmas cookiesPfeffernüsse! Perhaps the only cookie to beat out snickerdoodles in the “fun-to-say-it” department, pfeffernüsse literally translates from German to “pepper-nuts”, a nod to its spiced molasses flavor (a bit of actual black pepper included), finely chopped almonds and nuggety little shape. Spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves and tumbled in powdered sugar, these über-traditional Christmas cookies call to mind both classic gingerbread and old-timey molasses cookies, and depending on when they’re enjoyed (they have an unusually long shelf life) they’ll have a pleasantly chewy or sandy-crunchy texture. They’re full of old-fashioned flavor, little bite-sized snowdrifts of spiced holiday cheer.

As with all cookie recipes, use good ingredients (I especially like the Kerrygold brand of butter, for whatever that’s worth) but here it’s also important to find the right type of molasses, the liquid by-product of the sugar refining process. Fun facts: to create granulated sugar, sugar cane is pressed and the juice boiled to prompt crystallization. The crystallized sucrose (sugar) is removed via centrifuge and the sweet liquid that’s left behind is called first or light molasses. (Brown sugars are only partly refined and retain some of the molasses, which gives them their darker color and warm caramel flavor.) If it’s boiled again, you’ve got dark molasses, sometimes labeled “robust” or “full-flavored”, and a third processing yields blackstrap (from the Dutch word stroop, or syrup) which is super-dark and harshly bitter. (Somebody’s been reading Harold McGee again.)

Blackstrap molasses also has a high concentration of minerals, and apparently some crazy people folks choke it down as a health supplement, which I suppose is why it’s fairly easy these days to find all three varieties (light, dark, blackstrap). Older recipes, like this one from an early edition of the Joy of Cooking, will probably assume there’s only light molasses available at your local general store or Ye Olde Sugar Shoppe. And some molasses might be further labeled as “unsulphured” (or “sulphured” if the preservative is present), but that won’t affect a recipe either way.

And why am I blathering on about molasses? Because once upon a time, I baked a wholly inedible sweet potato pie with that acrid blackstrap stuff, that’s why. It was offensive to look at and tasted like tar. So for this recipe (and as a default for most baking recipes, unless noted otherwise), you can benefit from my mistake and be sure to use light molasses. Santa will thank you.

PfeffernussePfeffernüsse
adapted from the Joy of Cooking; makes about 9 dozen one-bite cookies

  • 2 C plus 2 Tbsp all purpose flour, sifted
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper (use the finest grind)
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/4 tsp cloves, ground
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom, ground
  • 1 tsp cinnamon, ground
  • 1/2 C butter, room temperature
  • 1/3 C sugar
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten and room temperature
  • 1/4 C almonds, finely chopped
  • 1/3 C light molasses
  • 1 Tbsp corn syrup, light or dark
  • 1/3 C brandy, rum or amaretto
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest, finely grated
  • 1 tsp orange zest, finely grated (optional)
  • powdered sugar

Sift the first eight ingredients into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk the molasses, corn syrup, brandy, lemon juice and lemon zest together.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and creamy, about 3-5 minutes. Add the egg and mix to combine (it may look a bit curdled). Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and mix one additional minute.

On low speed, mix 1/3 of the dry mixture until almost incorporated. Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides of the bowl and on low, add 1/2 the molasses mixture until just mixed in. Repeat the process with 1/3 of the dry ingredients, the remaining 1/2 of the molasses mixture, and the last 1/3 of the dry mixture. Add the almonds and mix to combine.

Refrigerate the dough overnight. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Shape the cool-but-pliable cookie dough into balls (about 1 Tbsp each) and place on parchment-lined baking sheets about 1″ apart. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, for about 10-15 minutes until the tops of the cookies lose all their shine and start to crack.

Roll the warm cookies in a bowl of sifted powdered sugar and set on wire racks to cool completely. The finished pfeffernüsse will keep very well, in an airtight container, for about three weeks.

Note: I shaped my cookies slightly larger, about 1 1/2″  in diameter (unbaked) for a two-bite treat with a much smaller yield. Add a few minutes of baking time if you go that route.

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About scarpettakate

Scarpetta Dolcetto celebrates simple, seasonal, scratch home cookery.
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19 Responses to Pfeffernüsse

  1. These look fan-tas-tic!!! Love that image of them peeking out of the tin. And so much fun to say.

  2. Evan @swEEts says:

    I think Pfeffernusse absolutely wins the fun to say category of cookies 🙂 I’m pretty sure my grandmother makes these, but just with a little less powdered sugar (shes swiss so sometimes things you think are going to be really sweet turn out not to be! bummer) Yours look delicious though 🙂

  3. Chef Dennis says:

    how ever you say it, this has to be one of my all time favorite cookies! Your look positively delicious!

  4. Sara says:

    Oh I know them, I love them, I want them! I don’t know how I never thought about trying to make them myself. You did an amazing job there. So European 🙂

  5. Thanks, all, for the lovely notes! Happy holidays!

  6. Maureen says:

    enjoying your blog! might try these. don’t know if you have a favorite sweet potato pie recipe now (light molasses, of course) but I tried the one at cooksillustrated.com this thanksgiving and it rocked. wasn’t real keen on their crust, so used my own, but the filling was fab (I like to bake the potatoes instead of nuking them though. ) It was so yummy that sweet potato pie is on the list again for Christmas, perhaps alongside these cookies.

    • Thanks, Maureen! I gave up on sweet potato pies altogether after thave mishap, but I’ll have to try the CI recipe, thanks for the tip! 🙂 I just signed up for their site yesterday…their baking recipes are always pretty solid.

  7. angi says:

    I had no idea there were all those other types of molasses – I’ve only ever bought blackstrap and although I own Harold McGee’s book, I obviously haven’t read it thoroughly yet. 🙂 So thanks so much for this post! These cookies sound exactly like how the holidays should smell, so they’re going on my to-make list.

    • Thanks for your note, Angi! There’s quite a bit to chew through (oh, pardon that pun, yikes) in McGee’s book, isn’t there? I find myself referring to it all the time. Such a great resource. And he has a new book out, so hopefully Santa is paying attention. 🙂

  8. These cookies look and sound amazing! Reading your post made my mouth water! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  9. alison baker says:

    I LOVE this blog!!!!

  10. January says:

    must be a tongue-twister to pronounce it but regardless, it’s a lovely cookie recipe and the cookies look yummy! thanks for sharing, i learned another cookie recipe from a different culture 🙂

  11. I love these cookies and I haven’t tried making them. Thanks for this. Thanks also for the molasses tip. I have never cooked with it before and could have easily done the same thing. I love the blog by the way and have listed you on mine. Also a fan of Harold McGee!

  12. Pingback: Homemade Amaretto (Part Two) | scarpetta dolcetto

  13. Pingback: Gingerbread | scarpetta dolcetto

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